Three police officers restrain an unarmed African-American man in a chokehold, jerking his body so forcefully that his feet lift from the ground. Once he wilts and collapses against their batons, his assailants haul him into a patrol car, as though a dead body can be placed under arrest. These scenes are familiar in the America of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), in which a crowd, witnessing the death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), chants the names of the fallen as well as the sites of clashes between the police and civilians: Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, Howard Beach. These scenes are familiar, too, nearly three decades later, after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. Caught on camera by a civilian passerby, the state-sanctioned death of Scott ended with a police officer cuffing his corpse, revealing the perversity of law enforcement in the United States: “Shooting someone… is considered a form of arrest… and officers are trained to cuff everyone they arrest, regardless of how the act of taking the suspect into custody was carried out.” (1) Black lives matter, as resistant voices insist, but the end of a life proves only a porous boundary between the protocols of an arrest.

The echoes of the past in the present are not lost on Spike Lee, who produced a short film that intercuts the death of Radio Raheem with that of Eric Garner, detained and choked to death by Staten Island police under suspicion of selling untaxed loose cigarettes. (2) Attentive viewers ought not forget the extra-diegetic context of racism, defined by Ruth Wilson Gilmore as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” (3) But it would be a shame to forget the nearly 120 minutes of film that precede Raheem’s death, since that elision inscribes a directive and propulsive structure onto a film with a shambolic pace that fits its setting: a densely-populated Brooklyn block with a vibrant street life buckling under the pressure of a heat wave.

Before a handful of commentators – most notably David Denby and Joe Klein – used the civil unrest at the conclusion of Do the Right Thing as an occasion to scold Lee as a provocateur and radical, he was, as Jason Bailey has recently argued, regarded as a “black Woody Allen.” (4) This infelicitous phrase nonetheless communicates some of the strengths of both Allen and Lee, filmmakers who represent New York City as local as well as global, provincial as well as cosmopolitan, lived at the horizon of the city block as well as the height of the skyscraper. A half century ago, Jane Jacobs suggested that a city sidewalk is “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other.” (5) Providing the stage for the ballet in Do the Right Thing is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, an Italian-run business in a primarily African-American neighborhood, whose proprietors – the Fragiones – occupy varying relationships to their black neighbors. Pino (John Turturro) seethes with hate, but his brother Vito (Richard Edson) is “down,” according to the delivery man Mookie (Spike Lee). Their father, Sal (Danny Aiello), expresses pride that a neighborhood has grown up on his pizza, but is nonetheless capable of uttering racial slurs and denouncing the “jungle music” blaring from Radio Raheem’s boom box. Pino polices the borders between black and white, pushing against his brother’s friendship with Mookie, and his father’s flirtation with Mookie’s sister Jade (Joie Lee).

The dancers in the ballet are organized along a dented color line; threatened with looting, the neighborhood’s Korean grocers insist that they are black, or at least not white. Mookie insists that Pino’s relationship to blackness is perhaps more aspirational than he acknowledges. “All of your favorite people are so-called niggers,” he notes. But there is no room for African-Americans on the wall of the pizzeria, decorated with images of famous Italians. Enlisting the help of Radio Raheem and Smiley (Roger Guenver Smith), Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) insists on the inclusion of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr next to Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren. The disagreement turns into a fistfight. The police come, arresting Buggin’ Out and killing Raheem. Mookie, initially standing in a line with the Fragiones, breaks rank, picks up a trash can, and throws it through the window. Years after the film was accused of the cinematic equivalent of inciting a riot, viewers might be surprised at its ambivalence to destruction. Away from the crowd that burns Sal’s, Mookie and Jade sit on the sidewalk, shot in frame with the Korean grocers: the film’s preeminent outsiders. In an only fleeting victory, Smiley tacks the contested picture on the wall of a burning building.

In the morning, Mookie returns to ask Sal for his pay and they say farewell with anger, but with some vestige of their working relationship intact. Perhaps Sal can rebuild with the insurance check, as Mookie assures him, but relationships might be reconstituted, too. Though audiences had to wait 23 years for the postscript, Mookie reappears in Red Hook Summer (Spike Lee, 2012), still delivering pizza with Sal’s imprimatur on his shirt. Between these bookends, we might pause to note Lee’s laudable resistance to premature closure, a resistance that enables audiences to ponder Sal and Mookie’s complexities, and mourn Raheem’s death. 

Endnotes

1. Leon Neyfakh, “Why Did the North Charleston Cop Handcuff Walter Scott After He Shot Him?,”  Slate, 8 April 2015, www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2015/04/walter_scott_shooting_why_did_michael_thomas_slager_cuff_the_victim.single.html

2. Spike Lee, “Radio Raheem and the Gentle Giant,” https://vimeo.com/101731549

3. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), p. 28.

4. Jason Bailey, “When Spike Lee Became Scary,” The Atlantic, 22 August 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/08/when-spike-lee-became-scary/261434/

5. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), p. 50.

Do the Right Thing (1989 United States 120 minutes)

Prod Co: 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks Prod: Spike Lee and Monty Ross Dir: Spike Lee Scr: Spike Lee Ed: Barry Alexander Brown Mus: Bill Lee

Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Joie Lee, Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson

About The Author

Jennie Lightweis-Goff is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Gender/Sexuality Studies at Tulane University, where she teaches courses in American literature and urban studies. She is the author of Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus (SUNY Press, 2011). Her scholarship has appeared in American Literature and The Journal of Popular Music Studies