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Malcolm, Martin, and Mookie: American Dreaming in Do the Right Thing

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.