Do the Right Thing: Black People and the Problem of Police Brutality

by Cassandra Nyimbili

Do the Right Thing (1989) - IMDb
Courtesy of 40 Acres and a Mule, 1989

In 1989, famed director Spike Lee created Do the Right Thing, a film following the story of the Wall of Fame inside an Italian-American-owned pizzeria in a Black community. As tensions rise in the community due to the Wall featuring only famous Italian-Americans instead of also including famous African-Americans, due to the pizzeria being located in a predominantly African-America area, conversations are held to understand the treatment of Black people by other ethnicities, especially white people. Parallels can be drawn between 1989 and the present while keeping the messages of trailblazers Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X throughout the call to action. The main message of the movie is brought to the attention of the main character Mookie when the Mayor tells Mookie to “always do the right thing,”1 although he brushes off 1 the advice in the moment, the message becomes more apparent as the movie continues. All around the neighbourhood are conversations and actions with racial undertones and overt instances. Prevalent topics in the film include stereotypes, Black people’s influence on society, and the relationship between police and Black people.

This film creates an environment for viewers to understand the climate the characters were living in and compare it to the present day. The successes of Black people are constantly left out of the conversation when discussing people who have impacted the world we live in today. The central conflict in the film is the lack of inclusion for Black people on Sal’s wall of fame. The white characters in the movie continually disregard the importance of Black people. Pino takes away his favourite celebrities’ Blackness because they don’t fit his idea of what Black people should be like; the landlord wears a Larry Bird shirt, and when Black people don’t act according to how Sal and Pino think they should, they disregard their business and resort to using the n-word to describe them. The blatant mistreatment of the Black people in their neighbourhood directly translates into the main conflict of the hall of fame. Buggin’ Out wants people such as Malcolm x, Nelson Mandela, and Michael Jordan as people who should be on the wall, but Sal doesn’t see their importance being on the wall; he threatens his patron with violence and kicks him out as a result2. This scene is the beginning of Sal’s overt mistreatment of Black people, that catapults the movie into its following stages.

Radio Raheem’s death reflects the society where police violence against Black people is repeated. When Lee released this movie, he dedicated it to Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart. Five of these people were murdered by police while Griffth was a victim of the mob3. 36 years after this film’s release Black people are still victims of police brutality; the only difference in the headlines being the names. The names that many people today recognize are George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah Mcclain, Atatiana Jefferson, Daunte Wright. When comparing the victims of the 80s to now, it is evident that police brutality is still prevalent. Sentiments of characters in the movie reflect the opinions of people today when similar events to Radio Raheem’s death occur, such as, “They didn’t have to kill the boy,” “They did it again,” and “He died because of a radio.”4 This repetition of death within the Black community shows society’s disregard and disrespect for Black life. Black people are seen as less than their white counterparts and less deserving of their rights.

Spike Lee immerses viewers into a world similar to ours with the community, the personalities, and the heartbreak. Getting to know the characters who ultimately end up hurt by the events that play out reflects the real lives that are being affected every time the police murder a Black person. As a society, it is our job to fight the powers working against Black people. Through advocacy, action, and doing the right thing, the trajectory of Black lives can be changed.

Works Cited

1,4Do the Right Thing (Universal Pictures, 1989).

2 Ibid

3 Richard Brody, “The Enduring Urgency of Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ at Thirty,” The New Yorker, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/the-enduring-urgency-ofspike-lees-do-the-right-thing-at- thirty.

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