Do The Right Thing (film discussion)

Saratoga Jewish Community Arts and Temple Sinai, with a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, present a Zoom discussion of the classic film Do the Right Thing on October 25, at 7 p.m.

It has been 31 years since Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released. It was such a prophetic (and controversial) film that it merits attention today, not just for its historic significance, but because it is still fresh and relevant and so clearly foretold the future of interracial relationships in America. One reviewer commented that his initial reaction of wonder and admiration that a filmmaker could be as powerful as a Hebrew prophet in exposing the dark side of our society, still resonates. Yet others, in the media at the time, publicly speculated that it would ignite violence. In turn, Lee criticized white reviewers for suggesting that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture. He said,I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.” Do the Right Thing is not filled with brotherly love, but neither is it filled with hate.

The story unfolds over one scorching summer day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant part of Brooklyn. The filmmaker shows the ugly prejudice that infects everyone. Several locals yell out a stream of racial epithets that incorporate virtually every insult they can think of – targeted are blacks, whites, Jews, Italians, and Koreans. Tempers are already shortened due to the extreme heat and explode at the end of the day. A boombox is blasting with noisy music, and a chaotic brawl breaks out. The police arrive and a black man is brought to the ground by one officer with a Billy club, choking off his air. A fellow officer cries out in protest, “That’s enough.” Too late, the man has stopped breathing.

The film explores how racial inequality drives conflict in a predominantly AfricanAmerican community on the hottest day of the summer. It does not provide answers to the problems it exposes. Rather, the film reflects back to its audience their own perspectives on prejudice and compliance. The film was made as the result of provocations, and so in turn, it provokes. It reacts to white supremacy and paternalism with a justified rage, drawing attention to systemically racist institutions and the injustices they produce; injustices that still exist today.

At its most basic, Lee’s intent in Do the Right Thing is to demonstrate how, in the context of a racially polarized society, the slow accumulation of small irritations, the heat, some casual slights, bit of anger left over from old injuries, the constant mild abrasions of different cultural perspectives rubbing against each other, can swell to something huge and ugly and lethal. It is a solid idea for a movie, to show us the everyday texture of racial misunderstanding Lee wants to create, an event that cannot be explained away as an isolated incident. And he is not about to let us believe that racism comes only in the form of teen-age thugs. Lee’s masterwork remains profoundly relevant 31 years later, especially against one of the most racist administrations in recent American history. Do the Right Thing is essential in speaking to the present. It served, and still serves, as a window into a country that has historically devalued the lives of AfricanAmericans. Anyone who leaves the film with more intolerance that they walked in with was not paying attention.

While the film did not win an Academy Award, it is often listed among the greatest films of all times. In its first year of eligibility in 1999, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.


Click here to register:

Click here for the playbill: