By Mr. Jason Eslick, English Faculty
Malcolm, Martin, and Mookie: American Dreaming in Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing can be read as a realistic study of American Dreaming. Through its depiction of the hottest day of the year in a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the film argues that the American Dream ceases to provide meaning if it is seen as limited only to a privileged set of the American population, and that this trend becomes markedly clear when discussing American concepts of race and class. As James Baldwin writes: “…we Americans, of whatever color, do not dare examine [the American Dream] and are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves” (Baldwin)
This reluctance or inability to adequately explore and examine the American Dream is arguably part of Do the Right Thing’s social force, and the film’s conclusion underscores what is at stake in confronting it. Do the Right Thing allows the viewer to examine the questions of racial privilege that underpin the film’s conflicts. At the end, however, we are not sure what “Right” means, as the darker aspects of a cultural reality cause a crisis of definition. As Jim Cullen notes about the American Dream, “…ambiguity is the very source of its mythic power, nowhere more so than among those striving for, but unsure whether they will reach, their goals” (Cullen). Indeed, the things that Baldwin implies we do not wish to recognize about ourselves as a community and as a country become laid bare.
Part of the film’s social power comes from this lack of resolution. While we see the American Dream of financial agency manifested in several ways, including (but not limited to) Sal’s ownership/stewardship of a family business, the Korean couple’s successful convenience store, and the white Yuppie’s ownership of a brownstone, these are offset by some of the struggles we see from the rest of the community. We see conflicting notions of equal opportunity as we follow Mookie through the motions of a low-wage job, Da Mayor as he navigates another day as the penniless patriarch of the neighborhood, and the block’s residents, young and old, who spend this Saturday at idle, providing commentary and trying to find relief from the relentless heat of the day.
Moreover, social conflicts abound in the film, tapping into some of 1989’s more prominent news stories, such as the New York City mayoral election and the Tawana Brawley case’s continued resonance, as questions about whether her accusations were a hoax fell into racial camps. Further, Spike Lee counted on the cultural knowledge of the shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984 and the beating death of Michael Griffith at a Howard Beach pizzeria in 1986 to provide an important context.
Through these varied conflicts, the film seems to say that the American Dream of equal opportunity can only be a reality if we confront and overcome the darker realities of racism in the American Dream’s mythologies. As Spike Lee tells us, “I want people to feel the horror at the end of the movie. I want people to know that if we don’t talk about the problems and don’t deal with them head on, they’re going to get much worse” (Lee). The film, however, codes these conflicts in several ways beyond character and story. Its cinematography, musical soundtrack and score all serve to provide this reading, as their visual and aural cues supplement the sense of dissonance we find in the characters.
The film’s opening illustrates contrasts right away. In darkness, a lone saxophone plays strains of the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” an anthem associated with Black civil rights. As the song continues, we see the Universal logo and Spike Lee’s production company credit shortly follows. This image dissolves to the film’s title framed by a mosaic pattern of bright red, pink, green, and blue triangles, colors that will figure heavily in the film’s palette. This image fades to black and we her the opening beats of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Immediately we are given a view of a Bed-Stuy front stoop with cuts of Rosie Perez in different locations in sync with the table scratch musical introduction. What follows is a series of shots of Perez engaged in a frantic and powerful dance sequence, flashing between routines dressed in either a bright red dress or in full boxing gear, replete with satin shorts and gloves. As the song comes to a key set of lyrics:
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant [expletive] to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother [expletive] him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps (Ridenhour, Carlton, et al.)
we see Perez in her third outfit, clad in a purple body suit and tights. Her dance shifts between the three visions as the song ends and we cut to Mister Señor Love Daddy’s alarm clock.
Right away, the sonic and visual setting has been indelibly linked. Perez’ dance is dynamic and pugnacious, and “Fight the Power’s” pounding rhythm and defiant rap play through the song’s entirety. Further, the song’s lyrics speak to a rejection of the cultural hegemony that comes from generations of white singers and actors. We are, after all, introduced to a film that is in opposition to this very cultural “power,” and it is making sure to establish its place in the scope of its American Dreaming.
