a Source Joint
(This piece contains spoilers, go watch it)
“Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand," Radio Raheem warmly began. "It's a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man.”
Love and Hate, on this duality does Spike Lee walk upon with balance. As he does so, creating cinema that with every passing day serves to be immortal. Do The Right Thing came to theaters in 1989, and presented to us a slice of life beaming with humanity. This joint follows the life and times of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. The heat that is of constant complaint in effect serves as a representation of the community’s racial tension, an equally sweltering reality.
The parallels drawn between Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee are well documented, along with their friendship and shared upbringing on the New York Streets that's often reflected in their work. Just like Marty gives us insight to the communal nuances and authentic character to Italian life, Spike Lee provides the same insight to Black culture with documentary-like authenticity. And in this case, thus also showing Italian prejudice against the Black community from the opposing perspective. The story presents Mookie as its lead, a pizza delivery man portrayed by Spike Lee himself. The longtime Italian American Bed-Stuy resident Sal, the owner of the pizzeria, employs his two sons. The older of which, Pino, is openly racist, while his younger brother Vito gets along with Mookie much smoother. With employment tying him to this environment we can begin to reveal the personal insecurities that prejudice is built from. After a racist remark from Pino with a hard R sprinkled in somewhere, Mookie pulls him aside for a few questions before a delivery.
Pino who's your favorite basketball player?
Favorite movie star?
Who's your favorite rockstar? Its Prince. You're a Prince fan.
No matter how he tries to justify it he cannot hide this admiration for the Culture, and in turn, the jealousy that fog his perception. Even his father Sal, who begins to reveal his lust for Mookie’s sister Jade, cannot help but thirst the juices of the darker berry. So instead of the beautiful diffusion of cultures in a diverse community, we see the cycle of shame and ignorance perpetuate. After his talk with Pino gains no common ground, they further reinforce this idea with one of the film’s most iconic and effective moments. The camera dollies in aggressively to Mookie as he lets out a string of Italian slurs out in the street to the fourth wall. Then the camera switches onto Pino in the same style, releasing every black slur in his lexicon. We get to indulge further in a rant from a Latino directed at Koreans, a cop throwing hate at Puerto Ricans, and a Korean shop owner taking aim at chocolate egg cream-drinking Jews. In a clever inversion of the visual technique we’ve just seen, this moment of catharsis in the film is capped off when Bed-Stuy’s resident disc jockey Mr. Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) rolls his chair closely into the shot, instead of the lense coming to him, to tell us directly to cool that shit out. “And that’s the double truth, Ruth.”
Throughout Do The Right Thing Mookie stands as an observer, more so a moral compass than a traditional hero. The neighborhood is always presented as bigger than him. That also being literal in form, with common use of wide shots framing the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood as an engulfing presence above Mookie as he walks within its grandeur. We see him commute down the block without any cuts, allowing us to truly take in the character of his surroundings. The neighborhood is the true protagonist.
The characters and their actions in the community all happen simultaneously, although separate from Mookie at times. A rowdy dispute of perceived gentrification from a cyclist in a Bird jersey, aged banter from seasoned wit posted up in theri perennial spot on the street, or a fire hydrant party on the block; all of this life is always just around the corner.
Let's take a look at the block party on that burning afternoon. Scored perfectly to Steel Pulse’s “Can’t Stand it”, a close-up of the cracking of ice cold beers backs out to the sight of a group of friends sitting on the brownstone steps. Meanwhile, a fire hydrant meets its match in a wrench as its life blood begins to spray out and flow within the street. The neighborhood gathers to rejoice in this source of life, playing in the water and bonding in the escape of the oppressive heat. Then the police arrive. Their mere presence burning through festivity and levity like napalm through Saigon After they assess the scene they shut off the water without any dispute. Though no ill words or hostility has yet to be thrown, an air of superiority wafts from their movements, hate radiates from beneath their slate aviator sunglasses. As they make their exit they pass by Coconut Sid, ML, and Sweet Dick Willy posted in their eternal spot against the red brick wall. The seasoned wit of earlier mention, serving as the vessel of neighborhood commentary. The frame rate slightly slowed, the camera tightly pans across each of their faces. A portrait of the black man, from their perspective. Indifference. Poverty. Contempt. The three men gaze back. “What a waste”, both groups utter to themselves.
As these seeds of hate have been sewn and nourished you may wonder what climax shall sprout. The last watering of this toxic flower came from the lack of black stars on the “Wall of Fame” in Sal’s pizzeria. Taking offense to this, Buggin Out (brought to life by a young Giancarlo Esposito before Gus Fring and his meth empire) leads an attempted boycott of Sal’s. He enters the pizza joint bringing with him neighborhood mainstays including Smiley and the ever passive Radio Raheem. Its cued to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”, as with every scene marked with Raheem’s presence. Longtime cinematographer to Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson, offers us a clear view of the lines of battle that are drawn and the balance of power in the dining room of Sal’s. Communicating this through rapid cuts swinging back and forth between the patrons; with staple shots of extreme high, low, and dutch angles connecting it all with a sense of hostility. As tempers flare and slurs are flung, the smashing of Raheem’s Radio is what cuts through the hostile party to piercing silence. And with this we see the only action to bring him to violence. An attack on culture, on expression, on art.
The brawl spills to the street with Raheem and Sal at the center and everyone working to pull them apart. Anxious blood begins to pulse as the red and blue flashes down the street and enters the scene. We then witness an injustice that we are painfully all too familiar with. The same police officers we met earlier pull Raheem off of Sal with their nightsticks firmly pressed underneath his windpipe. Upon submission, no relent. The grip tightening as he is lifted off his feet by his neck. Without mercy, reduced to a lifeless body thrown into the back of a squad car.
Now even more anguished at the killing of Raheem, the now gathered crowd misplace their hostility back toward Sal. But what brings the night’s swelter to a fever pitch is Mookie himself hailing a garbage can through the pizzeria window, and the riot begins.
So what is the right thing? Though the film is careful not to preach a direct answer, it slides it right under our noses. We all contribute mistakes that fuel the problems of our social landscape. Beyond our awareness, we still can fall into our emotions. As Mookie tries to bring balance and insight to those around him, it is him however that casts the first stone that erupts into violence. Radio Raheem, the beacon of love and turning thy cheek is driven to rage once he is finally and effectively provoked. But it is in his own warm words on the duality of man that the Right Thing can be found quite literally. Because it is in the Left hand of humankind that we have hate. And in the Right, we have love. The two coexist and feed into each other. But we can always do what's in that right hand.
And that's the double truth, Ruth.