Why Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ Is Still Essential Viewing in Trump’s America

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By Adam Howard
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TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Spike Lee’s seminal Do the Right Thing is a film with several enduring legacies: it’s a movie that one prominent white critic predicted would cause riots; it’s a movie that, despite being hailed as the year’s best by the likes of Siskel & Ebert, was infamously snubbed by the Oscars in favor of the retrograde Driving Miss Daisy; and it’s the movie Barack and Michelle Obama saw together on their first date.

But 30 years later, there is still so much to appreciate about this film. Its episodic mosaic of rising racial tensions in New York City could arguably stand in for many urban centers today. Its take on police brutality is also tragically timeless; the fictional fate of the boombox toting “Radio Raheem,” inspired by the real-life killing of Michael Stewart, was essentially recreated shot-for-shot in the killing of Eric Garner. And the film remains astoundingly nuanced and perceptive considering the fact that it was written and directed by a man who was barely over 30.

Today, the shadow of another divisive New Yorker, Donald Trump, looms large over this film—in spirit, if not in name. Although it’s a testament to Trump’s ubiquity even then that he is briefly name-checked during some small talk about real estate between Danny Aiello’s character, the owner of a pizza ship in a predominately black neighborhood, and some local beat cops.

When he spoke on the campaign trail about black people “living in hell,” he perhaps imagined the ugly side of the interactions in this film. But what Trump has always neglected is the humanity of people of color. Yes, the characters in this film do yell and scream—they are imperfect—but they deserve not to be taken for granted, but recognized for their dignity and potential.

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Before Eric Garner, There Was Michael Stewart: The Tragic Story of the Real-Life Radio Raheem

Because there really are no conventional heroes in the film, Lee’s own laconic acting style is perfectly suited for Mookie, the cypher/audience surrogate. The rest of the cast is filled with impressive up-and-coming character actors like John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, and Giancarlo Esposito, or under-appreciated treasures like Ossie Davis and Aiello.

It is curious that Aiello, who is terrific in the film, was the one actor recognized for his work. The film only received one other Oscar nomination—for Lee’s unapologetically abrasive and profane screenplay. It certainly was more provocative than much of the prestige fare of the time, but it also boasts the tender chemistry of Davis and Ruby Dee, whose presence here never feels treacly but rather triumphant.

It’s somehow a wiser and more sophisticated film than many of Lee’s later works, where perhaps some of his indulgences got the best of him. Here he is uniquely focused—the film was written and produced at a real fulcrum for racial unrest in the Big Apple.

A series of recent high-profile deaths of unarmed black men and women would be fresh in the minds of many viewers (the film is dedicated to them), as well as the racially contentious mayoralty of Ed Koch, a politician who was far from woke, to say the least.

It’s mind-blowing today to consider that a movie this raw was ever financed, and by a major studio (Universal) no less. It certainly was not a commercial play. Today, a film like this would be released in the winter to capitalize on the ever-shrinking awards season, but instead it detonated in theaters in the middle of an especially crowded summer season dominated by pop blockbusters like Batman, Ghostbusters II and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Naturally, a virtually plotless drama with copious use of the N-word and a downbeat ending did not seduce many filmgoers back in ‘89, but the movie has endured, rising in esteem with each subsequent year to ultimately be deemed one of the decade’s best dramas.

Part of the reason the film continues to be a relevant entry into the pop-culture canon is that its central conflict is about representation—and it’s the same conversation we’re having today, not just in pop culture but also in our politics.

Black people want to not just be seen but to be heard. They are crying out louder than ever before to have a seat at table, and there are forces just as stubborn, refusing to hear them.

The film is about people talking at each other but rarely to each other. Lee’s screenplay deftly explores moments where characters from different worlds try to genuinely connect but are always either rudely interrupted or reach a stalemate.

The best example leads to one of Lee’s most iconic sequences—a fuselage of racist invective from Jews, Italians, Koreans, Puerto Ricans and blacks, with no group unspared.

In the prior scene, Turturro, who plays Vito, an unrepentant racist, is confronted by Lee’s character about how he could both be a fan of black celebrities like Prince, Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson while still harboring hate for African-Americans generally.

It’s a balancing act any racist sports fan or hip-hop appreciator will inevitably have to make.

Turturro’s Vito struggles to explain how he doesn’t consider those celebrities black—and inarticulately tries to convey that because they are “more than black,” this somehow justifies his appreciation of their talent. It’s an absurd point of view, and in it the pure superficiality and cognitive dissonance required to be a racist is laid bare. But Lee and Turturro’s exchange then devolves into a series of insults, and a potential truce between them is never realized.

The film famously ends with two incisive quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, the former decrying violence as a means to achieve social justice and the latter defending the right to use self-defense as a means to preserve your autonomy.

At the time of the film’s release, Lee conceded that he personally leaned toward Malcolm’s worldview—and the fact that he would make a masterwork centered on that icon just three years later suggests that he continued to—but he allows the audience to grapple with both sentiments on their own. The statements are both true, but potentially at cross purposes.

So what are we to learn from Do the Right Thing? What can it tell us about our present moment from the vantage point of 30 years ago? It turns out, quite a bit. The gentrification that bred racial animus then still does today. Police are still killing unarmed black men. Property damage is still weighted as more important than black human life.

If little else, it could be viewed as a clarion call for better communication. De-escalation (or “chilling,” in the parlance of this film) can and could prevent many tragedies in this country but we all have to be willing to try it.

The stubborn fact that for a significant portion of this country there is an inability to or disinterest in reckoning with America’s racial sins ensures that Do the Right Thing will be essential viewing for the next 30 years, too.

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