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Do the Right Thing

(1989, Lee)
A film from Spike Lee

"Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. 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. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass."

Race relations in the United States (and probably elsewhere) have always been... complicated, to say the least. From the British and the Native Americans, to the white man/black man struggles, and everything in between. With more than 200 years of established, there isn't a time in American history that is not defined in some way by racial tension. The idea of a "melting pot" where people from different cultures can come and meld together to become stronger is constantly put to the test.

Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing gives us a microcosm of that in one little street. Set during a hot summer day in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, the film is mostly focused on the interactions of Mookie (Lee), a pizza delivery boy, with the residents of this street personifying that microcosm. We have the Italian-owned pizzeria and the Korean-owned convenience store anchored in a predominantly black neighborhood, with some Puerto Ricans sprinkled around.

This is the second time I see this film, with the first time being probably more than 20-25 years ago. Needless to say, my appreciation and perception of the film now was way deeper than it was back then, when I was 17 or 18 years old. It is amazing the way that Lee challenges the audience through a carefully crafted script that is not designed for us to root for anyone, but rather to show us the way things are, and maybe make us wonder what can we do for things to change.

To fully analyze this film and what it means, you can't just look at the main events that occur, but also at those that preceded it. There are catalysts and consequences to everything, and the way the film presents us "big picture" themes of cultural appropriation, displacement, gentrification, and racial tensions through seemingly "little" events in one day is masterful. It is the kind of film that the more I think about, the more things I find out that enrage me, but also make me fall in love with it more.

The main thesis of the film is presented through the above quote from Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a colorful character that carries around a loud boom-box and wears two brass knuckles with the words "LOVE" and "HATE". His little monologue highlights the duality that is in all of us, which we see all through the film, most notably in the constant references to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as representatives of African-Americans, but also in Mookie and his boss, Sal (Danny Aiello). There is "love" and "hate" in all of us, and sometimes they get mixed up with each other.

The last act features a murder at the hands of the police, and a business burned down in the middle of a riot, and then another day begins. The cycle repeats. The film then closes with two contrasting quotes from King and Malcolm X, both of which show their differing ideologies: "Love" and "Hate". The fact that both were assassinated within three years of each other during the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, is a sad reminder of the "options" that people have to demand equality.

These quotes are followed by a dedication to a handful of victims of racial violence during the 1980s. 30 years later, we're still seeing people dying at the hands of the police, businesses burned down in the middle of riots, and the cycle keeps repeating itself. And yet, another day begins, with another chance for every one of us to "do the right thing". That's it.