‘Do the Right Thing’ Discussion: Racist or About Racism?

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Lew Crippen, Mar 3, 2003.

  1. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

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    Do the Right Thing has caused side discussions in several threads lately. I thought that, given the very differing views of this film, it might be well to have a thread devoted to discussion of this film.

    I’ll start things off with a few comments on why I consider this a great film and what I think this film is about.

    To begin, although many (perhaps all) of the characters seem to be stereotypical, they are, in my opinion, meant to be representative and as such are presented as real people, with all of the strengths and weaknesses that real people possess. They are not cardboard characters, some with integrity above reproach and others with no redeeming qualities (perhaps a couple of exceptions to this). It is also useful to note, that many of the situations are deliberately set up to be diametrically opposed just as most of the characters’ personalities have two sides —this of course a literary device that classically allows the tension to be resolved with a sense of oneness, or completeness at the end.

    For example, Mookie (Spike Lee) is clearly intended to be a likeable character. He is full of personal charm and charisma, and it is clear that he is well liked in the neighborhood. But he is also shown to be lazy, self-indulgent and not much involved with the care and raising of his son. Perhaps Mookie’s sister, Jade (Joie Lee) is presented as a completely ‘good’ character, but even Jade is not above entirely above reproach.

    Lee early on introduces us to all of the major characters and how they interact with one another. In fact, as the day begins, it is clear that we are seeing a day much like any other day, where the same things are said and responded to by the same people, as they are every day. A day much like any other day—perhaps the first indication that a change is in the air, is the introduction of the yuppie on the bike, who has just moved into the neighborhood and who immediately is involved in a confrotation with ‘Buggin’ Out’ .

    Lee begins to peel back the personalities, so that we are shown more than their surface persona. We see two sides of Sal’s (Danny Aiello) personality (represented by his two sons, just in case we don’t get it), we are shown that Radio Raheem’s menacing physical appearance (amplified by his oversize boom box, played loudly), is tempered by a gentler disposition, where ‘love’ wins out over ‘hate’.

    Finally we are shown the overarching duality of the two approaches to race (as seen from the black perspective) in America, personified by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

    For me, Lee provides no answers, but rather asks valid, hard questions based on conditions, as they exist. And he notes a potential outcome, as non-political persons (represented by Mookie) become politicized, and act on pent-up anger (represented by ‘Buggin’ Out). None of the characters are without racial prejudice and few are without compassion.

    We are left with the question posed in the title: ‘did Mookie do the right thing”? Certainly we are supposed to believe that he did (in the context of the film), as he was charged to do so in the opening of the film, by ‘Da’ Mayor’. But also ‘Da’ Mayor’ does the right thing, in helping to prevent the violence from escalating further—no one else is killed or injured and the Korean store is not vandalized.

    For me at least, Lee leaves hope that racial issues can be resolved—but it is up to us (and necessary for us) to see past our preconceptions so that we can find solutions.

    What are your views? I’ve just scratched the surface of mine.
     
  2. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

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    I saw no hope whatsoever from this film. If I was from another planet and saw this film and thought it reflected the real state of this country, I'd give up on it ever being solved. Spike Lee clearly thinks everyone is at heart a racist, and hence racism can never be overcome.

    I'll finish with a quote I posted in one of those other threads that summarizes my feelings nicely:

    "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism...that the bright daybreak of...brotherhood can never become a reality" - Martin Luther King, Jr.

    I don't know what goes on in Spike Lee's head, but Do The Right Thing sure as hell looks to me to have been the work of someone who not only accepts, but embraces the view that we are bound to the starless midnight of racism, and furthermore thinks that it is both natural and the right thing to do.
     
  3. Todd Terwilliger

    Todd Terwilliger Screenwriter

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    I agree with Lew's thoughts here. I don't have too much to add at the moment - I'll have to break out my DVD and give it another watch first.

    I don't agree with George - I did not find that this movie showed a reality marked by the "starless midnight of racism".
     
  4. ChuckDeLa

    ChuckDeLa Cinematographer

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    I'll add more thoughts when I get a chance, but here's two things:

    1) Although I disagree with Lee's assessment that Mookie does the right thing, I do not find the movie to be racist. Pessimistic, yes, but not racist.

    2) Keep in mind that Spike Lee has a different (and perhaps more correct) definition of "racist" than what is being used in this thread. Lee contends (or he used to) that black people cannot be racist. Racism, in his definition, is the act of exercising power in order to oppress someone of another race. Since black people don't have power, they can't be racist.

    A more appropriate word for this discussion might be "prejudiced".
     
  5. Matt Pelham

    Matt Pelham Screenwriter

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    I agree with you Lew. It blows my mind that some people actually consider the movie to be racist.
     