Additionally, cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson makes an early play to establish the film’s setting and color scheme, which he and Spike Lee felt would “…get the audience to feel the hottest day of summer… [through] a controlled palette that pretty much stayed in the warm range – yellows, reds, earth tones, ambers” (Rose). Further, Perez’ performance reflected a punishing day on the set in which Lee had her do take after take, ultimately resulting in roughly eight hours of dancing that left her exhausted and injured. As Perez relates, by the end of the shoot, she had “… tennis elbow, [her] knee was swelling. So [she] forgot about the lyrics, the original words—you know, Elvis? John Wayne? To [her] it was all ‘Spike, Spike, Spike, I hate you!… rage and hate just poured from [her] body” (Perez). Perez’s dancing and Public Enemy’s lyrics create a palpable tension in the film’s opening moments, and they offer the first glimpses of the sub-textual conflicts that will eventually become manifest as the movie progresses. This idea is furthered in our introduction to Smiley.
Smiley’s first appearance finds him shot from an extreme low angle as he promotes the photographs he is selling in front of the Yes Jesus Baptist Church. Smiley is framed in the center of the church’s doorway, dressed in a simple, bright salmon-pink button-down shirt, which stands out against the brick red of the background. Around his neck is a cassette Walkman with a radio antenna. With a pronounced stutter, Smiley begins to explain that the man on the right is Malcolm X, a close shot of the photo shows him drawing a large X with a red marker. Smiley then introduces Martin Luther King, drawing a crown over his head. As he tells us “now they are dead,” back in a low shot, Smiley begins to cross both of them out with the marker. After a pause, he tells us “but we still have to fight against apartheid.”
It is a relatively short scene, but it sets up some crucial concepts and patterns for the rest of the film. Most notably, it begins a trend of angled shots based on a film noir style. As Ernest R. Dickerson says in an interview with The Guardian, “…to find the [visual] vocabulary we wanted… we looked at The Third Man for the canted angles” (Rose). Further, its soundtrack, with Branford Marsalis on saxophone, is jazzy, ambient, and textured, contrasting with what becomes the motif in “Fight the Power.” In this visual and aural composition, Smiley becomes an agent of what become the sentiments for the film’s climax and coda. Smiley’s speech impediment, however, is an important factor to consider, and it plays a large role in signifying the problems of articulation and understanding from which the film’s conflicts develop. Moreover, while Smiley’s utterances speak to the violence that took Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, his presence in this neighborhood is related as a benign force. As Roger Smith, who plays Smiley, describes: “We chose to stay away from an overtly political look and went for something clean and nondescript…” (Smith) Of the cassette Walkman he bought from one of the extras, “I decided to always have the antenna up as if I was in constant communication with the ancestors” (Smith). Smith also goes on to explain that Smiley’s monologue is borne of an improvisation that draws on a Malcolm X speech about “…the hypocrisy of American history… [based on] a line about how George Washington traded a black man for a barrel of molasses (Smith).
Smiley, then, as a gentle, well-meaning man with a powerful message, becomes the vehicle for the political statement found in Do the Right Thing, which lies somewhere in between the ideas represented by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. It is the source of his work and the source of his living, and he is a constant presence and reminder of these aspects of the American Dream. These come more completely into opposition as we are introduced to the film’s central conflict between Sal and Buggin’ Out.
As Buggin’ Out raises a slice of pizza to his mouth, he glances up at the Italian-American Wall of Fame. These photos, and the culture that they represent, loom large over Buggin’ Out. Already frustrated by his previous spat with Sal, he calls to Mookie and ask him to explain why “there ain’t no brothers on the wall.” Mookie is not interested, so Buggin’ Out asks Sal, who replies: “You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place—you can do what you want to do.” Vito tells Sal to take it easy. Pino tells Buggin’ Out to watch himself.
