People Divided: Do The Right Thing in Retrospect

Armando Gimenez ’22

As new generations are born, the world prepares to change along with the shift of tides. Although many choose to believe that America has changed throughout the decades, with a reflection on Spike Lee’s cinematic masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, we can see how society has not become as unified as we may presume. Although Do The Right Thing plays out as a comedic social critic on racial divide and hatred, it views like a horror movie when watched today. Despite the 30+ years since its release, Lee’s film still holds a disturbing realism and relevance to today’s world. 

Do The Right Thing tells of the story of one neighborhood and the racial tension that lurks beneath their mundane and seemingly normal lives. This film shows how racism and hatred creeps under the skin of seemingly normal people. Spike Lee’s excellent direction shows the true power of racism and how frightening it can become. Racism is shown in all its gross myriad of forms throughout all the characters. The most poignant of which is the hatred expressed towards others directly. This is shown a multitude of times when there is direct hatred expressed and received by Pino, Sal’s son, from Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out. 

Pino is an openly hostile racist that constantly shows hatred and disgust over the minorities around him over stereotypes and preconceived notions of black people. Buggin’ Out is a street kid who asks Sal to include more black people in his wall of fame, but resorts to harassment of Sal and his business. Buggin’ Out suspicions of Sal’s underlying racism appear unwarranted until the final act of the movie in which hatred breaks free from conformity.

One of the saddest instances of racism in the film is the ongoing contempt many of the older black men in the film feel for the chinese family and their success in America. Their contempt and envy of their success paint a sour picture of the cycle of racism and the actualization of the phrase “crabs in a barrel.” This would evolve into a sort of internal racism in which one of the older men hates himself for his failures and mistakes, blaming his ethnicity for their shared failure and laziness.

The film’s excellent themes and social dilemmas only confuses the audience more, since Spike Lee’s intended for the film to muddy the waters and create a detailed discussion on racism after the curtains had been called. Spike Lee left this film openly ambiguous to the viewer, so they can decide for themselves whether or not Mookie, Spike Lee’s protagonist, did the right thing. This decision for ambiguity is only confirmed by the closing images of the movie in which it shows two different quotes from Malcom X and MLK, one calling for swift action and the other calling for peace, shaking hands, showing the coexistence of these two ideologies and legitimizing both through the mutual understanding.  

Watching the film for the first time in a new generation, it was disturbing to see how real it all felt. The film truly remained timeless long after 30 years. Its timelessness is derived from Lee’s excellent talent as a director, leaving the audience to only focus on the characters and the interactions. Lee’s characters provide a broken mirror for extremely realistic people that all have their own sins to bear. The battle of racism seems to never fade with the characters’ ageless personas. Spike Lee created art to reflect not the time, but the people that inhabit our society and the constant rebirth of hatred. 

As the world continues to move forward, “Do The Right Thing” stands as an eternal colossus that cannot be ignored. It lays as a constant reminder of the failures of the past and the failures of our own generation for not confronting the wounds that divide us. As more and more people attempt to confront the wrongdoings of the past, it is essential to examine the film that first sought out change, not only from others but from ourselves as well. By raising the mirror towards all, we can have a chance to acknowledge the truths within ourselves.