The Right Thing

August 10, 2007 at 1:05 am Leave a comment

do the right thing

The expectation is that someone, at some point in Spike Lee‘s Do the Right Thing (1989), will do just that. Part of what accounts for the film’s interest is its relentless narrative commitment to refusing easy identification.

In Lee’s multi-ethnic Bedford-Stuyvesant the constructedness of race plays itself out in the narratives available to it. Mookie tells the hyper Italian-American Pino that Pino’s hair is kinkier, suggesting an earlier relation between the characters’ ancestries. Various people from time to time muse about when someone got off the boat. If it is unclear to whom the claim to place pertains, a tenuous commitment to community is fractured when the wrong thing, in this case violence to a boom-box, makes manifest the anger of American apartheid. The result is that Radio-Raheem is lynched (the camera shows his feet dangling) by a tree-size cop.

The question in this instance becomes what it means to do the right thing. What does it mean to fight the power? If the fight is predicated on an admixture of love and hate (each a fist-size ring worn across Radio Raheem’s knuckles), what does one do? Are these antipodes to be understood as somehow pertaining to the beliefs captured in the conjoint image of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X that Smiley peddles throughout the neighborhood–and finally gives a proper place on the wall of burnt-out Sal’s pizzeria?

The right thing is not to kill one’s brother. It is not Cain (violence, hate), but it is not Abel either. Malcolm X says self-defense is intelligent. If somebody like Mookie just stood on a garbage can and made a speech that reconciled everyone, rather than throwing the garbage can through Sal’s window, the film would become a cliche. As it is, because the right thing (to love each other?) is ineluctably obscured by a history of violence and exploitation, the right thing in the revealed face of trauma–is to mourn. As Sister Mother and Smiley do.

Lee doesn’t end with violence. The film goes on. Another hot day, a fragile reconciliation between Sal and Mookie. The note rings true: not optimism, but not quite resignation either. That there is a right thing is never in question. It’s what we can do, given our wounds, that remains undecided.

Malcolm and Martin are our heritage.

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Entry filed under: Do the Right Thing, Film, Jr., Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, movie, Spike Lee, thurs afternoon.

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