Following the murder of George Floyd, I have been witnessing the protests personally and in the news, restrained under a curfew, and speaking to Americans who say they had never experienced such unification of the people since Martin Luther King’s assassination. All these kept reminding me of one film which I believe is relatable and worth watching amidst the events: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
Police brutality against black people has been an issue for so long that even a film shot over three decades ago is still relatable to this day. The 1989 film takes place in Bedstuy, Brooklyn during hot summer days. Except the sociopolitical issue it raises, the film is memorable for its soundtrack: “Fight the Power.”
The film presents a polyphony in the sense that there are multiple characters with multiple points of view and is not easy to discern which perspective is privileged. Racial components are represented through multiple characters so that there isn’t just one experience but there is older, younger, male, female, racist, positive, not so positive, and so forth.
Each character embodies an ideology as they each occupy a particular social racial position. Their psychology is not as important as the ideology they represent. Lee restrains from stereotyping but takes a few defining traits of each of these characters, personifies, extends and puts individualized representations within a large economic fabric. The characters talk out directly to the camera about these experiences. They break the fourth wall and those scenes are not story-based.
Major political, social, economic and cultural issues were alive during the making of the film. Violence was very much present in real life, yet its representation in films engaged public response; questioning whether it would lead to more violence. You can find my essay regarding this particular issue here.
Notice Sal’s wall of fame: it is about importance of public media. Similarly, Rahim wants to play his music. The DJ lists the great black musicians in the context of his radio broadcast, but extends the way of pointing out their importance in American music. After all, Lee himself wants to put black experience on the big screen. It is related to the ownership of cultural images.
I wouldn’t like to spoil the film, but you might already got what happens. When I first saw it, I had no idea what the film was about, so o me the riot was an unpredictable scene which left me stunned. If you still have no idea what might have happened in the film and you seek a surprise effect, you might want to see the film first before moving on the post.
The riot scene is at the heart of the film. “Fight the Power” plays at the end, showing that the radio still exists as the motivation behind all the rage. Multiple characters emotions and their reaction shots are respected. However, Mookey’s motivation for throwing a garbage can in the window is somewhat vague, don’t you think? How about Sal’s smashing the radio? Police “accidentally” choking Rahim? Which acts of violence can be justified? Can any act of violence be justified? Mookey’s act stems from frustration and rage against the murder. It is a psychologically motivated ethical intervention for him, but is it justifiable?
As Mookey is played by the director himself, most people assume it is an authorial gesture to show where Lee stands on the issue of justification of violence. Lee is declaring his personal responsibility for the decision to portray active act of violence against private property. The next morning, both him and Sal are suffering from the destruction.
Since the beginning of the film, Smiley wanders through the block with a photo of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who had different positions regarding violence. Lee spells out the two positions by extensive quotes at the end. Certainly, there are details to suggest that Malcolm X and the rationalization of violence is privileged. In the end, Smiley claims Sal’s wall by putting the photo up on the wall before lighting up the fire.
Even before becoming highly relatable to the happenings in the US for the past week, the film had a powerful claim on violence and the black experience of police brutality. Following George Floyd’s murder, he filmmaker shared a tweet comparing the real footage to the film asking “Will the history stop repeating itself?”