It is a small argument that becomes fraught with larger implications, and it is at this point where Do the Right Thing really starts to get into the complications of race, ethnicity, and American Dreaming in this Bed Stuy neighborhood. On one side is Sal. His ownership gives him agency to defend his work, his piece of the American Dream, represented by his famous pizzeria and its trappings. On the other side is Buggin’ Out. His wish for Black cultural agency in his neighborhood is part of the larger scale of his American Dreaming. He threatens to boycott Sal’s.
Each has an argument, and this sparks the film’s open dialectic. The problem, however, is that neither side is listening. Sal is angered to the point of implied violence, grabbing the Louisville Slugger that Pino gently takes away from him to defuse the situation, and Sal asks Mookie to take Buggin’ Out outside.
Here, Mookie is caught between competing notions. On one hand, as an employee, he has to advocate for Sal’s point of view if he wants to “make the money and get paid.” On the other hand, as a resident of Bed Stuy, he needs to recognize Buggin’ Out’s argument. These conflicts are made especially clear by the film’s camera work. As Mookie and Buggin’ Out leave Sal’s, the camera follows their movement out the door and finishes on a medium two-shot where they argue in profile. The Koreans’ fruit stand in the background serves as a high and colorful contrast to the foregrounded characters, who are on the shaded side of the street. As Mookie defuses the situation, telling Buggin’ Out to come back in a week, they shake hands. As Mookie turns to go back into Sal’s, Buggin’ Out reminds Mookie to “stay black.”
The camera pans back as Mookie re-enters the pizzeria. Sal comes into the frame to speak to Mookie, and this movement results in a three-shot with Mookie and Sal in the foreground and Buggin’ Out, in deep focus, at the bottom of the frame, creating a visual triangle. As Mookie advocates for Buggin’ Out, talking about people’s freedom, Sal tell him there is no freedom here. It’s his place, and he can do what he wants.
As the film continues, the tensions around race and the American Dream rise, tacitly or overtly. A key scene involves three men on a street corner across from Sal’s and the Korean market, as a police car passes by them. In slow motion, the camera shows close-ups of the white cops eyeing Coconut Sid, Sweet Dick Willie, and M.L. as they spend the day sitting in the heat under an umbrella. As the camera moves from face to face, a piano plays a minor key blues/gospel song, and we feel the heat of the day magnified by the bright red wall in the background. The assessment “what a waste” is shared by both Officer Ponte and Coconut Sid, and this doubling segues into a dialogue, begun by M.L., about their own prosperity.
M.L. questions why it is that there are no Black-owned businesses in the neighborhood, telling Sweet Dick Willy and Coconut Sid that “… either them Korean mother[expletive]s are geniuses, or your black asses are just plain dumb.” When Coconut Sid suggests that their inertia is because they are black, Sweet Dick Willy does not accept his reasoning and goes to the Korean market for beer. Along the way, he berates Sonny, the Korean owner. Frustrations about lack of mobility, of entitlement, and of race abound, as American Dreaming is once again seen as a matter of interpretation and inequality.
As a seeming climax to these tensions, in a following scene Mookie pulls Pino aside to discuss Pino’s attitudes toward Black people, and they engage in a pivotal conversation. As they stand leaning on and separated by a cigarette machine, Branford Marsalis’ cool saxophone music in the background, the camera switches between close shots of Mookie and Pino as they engage in an honest dialogue. Pino tries to explain who counts as a “[expletive]” and who doesn’t, and Mookie tries to get Pino to recognize that he is foolishly labeling the people and culture that he in many ways identifies with. It seems like a good start. But it ends poorly, without agreement, and with Mookie telling Pino “[expletive] you, [expletive] your pizza, and [expletive] Frank Sinatra.” Pino replies, “Well [expletive] you too, and [expletive] Michael Jackson.” The conflict has come to a head, and the film makes a profound change of pace to illustrate the tension.
