After Do The Right Thing, black cinema could no longer be ignored or marginalized. Certainly, there were significant films by black filmmakers before 1989, but too many went unseen (Ganja and Hess, Killer of Sheep, Sugar Cane Alley) or were forced into the blaxploitation box where they could be bold and transgressive in terms of representation but were trapped by the demands of their genre. That changed with Do The Right Thing. Because Do The Right Thing wasn’t playing to any genre—and the film was so well-constructed, so sly in its approach, and so powerful in its fulfillment that it simply couldn’t be denied. It had to be seen. It had to be reckoned with. Even though many theater chains were afraid (and some refused) to show it, Do The Right Thing demanded attention. And once it gained that attention, black cinema was changed forever.
Typically, we think of cinematic language as how a filmmaker presents their film. What elements does the filmmaker use to communicate the story they want to tell? What techniques do they use to impart that information? In Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee used a number of approaches that, while they have antecedents, are brought together in such a way as to feel like the presentation of a new form: breaking the third wall, soliloquies, a kind of Greek chorus, an almost journalistic effort to convey a particular point of view, the dynamic use of color and editing, a mixture of realism and near-fantastical elements, and, of course, the saturation of the film in wall-to-wall music.
But there was another language that Spike was working with in Do The Right Thing that felt new and bracing, and that was the language of racism. Three examples of Spike’s laying racism bare through language come to mind. In one instance, Lee shows characters of all different races speaking racial epithets toward another racial group—and he has them all speak directly to the camera. In doing so, Lee holds all groups responsible for their prejudicial views, but he also connects each group through their biases. As if to say: this struggle, at least, is shared; it is common. Then, there is the remarkable sequence between Mookie and Pino over a cigarette machine in which the two discuss Pino’s love of Prince and Michael Jordan, showing how Pino’s open racism is in conflict with his admiration of their talents. Pino gets tied up in knots, trying to explain how Prince and Jordan are “black, but more than black.”
The last example is not a specified moment, but a thread that develops throughout the film with Sal, the owner of the pizzeria. Sal doesn’t think of himself as a racist. He declares his affection for his almost entirely black clientele multiple times in the film. But you can hear his underlying prejudices seep out slowly, such as when he takes Buggin’ Out to task for suggesting the “wall of fame” at Sal’s restaurant (full of famous Italian Americans) should reflect the community it serves. “Why are there no brothers on the wall?!”, Buggin’ Out asks. Sal’s response is to say it’s his pizzeria, and he can put whoever he wants on his wall. Which is, of course, correct. But then he takes it a step further—he tells Buggin’ Out: when you get your own pizzeria “you can put your brothers, and uncles, and nieces, and nephews, and stepfathers, stepmother, whoever you want.” He says it with a barely-contained contempt. Specifically his reference to stepparents feels more than a little like taking a shot at his impression of the family unit in the black community—that it is broken, and deserving of ridicule. These hints at Sal’s true nature eventually culminate in his showdown with Radio Raheem in the film’s tragic climax. When Radio Raheem refuses to turn down his boombox inside Sal’s Pizzeria, Sal’s prejudices combust and he finally uses that word—that one word he’s been suppressing—and it comes out with an ease that shows how accessible to him it really was all along.
To see how Spike Lee laid bare the language of racism in Do The Right Thing was nothing short of a revelation. Not only did he say on film the thoughts so many people think (and some actually say), but he almost argues that they need to be said. That if we hide our prejudices and beliefs, however repugnant they may be, how can we fix ourselves?
I recall a number of critics suggesting at the time that Lee’s film offers no answers to the problem he illuminates, but I don’t think that’s true. We see it when Sal and Mookie converse amidst the rubble of Sal’s Pizzeria at the film’s close. For better or worse, we are stuck with each other. And if we are to progress beyond mere tolerance, we first have to have the difficult conversations necessary to start the process of understanding which one hopes will lead us to empathy, compassion, and perhaps, one day, brotherhood.
I walked into my local theater at 2PM for a Tuesday matinee showing of Do The Right Thing. There were just two people in the auditorium. Me, at the time an 18 year old redheaded white boy, and one other guy—a black man. When the film closed, we both stayed in our seats until all the credits rolled off the screen. We exited the theater at the same time, entered the restroom, and after using the urinals, met over our respective sinks. We made eye contact and there was a tension in the air that demanded one of us speak. He went first.
“How you doin’, man.”
“I’m okay. A little shook up.”
“What did you think?”, he asked me.
In the split second before I responded, it occured to me how different our two experiences in the movie theater must have been. He was watching that film and probably thinking, “that’s how it is.” I was watching the movie thinking, “oh my god, that’s how it is.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” I told him.
“That’s good man, that’s good” he replied. Then he added, “don’t forget.”
I said I wouldn’t.
“Alright, partner. You have a good one.”
“You too,” I said.
I’ve seen Do The Right Thing more times than I can count, and every time I see it I think of that brief encounter in that theater restroom, when me and that stranger went about the mundane activity of washing our hands. In that movie house, I became a witness to another way of living. And whether or not he knew it, that stranger became a witness to my awakening.