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Still Doing the Right Thing 0

For a black film and media student at the University of Cape Town, Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” was a revelation. I watched it first on a DVD one afternoon with my friend Frank in one of the damp tutorial rooms in the Arts Block on Upper Campus, only a few steps away from where the statue of Cecil John Rhodes stood.

Our film history curriculum at that point comprised mostly European and American cinema. Although clearly American, this film offered something completely different. It had been nearly 20 years since the film’s inception and it took place on a different continent, and yet it was so relatable. Moreover, it was a visceral film experience, a wake-up call, and an affirmation. Watching it again in 2016, it’s eerie (and tragic) how relevant its central theme of racial tension and structural violence still is, both in America and South Africa.

“Do The Right Thing” takes place over the course of the hottest day on a block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Spike Lee plays Mookie, a 25-year-old who seems to be meandering through life, but is on a mission to get paid. He works at the local Italian pizzeria, Sal’s, where most of the neighborhood eats and hangs out.

The simmering heat of the day (visualized by deep reds and yellows on screen) reflects the tensions between the Italian pizzeria owner, Sal (Danny Aiello) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the self-appointed neighborhood spokesperson. Buggin’ Out questions the lack of representation of black people on the walls of the pizzeria, which services a mostly black clientele: “Sal, how come you ain’t got no brothers on the wall?” Sal’s hostile response to Buggin’ Out’s provocation leads to a protest that ends in police brutality and the loss of black life, and marks the demise of the pizzeria.

Despite its explosive dénouement, one of the main strengths of the film is the complexity of its characters and the representations of blackness on screen. Lee moved beyond stereotypes of African Americans in cinema and created characters reflected in the everyday. In “Do The Right Thing”, black people are not presented in the traditional binary of subservient and smiling, or violent and dangerous, but rather as more rounded expressions of themselves.

While Buggin’ Out is concerned with black nationalist politics and representation, he also bugs out when a white gentrifier on the block accidentally scuffs his brand new US$100 Jordan sneakers. Even though this infliction is frivolous, it leads to a cathartic (prophetic?) outburst: “Man motherfuck gentrification!”

No one in “Do The Right Thing” is necessarily “heroic”. Even Radio Raheem – the likeable, stylish giant who blasts the film’s opening theme and leitmotif (Public Enemy’s Fight The Power) from a large boombox – imposes his music on others. He is mostly an irritant in the neighborhood. Radio Raheem is unnecessarily confrontational with the Korean shopkeepers, who have recently moved onto the block. It’s reflected in the scene where he goes to them to buy batteries, “I said 20 ‘D’ batteries, motherfucker! Learn how to speak English first, alright?”  But, in the same scene he smiles and tells shopkeeper Sonny (Steve Park), “You’re alright, man”, diffusing any threat of real conflict.

Mookie isn’t necessarily noble or likeable, however his actions towards the end of the film disrupt this reading of him and show significant character development. Ironically, there is not that much black and white in this film; the characters live in a world of greys.

Although the film has no typical heroes, it is clearer about its villains, particularly the police. Also there is pizzeria owner Sal’s son Pino (John Turturro), who is openly racist and tells Sal, “I’m sick of niggers.” Sal is more complicated.  He sees himself as a good guy who takes pride in feeding the neighborhood. Sal later tells Mookie he sees him as “son”. Despite this, during the film’s climax and in the verbal screaming match between him and Buggin’ Out, he flips and uses racial epithets, telling Radio Raheem to turn off that “jungle music” and hurls profanities like “nigger motherfucker”.

Continue reading on Africa is a country

By Dylan Valley

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