In a sequence of moving close-ups, the camera captures a series of fourth-wall breaking moments, and Mookie, Pino, Stevie, Officer Long, and Sonny each deliver a racially charged diatribe against the perceived “Other”: Italians, Blacks, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, and Jews. This sequence is fast-paced and disturbing, as it calls out every conceivable stereotype imaginable. But they are brought to bear at the end by Mister Señor Love Daddy, who exhorts them to “Cool that [expletive] out!”
At this point, the film’s coded frustrations with American Dreaming are brought back to calm by perhaps the film’s only consistent agent of a peaceful truth aside from Da Mayor and Mother Sister. Indeed, as Victoria E. Johnson writes, “Love Daddy’s omnipresence establishes the radio station as an object of communal understanding and discourse” (Johnson). This discourse, however, is bodiless and ultimately ephemeral as he mediates life on the block from his vantage point at 108 LOVE. While he professes “the truth, Ruth,” the conflicts remain, and he is rendered as a mere voice. While the situation has calmed down, there is a greater reality at street level.
The counterpoint to Mister Señor Love Daddy is found in Radio Raheem. As he roams the street with his gigantic boom-box, he is the diegetic source of the film’s anthem, “Fight the Power.” Radio Raheem is physically imposing, and his presence commands and overpowers. Further, the music (and its sentiment) drowns out any other chance for dialogue. As Johnson puts it, “he does not speak the language of rap; he is “spoken by” it” (Johnson). Soon after the race rant sequence, however, Radio Raheem and Mookie meet in the street, and what follows is perhaps one of the film’s more profound statements about love and hate.
As Mookie goes to deliver a pizza, we see a high shot of a little girl drawing in chalk on the street—she is working on a picture of a suburban house with smoke coming from its chimney, a fence, a car, and a bright sun. It is a whimsical depiction of the stereotypical American Dream on asphalt. Mookie walks right over it and meets up with Radio Raheem.
Raheem turns down his box to talk to Mookie, and as they shake hands in parting, Mookie notices Radio Raheem’s knuckle rings. As Spike Lee explains:
Radio Raheem will wear two of these. The one on the left hand will read L-O-V-E, on his right H-A-T-E, just like Robert Mitchum’s tattoos in Night of the Hunter. Radio Raheem tells Mookie a story about the rings that will be a variation on Robert Mitchum’s tale of his tattoos. Vicious. (Lee)
Radio Raheem’s “sermon,” if you will, indeed echoes Night of the Hunter, and, in the end, love conquers hate. His conclusion, however, is not resolved: “If I love you, I love you. But if I hate you…” ends at an ellipsis, and we are left to determine its implications. Further, Mookie’s reply, “There it is. Love and hate” does not offer any other sense of closure. Likewise, the tensions from the previous scene remain as the film builds to its ultimate climax, the riot and the destruction of Sal’s famous, and we see the image of the American Dream violated as easily as Mookie walks across the chalk drawing.
There are so many important moments in the build-up to the riot that it would be impossible to mention them all in this limited space, but the film’s previous motifs all come to bear as Buggin’ Out, Radio Raheem, and Smiley enter Sal’s for the last time. “Fight the Power” makes its penultimate appearance in force, and the camera renders the scene through a rapid sequence of close and medium shots at canted angles, through the argument and when Sal destroys Radio Raheem’s box with the Louisville Slugger. The canted shots continue in the close to thirty seconds of pregnant silence that follows. “I just killed your [expletive]ing radio,” says Sal.
The ensuing fight is profoundly disturbing to see, ending with Radio Raheem lifted off the ground by a baton at his neck (by Officer Long, et al.), his Air Jordan shoes shown off the ground and kicking in a grim representation of a lynching. Buggin’ Out is taken away in a squad car. Sal has been saved, for the time being. Throughout, there is no soundtrack to help us assign any meaning, and we are left to mediate the situation through only the film’s diegetic clues. As the squad car pulls away, the camera gives us a one-shot of Smiley in the middle of the street, an echo of his introduction, but this time he can only wail in inarticulate sorrow over what has happened.
