Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”
In June 1989, the popular hit summer movie, “Do the Right Thing”, by Spike Lee came out. According to Do the Right Thing (2011), during a summer of scorching heat and the backdrop of a black neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Sal’s pizzeria, owned and operated by an Italian, is where the riots take place. One of the main characters that goes by the name “Buggin' Out” and is played by Giancarlo Esposito, is tired of Sal taking the black dollars by selling pizza in an all black neighborhood but refuses to display any brothers on his Wall of Fame. Sal tells him that he is proud of his heritage with important Italian Americans and that he doesn’t have have to display anyone but Italians because it is his shop. Buggin’ Out tries to start a protest, but no one will support his protest except Radio Raheemas whose character lives to blast Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on his boombox wherever he goes. The film climaxes when Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem return during closing demanding that Sal put some pictures of brothers up. With the music blasting and racial tensions soaring, Sal destroys Radio Raheem's boombox with a baseball bat and enrages him. A fight breaks out, along with a crowd of onlookers, and in a rage, Sal calls Radio Raheem a "nigger". The police arrive and start to take Radio Raheem and Buggin' Out into custody. Buggin' Out is arrested while Radio Raheem is placed in a chokehold that ends up killing him. The large crowd of spectators is enraged about Radio Raheem's death. At first, the crowd appears to plan the same fate against Sal, Vito, and Pino (Sal’s two sons), but Mookie, who was a pizza delivery boy for Sal, played by Spike Lee grabs a trash can and throws it through the window of the pizzeria. It is said that depending on your viewpoint, Mookie saved their lives, because he turned the anger of the crowd towards the property and away from the owners. The crowd becomes a riotous group of angry people and destroys everything within the pizzeria, while Smiley sets the restaurant on fire. Firefighters arrive and begin spraying Sal's building as the crowd is held back by riot patrol. The firefighters, after several warnings to the crowd, turn their hoses on the mob, further enraging them. Smiley wanders back into the pizzeria and hangs a picture of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. on what's left of Sal's "Wall of Fame". In the end, Mookie who worked for Sal delivering pizza have somewhat of reconciliation.
The film was met with protest from reviewers because it was believed that it could incite black audiences to riot after seeing the movie (Do The Right Thing, n.d.). While no such events occurred at that time, one can only speculate if this was the catalyst for the riotous behavior of Greekfest 1989. The similarites of irresponsible behavior from the Greekfest attendees when confronted by the police are too hard to ignore.
The “Fight the Power” song, by Public Enemy which was used on the sound track was a big hit with young African-Americans. Although many have said that it is about ignoring authority, it wasn’t. Brian Hardgroove said, "Law enforcement is necessary. As a species we haven’t evolved past needing that. Fight the Power is not about fighting authority—it’s not that at all. It’s about fighting abuse of power."(Fight the Power, 2011).
In order to understand why one would make a song about fighting the abuse of power we have to look at history. Research on perceptions in the US shows that many people believe that African-American men engage in crime at a higher rate than whites, and that they commit violent crime at a higher rate than do white men. The criminal black man is an ethnic stereotype in the United States associated with characterizing some African-American men as criminal and dangerous. The figure of the black man as criminal has appeared frequently in popular culture and media. It has been associated with racial profiling by law enforcement in that country. (Criminal black man stereotype. 2011)
While the song may have been about fighting the abuse of power, there is also a longstanding mistrust of police in general among the African-American culture, so it’s no wonder that this song gained popularity. As if the movie alone wasn’t enough to raise racial tensions, we cannot ignore the fact that the 80’s were nortorious for racial incidents and outbreaks that were happening all around us, but New York City seemed to be a hot spot for racial occurences.
Think And Respond:
Compare and Contrast this clip with either the 1989 Violence or 1989 Recap clip under
How It Started-Video Events
Do The Right Thing YouTube Video (Thecultbox, n.d.).
Think And Respond:
1. Watch the video carefully. What famous people's faces can you identify from the video?
2. Why do you think they are used in the video?
Fight The Power YouTube Video (VintageHipHopSeattle, n.d.).
- How It Started
- How Could The 1989 Greekfest Riots Been Avoided?
- Social and Economic Implications
- What Is Civic Responsibility?
- Responsible Course of Action
- A Change For The Better
- People Who Made A Difference
- Conclusion and Reflection
- In The Classroom