Do the Right Thing

Do The Right Thing: Personhood Through Property

Attached here is a presentation I’ve made, which traces the use of ‘property as conflict’ in Do the Right Thing in an attempt to understand the circumstances of conflict itself, and the ways in which social conflict is worked out through property, to construct the meaning of both.

I’d love to hear if anyone could find any other examples of “conflicts of property” in the film, or if you agree/disagree with my analysis!

Do The Right Thing- Midterm

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In mid 2015, the stretch of Stuyvesant Avenue used in the film was renamed “Do The Right Thing Way”. Pictured is the new sign

The entirety of Do The Right Thing was set, and filmed on a single block in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn. So on Easter Morning I decided to trek down to Stuyvesant Avenue between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue to see exactly where this iconic film was created over 35 years ago. Without the artificial red filter and the stoops full of people, the block seemed cold, empty, and forgotten. Many other areas of Brooklyn have famously succumbed to gentrification over the past twenty years and pushed real estate prices into the millions. But instead of finding wealthy couples pushing strollers down the street and freshly renovated houses, I found some of the brownstones in worse condition than they were in the film. When I was snapping photos of some of the houses one man was so suspicious of my motives that he asked me what I was doing and only relaxed once I explained that it was for a project.

Sal’s pizzeria never truly existed. It was built by the production team in an empty lot that remains empty to this day. In addition if you look closely at the images above, you can faintly see the white stripes of the American flag in the mural from the movie. A building has been built in the previously empty space next to the builidng.

The Korean grocery store across the street from Sal’s was not real as well. Again an empty lot was used and a set built.

Mookie and Jade’s house is located at the corner of Stuyvesant and Quincy Street (house number 173). Today it is in much better condition than it was 30 years ago, yet the nicer neighboring house in the movie, is crumbling.

Mr. Señor Love Daddy’s Radio station was located in the bottom floor of 174 Stuyvesant Street.


Another false facade was used to create the “Yes Jesus Baptist Church” in front of 184 Stuyvesant Street.

Mother Sister’s house is real! And you can visit her stoop (or rather trespass) at 167 Stuyvesant Street. Again this house is in better condition now.

I personally have several connections to the film beyond just my hometown of Brooklyn. Joie Lee was my brother’s middle school drama teacher at the Brooklyn private school, Saint Ann’s, where Lee herself was also a student decades ago. Spike and Joie’s mother was the first black teacher at Saint Ann’s as well. In addition, I went to high school (also in Brooklyn) with John Tuturro’s (Pino) son. (Despite the geography, Brooklyn is a small world).

I remember when my mom first watched Do The Right Thing with my brother and I. She told us about the racial tensions she experienced growing up as a poor Puerto Rican in the Bronx (where most of my mothers side of the family still resides) she told us of her neighborhood pizza shop, run by a gregarious Italian very similar to Sal. Much like in the film, different racial groups self segregated within just a single block. The black families lived on one side and the Puerto Ricans claimed the other. But one shared stomping ground was the local pizzeria owned by a friendly Italain man (who refused to learn to speak Spanish despite the neighborhood’s racial dynamic, much like Sal’s wall of Italain-Americans) named Tony (the restaurant was named Tony’s as well). Tony kept a baseball bat behind the counter to threaten any of the neighborhood “hoodlums” when they disturbed the peace in his establishment. Sadly this tale ends in tragedy as well as Tony was shot to death during a robbery sometime in the 80’s. In addition, my aunt was the Smiley character of the community. She suffers from Down Syndrome and despite her debilitating disability, she was protected by members of the community.


*Sorry that some of my edits are late. I had a few technical issues and I’m a neat freak! Also I spent Monday on a bus with no internet (NYC to Amherst)

Analyzing Conflict Between Black and White

In Do the Right Thing the conflict between blacks and whites in the neighborhood initiate due to destruction of property.

In the first situation, Buggin Out is standing on the side walk. A white man scuffs Bugging Out’s shoe and a verbal altercation proceeded. The white man was wrong for walking carelessly into Buggin Out without saying sorry. Buggin Out handled this situation very appropriately by not reacting violently like his peers were encouraging him to react. Additionally, he made it clear that destroying his property would not be tolerated if it happened again.