Then the riot, prompted by Mookie throwing a trash can through the pizzeria’s front window, develops into a fire, and we have visions of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement as the protestors are blasted with fire hoses. Through the flames, Smiley enters Sal’s. “Fight the Power” plays (presumably from Smiley’s Walkman) for the last time and becomes indelibly linked to Smiley’s final act, which is to pin the colored-in photo of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to the wall of fame. In a close up, in triumph, we finally see Smiley smile. Fade to black.
In the aftermath, Branford Marsalis’ saxophone plays under what seems to be just another morning in the neighborhood. Mister Señor Love Daddy gives his wake-up call and gets the day started. His question, “are we gonna live together?” is put over the airwaves, but as Mookie and Sal meet at the end, we are not sure at all if it will happen. Mookie gets paid and takes away a bonus. Sal is left without a business. But as Mookie says, he will get his insurance money. As the film ends, Mookie has come away with a profit, but his American Dream is far from realized. Sal’s American Dream has been burnt out, but he will be able to rebuild. But what forces have left us to this end?
Spike Lee wants this question to linger. Before the credits roll, we see two passages—one from Martin Luther King, who let us know that “violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers,” and one from Malcolm X, who tells us “I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense. I call it intelligence.” As Lee explains:
King and Malcolm. Both men died for the love of their people but had different strategies for realizing freedom. Why not end the film with an appropriate quote from each? In the end, justice will prevail, one way or the other. There are two paths to that. The way of King, or the way of Malcolm. (Lee)
Ultimately, the viewer is left to determine what the “Right Thing” of the title means, and that is incumbent on the audience to take up the task. As Tracy Snipe writes, “If Spike Lee could tell us precisely what is the ‘right thing,’ there would not be a need for him to make this film. Lee is on to something” (Snipe). That something is the social energy around race and the American Dream, as, in Baldwin’s terms, we are asked to talk about those things we do not wish to recognize in ourselves. After thirty years, this energy remains.
Mr. Eslick has taught English at St. Mark’s since 2002 and served for six years as Chair of the English Department. He currently teaches V Form English and VIth Form electives, Cold War, Cool Culture and Cold War, Cool Culture II. He also works in the Varsity Soccer program as a goalkeeping coach and assists with Girls’ JV Hockey. Mr. Eslick currently resides in the North End of campus with his wife, Sarah, his two boys, James and Angus, his Yellow Labrador Retriever, Boone, and Maine Coon cats, Will and Grace.
Baldwin, James, The Fire Next Time, © Copyright 1963 by James Baldwin, Vintage International
Cullen, Jim, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, © 2003 by Jim Cullen, Oxford University
Carr, Jay, “Spike Lee Spotlights Race Relations,” The Boston Globe, excerpted from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, p. 135. Cambridge Film Handbooks, Mark A. Reid et al., Copyright ©1997, Cambridge University Press.
Johnson, Victoria E., “Polyphony and Cultural Expression: Interpreting Musical Traditions in Do the Right Thing,” excerpted from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, p. 68, Cambridge Film Handbooks, Mark A. Reid et al., Copyright ©1997, Cambridge University Press
Larson, Sarah, “Do The Right Thing at Twenty-Five” The New Yorker, July 4, 2014.
Lee, Spike A Companion Volume to the Universal Pictures Film Do the Right Thing, center pages (no p. #) Copyright© 1989 by Spike Lee, published by Fireside, Simon and Schuster.
Reid, Mark A. et al., Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing Cambridge Film Handbooks, Copyright ©1997, Cambridge University Press.
Ridenhour, Carlton, et al, “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy, ©Universal Music Publishing Group, BMG Rights Management.
Rose, Steve, Interview with Ernest R. Dickerson, The Guardian, July 22, 2014.
Snipe, Tracy, “In Retrospect: Do the Right Thing,” Black Camera, Vol. 5, No. 1, Indiana University Press.
Jason, what you have here is a brilliant (US usage, not UK) exegesis of an important movie. I will keep your essay nearby while I watch it again. Thank you.