Burning Down The House: Looking Back On “Do The Right Thing”

by Ashley Naftule

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It was the first time I ever saw somebody punch a TV.

I was in my early teens, visiting my older brother Greg in San Francisco. It was the first time I was every really on my own, away from my parents, and that feeling of freedom was intoxicating. Greg shared an apartment on Nob Hill with our cousin Paul. The building felt sketchy. The hallways were dimly lit and perfumed with weed. His pretty neighbor down the hall always left her room wearing a bathrobe that did little to contain her preposterous cleavage. And I was left alone all day, with nothing to do but listen to CDs and watch movies and shout curse words with nobody around to tell me that saying “Fuck” was unseemly. It was a horny, shy nerd’s paradise.

One evening when Greg got home from work, we watched Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.” I was blown away by it. That first screening is indelibly imprinted on my memory. It was the first time I ever listened to Public Enemy; it was the first time I ever really paid attention to cinematography (the heat-drenched visuals of “Thing” continue to astonish- it’s hard to think of another film that conveys just how oppressive and omnipresent heat can be on a sweltering day; the film itself looks like it’ll dissolve into a puddle of sweat at any moment); and it was the first time I saw my older brother get upset over a movie.

As “Thing” wrapped up, I was sitting agog, trying to make sense of the ending, shocked by the riot that decimated Sal’s Pizza. My brother got up and thumped the TV hard with his fist, muttering “Goddammit”. He looked visibly upset by the ending, like we were watching a live news broadcast. It wouldn’t be the last time I saw someone react to “Do The Right Thing” that way. Hell, to be honest, I thumped the TV a few more times myself.

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An interesting thing happened as I rewatched “Do The Right Thing” over the years: my reasons for punching the TV changed. At first, I was outraged by what happened to Sal. Sure, one of his sons is a horrible racist; and sure, maybe Sal should’ve pulled the stick out of his ass and put some black pictures on his wall. But he was part of the community, right? Mookie was his friend, right? He didn’t deserve to have his place burned down.

It wasn’t until the fourth time I watched the film, in my early 20’s, that something clicked. It was like staring at a Magic Eye for years and the image it obscured finally came into focus. Instead of looking at the burnt out husk of Sal’s Pizza, I started looking at Radio Raheem. And then the riot made sense.

Who gives a fuck about the pizzeria? A pizzeria is insured, it can be rebuilt, it can be moved. Radio Raheem can’t be brought back. He died for nothing, for no good reason at all, murdered by cops for refusing to turn down. Something had to break in retaliation for that loss- the community, already partially deranged by a long hot summer day, needed to tear something apart to feel powerful in the wake of that dreadful moment. Seen in that light, Mookie throwing the trash can through the window was an act of mercy. Instead of taking their rage out on Sal and his sons, they annihilated his building instead.

Once I realized that I was angry at the film for the wrong reason, it made me wonder why I didn’t see it before. Why the sight of a white man’s property being destroyed was so much more offensive to me, at first viewing, than a black man’s senseless death. When I first watched it, I was like my brother: a textbook good liberal. I believed in nonviolence, equality, all that good stuff. And yet, when we watched that movie, we didn’t see the real injustice. We just worried about a burnt-down building.

Since then, “Do The Right Thing” has been kind of an acid test for me. I love talking to people about it, because their reactions to the ending reveals so much about their worldview. I don’t judge them for being upset about the pizzeria- my brother and I used to feel the same way. We live in a world that tells us, time and time again, to see a vandalized business as a tragedy and a victim of police brutality as an unfortunate inevitability (“shouldn’t have resisted/shouldn’t have been there/etc etc”).

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I’m writing about “Do The Right Thing” because the last few weeks remind me about my initial reaction to it. All around me I see good-hearted, well-intentioned people thumping their TVs and newsfeeds over the images of burning limos, cold-cocked Neo-Nazis, and disrupted Berkeley speaking events. People valuing property and propriety over the threats being held over black bodies by the people on the other side of these events. It’s a strange time to be alive, when we’re asked to feel sorry for skinheads in cheap suits preaching genocide like it’s a cable TV talking point because some Starbucks-burning anarchist had the “gall” to knock some sense into them.

If this sounds too preachy, I’m sorry. That’s actually one of the (many) things that “Do The Right Thing” does right: the film is a joyous, often hilarious slice of life for most of its running time. It creates a neighborhood you’d want to linger in for hours before tearing the whole place apart at the end (how could you not love a film with characters with names like Sweet Dick Willie?). A lot of “message” films like “Crash” and the rest of its Oscar-thirsty ilk miss this crucial step- a tragedy has more sting when it happens out of the blue to people you really like. But most other Big Statement films spend so much time telegraphing their tragic turns with portentous music and on-the-nose dialogue that it’s hard to care when the ax inevitably drops.

It’s a film worth seeing, and sharing, and thinking about. A film that hasn’t really aged a day since it came out, and unfortunately feels more timely than ever before. A film that asks us to take our eyes off whatever’s burning in the background and focus on who’s lying dead in the foreground. In these times, that’s a lesson on perspective we shouldn’t lose sight of.

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