  6. John^Lal

    John^Lal Stunt Coordinator

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    I thought this was a well made movie. But the final 15 minutes of it just make me sick to the stomach, i couldn't handle it. Watching a problem escalate exponentially for seemingly pointless reasons (racism, is pointless) are some of the hardest things for me to watch (even if it's in a movie like Meet the Parents.)
     
  7. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

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    Chuck,

    I am fully aware of the definition of racism that implies only whites can be racist against blacks and not vice versa. I've been arguing about this in political circles probably since before you were born. I can only say that I consider it to be a completely bullshit definition. What they are defining is institutional racism, but to claim that in today's day and age that even that is limited to white on black is ridiculous. In 1850, yes. But not now. There are plenty of blacks in the power structure, and plenty of whites with no power whatsoever.

    But more importantly to argue that institutional racism is the only kind is just ridiculous. Just another example of where I disagree with Lee and am offended by this movie.
     
  8. John^Lal

    John^Lal Stunt Coordinator

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    At this time in American history, i believe racism is still alive only because of some peoples unwillingness to let go of it. Could you imagine a world without Jesse Jackson? well neither could he! if his career, and so many others, is based on racism, we'll never see the end of it.
    The only way to lose racism is to forget it. Meet a person, evaluate them by their actions, then judge. if i don't like you, that doesn't mean you're black, hispanic, asian etc. and if i like you it doesn't mean you are white/caucasian.
     
  9. Richard Kim

    Richard Kim Producer

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    I think we'd best back away from the political statements, lest this thread gets closed.

    As to the question of whether Mookie did the right thing, it could be argued that his actions actually saved the lives of Sal and his sons. When Mookie throws the trash can through the window, he allowed the crowd to take out their anger and frustration of Radio Raheem's death on the pizzeria, instead of Sal.
     
  10. ChuckDeLa

    ChuckDeLa Cinematographer

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    That's an interesting viewpoint, Richard... I never saw it that way.

    Here's one place where Spike Lee really screws up: he's said on a number of occasions that people always ask him why did Mookie throw the garbage can, but no one ever asks why did the cops kill Radio Raheem. From this, he infers that people care more about a pizzeria than about a black man.

    Wrong! We know why the cops killed Radio Raheem... Lee has already presented the cops as violent racists. It's sad, but we're not surprised by it. Mookie's actions, on the other hand, are out of character. He's presented as a nice, level-headed guy, though somewhat irresponsible. I still don't know why he threw that can, and as much as I love the rest of the movie, it's always bothered me. Spike's justification doesn't make sense. But I like Richard's explanation.

    Too bad it wasn't the intended meaning, though.

     
  11. Reginald Trent

    Reginald Trent Screenwriter

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    I'll add more later. So this will be short because it's late and my bed is calling. The movie was about racism and has been labeled racist by those offended by the clarity of focus Spike brings on the subject.
     
  12. Adam_S

    Adam_S Producer

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    When I first saw the film (only seen it once) I was struck by how powerful it was. It didn't enter into my head that the film was racist. It seemed like a sickeningly realistic reaction to racist violence and death perpetrated on a community by the institution that is supposed to be protecting that community but instead accomplishes the opposite.

    On that note I agree with George's assessment on the issue that blacks cannot be racist against whites, that's simply ridiculous, and the difference brought up is semantical nitpicking (I do understand the difference though, just disagree with the varying definitions of words). Is racism really based on the ability to opress, if so than the highest class would be the most racist, but historically we've seen that it was the lowest level of white people that were most racist, because the only thing that kept them socially above blacks (despite in many cases being in worse standard of living conditions) was their skin color--so they depended on and defended that distinction brutally. these people are definitely racist not merely prejudiced. I think of racism as irrational hatred for a group of people based on their racial heritage, which I think defines the above groups 'reasons' for being racist better than an ability to oppress.

    But then again, what do I know of racism, my girlfriend's half Japanese and my best friend is black, but I'm from a small-city in the midwest so my views don't really count because they're not in tune with reality (urban/coastal realities that is, which are all that matter media-wise and politically-wise).
     
  13. Kirk Tsai

    Kirk Tsai Screenwriter

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  14. Angelo.M

    Angelo.M Producer

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    Interesting thread.

    I think it's a powerful film, and Spike Lee's best.

    As an Italian-American with a daughter adopted from South Korea, I have plenty of reasons to quibble with the way particular characters are portrayed and with the overall balance (or lack thereof) that Spike uses with the characterizations and situations in the film. I never will, however, because the (perhaps hyperbolic) slice of life that Spike is showing us is drawn from a foundation that is all too real. I think that Spike's characters in the film speak a meaningful statement about racism and prejudice, a statement that can't be ignored.

