An academic paper I wrote on how Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Tony Kaye’s American History X deliver very ambiguous messages about race.
Like Tony Kaye’s American History X which hit the big screen some nine years later, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a sprawling commentary on race and race relations that follows a community living in constant tension with the rest of the world. In American History X, Kaye explores the world from the perspective of an intensely vocal group of white supremacists. In Lee’s vision, we are shown a small, mostly black neighborhood in Brooklyn whose local pizzeria is owned by white Italians. The local community gets along amiably with the owners of the restaurant for over two decades before things finally reach a breaking point on one hot summer’s day.
It is prudent to contrast Do the Right Thing with American History X because the two films are in fact quite similar – perhaps not in style or tone, but certainly in the way they convey their messages about race to the audience. This makes them interesting companion pieces, and in concert they lend some nuanced perspective on pressing social issues. In both films, we are shown one racial group and learn their ins and outs. We come to understand their camaraderie as a community and we learn about their own individual prejudices. Most importantly, we find that their perceptions of how the rest of the world works are mostly unfounded generalizations based on heresy and generic observable sociological phenomena, sometimes real and sometimes manufactured, instead of personal experiences.
One of the most important recurring themes between Do the Right Thing and American History X is one of coarse violence. It is abundantly clear that in in Lee and Kaye’s world, black and white communities are at constant odds; in both films, these two demographics are always ready to jump into a fight at the slightest provocation. However, it is important to think about what the directors want the audience to take away from these conflict-driven scenes.
In American History X, we are witness to two major heinous crimes: a white-on-black curb-stomp and a gunshot murder of a young white teen at the hands of his black peer. In Do the Right Thing, a white cop strangles a young man in an over-zealous attempt to impede his assault of another white man. For both of these films, there is deep context to these acts; a long history of indoctrination in the White Power movement led to Derek Vinyard’s brutal attack on the black man in the opening scenes of American History X, and a long series of subtle set-ups give precedence to Danny Vinyard’s death in the final moments of the film. Likewise, the entire plot of Do the Right Thing is slowly revealed in aid of building tension toward the final confrontation between Sal’s white Italian family and the rest of the neighborhood.
It is worth noting Lee and Kaye’s similar approach to violence because these scenes serve as climaxes to the narratives in both movies. Normally, such a disturbing display might be quickly discarded off-hand as wrong and morally reprehensible. However, the aforementioned build-up gives the viewer pause on this knee-jerk assumption. In American History X, were the Vinyards not terrible racists who preached the eradication of “the others” from their country? Did Danny’s death not, in some respects, seem deserved? He and his brother had reformed by this point, but there was no way for anyone else to know that. Similarly, did Radio Raheem deserve to die for playing his boombox in Do the Right Thing? Or for attempting to assault Sal? These questions are difficult to answer, but are also thought-provoking and clearly open for interpretation.
What is also interesting about the use of violence in these films is how they function as pieces of their respective narrative wholes. In both films, much rhetoric is given by racist white characters (Derek Vinyard in American History X, Pino in Do the Right Thing) that black people are somehow less than human – and in both films, another character (Lamont in American History X, Sal in Do the Right Thing) either tells or shows them that this is not the case. The racist white characters then reform and begin to try and see that their beliefs are incorrect, but shortly thereafter, their unfounded judgements are almost vindicated; in both films, it is a member (or members) of the black community who perpetrates the final crime (the storming of the pizzeria in Do the Right Thing and Danny Vinyard’s death in American History X). So, according to the filmmakers, were Derek and Pino right?
Of course not – one could just as easily take away a message of non-violence in these stories. Both films seem to be saying that violence is not the answer; racism is out there, and it is a problem, but dealing with it with guns, knives, and fists is not the best path to peace and coexistence. Indeed, the most virtuous characters in the dark worlds of Do the Right Thing and American History X are the ones who seek to make for active change for their homes, their families, and their communities; Derek and his old principal Dr. Sweeney make a decision to work together to combat organized racism and violence, and Da Mayor makes a noble speech to his community just before the riot.
There is of course a level of ambiguity to this message, particularly as Spike Lee includes two somewhat contradictory quotes at the end of his film from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the topic of violence:“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” ~ Malcolm X
The King quote states that physical uprising antithetical to working for a better world, while X states self-defense (however he defines the term) is absolutely necessary for survival. The visual motif of King and X is persistent throughout Do the Right Thing, representing the significance of the duality Lee is trying to get across. Mookie embodies this struggle; having had a good relationship with Sal and his sons, he is also being inextricably tied to his black friends and family. This culminates in Mookie’s crucial decision to start off the riot by tossing a trash can through the window, effectively stating publicly whose side he was on.
This gets to the crux of these two fascinating films: I believe either of these movies could be shown simultaneously to a very leftwing, diverse audience who would find them to be compelling (albeit somewhat cynical) depictions of race relations in America, as well as to attendees at a White Power rally to illustrate that the liberal point of view just gives “the others” the power to behave badly. In this sense, the two films seem to be surprisingly marketable, catering to everyone from one end of the spectrum to the other. This stems from the power of movies made by such conscientious filmmakers who can capture enough of harsh reality to give audiences the tools to decide for themselves what they think. Seeing this level of forethought is rare, as it indicates that true masterpieces of relatively objective social commentary have been achieved on-screen.
In summary, there are both positive and negative ways to view Do the Right Thing and American History X. Quite obviously, seeing these as illustrations of why violence is necessary, even if its only on occasion, would be a negative moral to take away from the films. Alternatively, to see them as cautionary and sobering tales of the difficulty of being righteous against all odds gives the audience pause forces introspection on some of our most intimate values.
Denouncing violence and advocating benevolence is definitely the more positive, life-affirming, and hopeful message to take away from Do the Right Thing and American History X. After hearing both sides of the debate for the entire film, Lee’s young, generally self-interested protagonist Mookie launches the final attack on Sal’s Pizzeria by throwing a trash can through a window. It seems we are meant to be upset with his final decision to engage in violence instead of making an effort to do the right thing.