Do the Right Thing is comedy-drama movie released in 1989. The movie was written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee, who also played the main character, Mookie. Others main characters are Danny Aiello as Sal Fragione (the pizzeria owner); Richard Edson as Vito; John Turturro as Pino. Secondary characters who play an important role in the movie are Ossie Davis as Da Mayor; Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin Out; Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem; Samuel L Jackson as Mister SeГ±or Love Daddy (The local radio station DJ); Ruby Dee as Mother Sister. The whole plot of the movie elapses in one single day in the hottest day of the summer. The film is mainly about poverty, race, and police brutality within a poor neighborhood of New York. However, the movie does not show others or more realistic issues that I think were present at the time such as individuals doing or selling drugs, fighting and robbing from each other. The film does show verbal abuse between characters interactions with the use of racial slurs and stereotyping due to multiple factors, but mainly due to ethnic differences. Do the Right Thing is a benchmark movie to study conflict theory and how social classes interact when facing economic and racial inequalities. These interactions created racial tensions through the whole plot which end in violence as a means of change in the community.
I strongly believe that the social context of the film coincides with the racial tensions experienced during and right after the civil right movement era of 1950-1960. Although the Civil Right Act of 1964 and Voting Right Act of 1965 legally ended the discrimination based on race, religion, or origin and ensured the right to vote for African Americans respectively, they did not address the problem of powerless or poor African Americans. The civil reforms did not end police brutality and racial injustices at once. In fact, African Americans remained racially segregated and living in inner cities in which public services such as housing, education, and health were inferior compared to other whites. Unfortunately, I believe that these racial tensions and inequalities shown in Lee’s film shot in the late 1980s have prevailed through the years, dividing us between blacks and whites with unequal living conditions.
The Conflict Theory, that was originated and presented by Karl Marx on his work The Communist Manifesto, states that tensions and conflicts arise when resources, status, and power are unevenly distributed between groups in society and that these conflicts become the engine for social change. (Crossman, 2018). Sometimes the desires for social changes use violence as its only possible agent of change. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx points out that when a minority class in power (the bourgeoisie) oppressed the majority working class (the proletariat), a class conflict occurs because the wealth distribution and resources are unbalanced. In the context of the film, one can see an inner city predominantly a black community with some Hispanics, while the only two family owning businesses are a Korean American and Italian American. The film shows how the social tension due to lack of resources, poor functioning of the social institutions such as the police department, disadvantages among races, and the moral decision made by each character have a direct effect on the way they interact within the society. In fact, one can see a community mostly composed by African American living the day by day with their own failures, using fans and ice to cool themselves in the hottest day of summer, drinking on the street, lack of skills and education, and trying to fight what they consider as the “power” in order to have wealth and status within the society.
It is not a coincidence that Spike Lee started his film with a young black lady dancing combatively the song “fight the power” with boxing gloves. The lyrics which goes in part:
People, people we are the same,
no we’re not the same,
‘Cause we don’t know the game,
What we need is awareness,
we can’t get careless,
You say what is this?
My beloved let’s get down to business,
Mental self-defensive fitness…
In fact, I think that Lee was trying to deliver a message to the forces that historically position the black community underclass and condition them to live in marginalized areas, as well as to the black community itself to wake up. Fight the power coincide also with Malcolm X’s speech and beliefs against passivity of black Americans. In the same extent, there is a two-minute scene that shows an important message to understand the conflict theory and the message the author is looking to deliver. In that scene, a group of Puerto Ricans are listening to some salsa music in the front of a building when suddenly Radio Raheem approach them with his loud music and playing fight the power. Raheem’s music was heard more loud and clear than the salsa in the Puerto Ricans stereo. Then, they started competing to see which music was louder and Raheem’s music was obviously louder. However, I believe that the competition was not about music or which one was louder, but about power which implies economic and racial dominance. Indeed, Raheem drowning out the salsa music and showing up his jewelry was a sign of economic superiority and status which he eventually celebrated by walking away and raising his fist as a signal of triumph, leaving the Puerto Ricans upset yelling at him. The scene demonstrates in some way how the characters, especially African Americans want to be respected, powerful, and acknowledged by other races in society.
On the other hand, even though the characters seem to coexist during the whole plot despite their tensions, the police force, composed mostly by whites, contributes to rise the racial tension that already exist in the community through the whole movie. They are disrespectful and biased against the minorities. There is a scene, for instance, in which three black loiterers are sitting at the corner just talking while a police patrol passes by and said “what a waste”. This scene shows how the police officers that are supposed to respect, protect, and serve the community, do the contrary. That kind of community policing deepen the lack of trust between the community. In addition, the negative interaction of the police is more severe with the black community, at the point of using racial slurs against them repetitively. It is precisely the police action the ignition of the conflict at the end of the film when they excessively restrained and choked to death Radio Raheem over a street fight between him and Sal. Although fight started inside Sal’s Pizzeria over Radio Raheem loud music and Sal’s violent response to it, the motive behind this confrontation was the claim from Buggin Out and Radio Raheem in order to place black personalities in Sal’s Half of Fame. As I said earlier, they were fighting the power in the only way they thought it was possible. At the end, a riot burned down Sal’s pizzeria while the community steals the money from the register and celebrate the fate of the business owner. This scene represents how disbelief turns to outrage, as the characters shout the names of other victims of police violence (Valdez, 2016). I have to point out Mookie’s role in the riot which unthinkable, he was the one who took a trashcan and smashed it at Sal’s pizzeria, venting the anger of the community on police brutality and race inequality to Sal’s pizzeria. Mookie is the character that established a solid relationship with Sal and always was loyal to him and his sons in part because of his employment dependency and notwithstanding Pino openly disliked him because he is black. He also was more mature than the other young characters of the movie such as Buggin Out and Radio Raheem. I think that Mookie shifting behaviors is the result of his feeling in front of the police actions. He might have felt outraged, angry, and powerless. Hence he sided with the clamor of the whole community.
Finally, explaining the conflict theory, Marx theorized that class conflict and struggle are inevitable in a capitalist society and when the class exploited realized that they have been exploited or have certain disadvantages, they would unite to create class consciousness in order to be stronger and have the same opportunity. What I have seen in this film is no different. At the end, the racial and social tensions led a community that feels powerless to act with extreme violence against those in power in order to demand a change. Genuinely, Lee does not show a solution to the racial issues and inequality with this movie. Instead, he leaves the conclusion at the discretion of the viewers. I think that he just presented a pure reality of the society of the time.
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