    To wish that there were characters in the film that were "less racist/prejudiced" or "non-racist/prejudiced" seems, to me, the wish of someone who has a rose-tinted vision of our society.
     
  15. Mark Zimmer

    Mark Zimmer Producer

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    Racist or not, Lee certainly presents a bleak view of the world, where resorting to violence is apparently The Answer.
     
  16. ChuckDeLa

    ChuckDeLa Cinematographer

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    Should also keep in mind that the movie is based upon real events (though somewhat loosely).
     
  17. DaveGR

    DaveGR Stunt Coordinator

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    I agree with George,,Ive had several talks with people about Do the Right Thing,and even though I dont agree with what ideas are shown,and how mookie is held as a hero practically,I still think it shows a period in time where things were at a boiling point.To put Mookie(who got along with,and was "friends" with a few of the characters who he later turned on)as almost a local hero,was moronic,and I despise that character for doing that,,if it shows anything it shows that there could have been MORE of a lack of trust towards Mookie and his neighborhood friends,which is horrible,As I told someone ,Its a movie that tries to show the life of casual racism,and the effects of it,but actually stirs up bad feelings towards most of the black characters,because they turn out to be worse racists in the film,which is not what I wanted,because I liked the characters,but by the end I didnt.And Turturro's character was a total idiot,but his father wasnt,and respected people who respected him,but in the end,after being pushed to the edge,he makes a slip,and they completly turn on him,,totally ignorant. Dont get me wrong I do like the film,because there was alot of stuff like that going on at the time,and it shows some general feelings by blacks at the time(not a majority by any means)and for alot of things perhaps they had a right to feel angry,but in the film they let there hatred reign at the end. I by no means agree with alot of Lee's thoughts,but I do agree that this is an Important film. I thought Malcolm X was a FAR superior film. Also the odd thing about some of the characters in Do the Right Thing was that they went around wearing Malcolm stuff,but did not follow what he said,,he said violence was the last thing,and only if someone is showing it towards you.That you dont have to sit there and take it. Now that I agree with,but this is NOT that by anymeans.
     
  18. Rob M

    Rob M Extra

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  19. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

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    Well I'll respond to some specifics in a moment, but first let me just make a general statement.

    In the end, we're talking about perceptions of the message of this film. I don't know for certain what message Spike Lee was trying to put out, and he's not here to tell us. But I know what message I get out of this film. Many of you get a different message. Frankly, it's all perception, and no one is right or wrong.

    I see a message that everyone is racist, that racism is here to stay, that it's inevitable, and that racial violence is also inevitable, and furthermore that if someone from a different racial group attacks someone from your racial group, the 'right thing to do' is to attack someone else from that racial group, regardless of whether they've done anything to you. This is the message I get, and it's a racist one.

    If you see some uplifting message about how we can overcome racism from this film, I can't argue that you don't, I can only be puzzled.

    Now, for some responses

    What is this powerful and meaningful statement that you see. I've already said what statement I see, and to me it is a powerful and racist one.

    I'll continue to respond to some of this, but probably not to every statement, because clearly it's a matter of opinion/perception.

    I'll just end with the lyrics to one of my favorite reggae songs:

    Six Feet of Earth - Roaring Lion (written when he was 84)

    I'm hoping & I'm praying hate and malice will soon disappear
    Tolerance, peace & love will be practiced and preached everywhere
    For we're all one people, the children of Eve this the Bible has emphasized
    So regardless of color you better believe
    Six feet of earth makes us all one size

    Yes we are all one people and we need one another, this we know to be true
    But if we can't live together we shall die together
    Whether white, pink, yellow or blue

    The Jews were enslaved by Egyptians, but that didn't stop their progress
    English slaves were sold for one penny to the Romans
    Yet they fought their way to success
    Every race suffered slavery one time or another t'was apparent in every form
    It was upheld in every country regardless of color
    It was by custom the norm

    Still we are all one people and we need one another, this we know to be true
    But if we can't live together we shall die together
    Whether white, pink, yellow or blue

    If your grandpas were slaves centuries ago, what's that to do with you?
    You were never slaves you were free and quite independent too
    It is true that whites bought African slaves and treated them like pigs in a pen
    But according to history who sold those slaves
    Was blacks sold blacks to white men

    Still we are all God's children and we need one another
    This the Bible has emphasized
    So regardless of color you better believe
    Six feet of earth makes us all one size

    Let's forget the past and all the went on and who was right or wrong
    That is a matter for history, this is a new dawn, the past is already gone
    Forget the tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye, for Moses is long since dead
    So if your aim is revenge you'd better kiss it goodbye and get it out of your head

    Still we are all God's children and we need one another
    This the Bible has emphasized
    So regardless of color you better believe
    Six feet of earth makes us all one size
     
  20. ChuckDeLa

    ChuckDeLa Cinematographer

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