In the second situation, Radio Raheem entered Sal’s blasting his stereo. Entering Sal’s restaurant in this manner, after being told earlier in the film that it was not acceptable, was disrespectful.  Sal became upset and destroyed Radio Raheem’s Boombox with a baseball bat, which was inappropriate: Radio Raheem had done no damage to his physical property and he had no right to damage Raheem’s radio. This caused Radio Raheem to start a physical altercation with Sal. Radio Raheem reacted inappropriately in this situation. Although he stood up for himself and protected his property, Sal had done physical harm to him. He could’ve have damaged Sal’s property in return by “breaking a window.”

In the third situation, the police were called in to stop the fight, which had moved out into the street, and Radio Raheem was choked to death. Raheem belonged to Mookie as a friend. As a result of Raheem being taken away from him, Mookie started a riot by throwing a trash can throw Sal’s window. Mookie’s reaction is justified in the fact that it is the only justice granted to the neighborhood for Radio Raheem’s death. Also the value of Radio Raheem’s life to the community is much more than Sal’s Pizzeria. Mookie did the right thing.

More increasingly violent reactions occur as the destroyed property becomes more valuable. Shoes brought forth argument. Destruction of Boombox brought forth fist fight. Death of Radio Raheem brought forth burning down of Sal’s Pizzeria.

Do the Right Thing | Straight to the Soul of Man

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“Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cane iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static.” – Radio Raheem, Do the Right Thing (1989)

“Would you like me to tell you the little story of Right Hand, Left Hand – the story of good and evil? H-A-T-E. It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E. You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch and I’ll show you the story of life.” – Reverend Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter (1955)

In the scene where Radio Raheem bumps into Mookie on the way to Sal’s, and tells him the story of his brass knuckles, Spike Lee doesn’t so much make a reference to the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter as directly quote it. (this scene starts at about 50:00) There’s a scene in the older film in which the part-time priest, part-time serial killer Harry Powell explains to two children why he has the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Radio Raheem’s monologue matches this speech word-for-word in some places, even down to the moment where they clasp their fingers together and begin to tell “the story of life.” (see this scene on Youtube here – )  Filmmakers reference older movies all the time, but this kind of extended callback is rare. In The Night of the Hunter the speech isn’t that deep – it shows Harry Powell’s skills at oration, at deceiving the people of the town he’s come to (except for the little boy who sees through him), and it hammers home his homicidally unhinged aura.

Radio Raheem’s monologue is different. Powell puts on a show for the children, and we, the viewers, watch and are unnerved. Radio Raheem talks right to the camera. Does the direct address imply, like the montage of characters hurling ethnic slurs at the camera, that it’s Spike Lee talking to us directly? Is Lee just using Radio Raheem to wink at people who’ve seen The Night of the Hunter? I prefer to think it’s Radio Raheem that’s talking to us, that it’s quiet, untalkative, awkward, angsty Radio Raheem who finally brightens up when asked about his brass knuckles, and gets excited to make a long reference to an old movie he really likes (it’s the only time in the film we see him break into a smile!) even though he knows Mookie won’t get the reference. Maybe no-one on the block knows that he goes to see old movies sometimes.

I appreciated our discussions in class last week about the Love/Hate dichotomy, and how it may or may not apply also to the MLK/Malcolm X contrast in Smiley’s photo and the end credits. A few posts down, sburshteyn draws a link between Radio Raheem’s shadowboxing, love/hate, and the question of violence that runs underneath the whole of the film, and there’s a point she makes beautifully that I want to quote directly – “Violence, then… is not affiliated with either love or hate: rather, violence becomes the vector through which love and hate are expressed.” Radio Raheem is ultimately subjected to senseless, hateful violence; he lives in a world where the act of loving himself is already a violent act, because it strikes back at the face of a world that tells him he cannot be loved.

If we can take the Love-Hate speech to stand in for Radio Raheem’s philosophy of life, I think the film supports the idea that he sticks with it all the way to the end. Yes, he gets angry at Sal and attacks him, but I can’t look at this image below, where he’s lying down with only one of his brass knuckles visible, and not hear him say in my head “left hand Hate KO’d by Love.”

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“Wake Up”

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Who is Spike Lee telling to “wake up”?

In the beginning of Do the Right Thing, Samuel Jackson’s character says over the radio, “WAKE UP!” While he’s speaking to the audience of his radio show in the film, the focus on his mouth and the lack of other narrative devices at play, makes me believe that he’s addressing the viewer. I feel as though Do the Right Thing, is a film that aims to illuminate the interactions, tensions and aggressions at play in racially diverse neighborhood. By adding the reminder to “wake up” in the beginning of the film, Lee almost foreshadows what his film will be about–it will wake you up. Lee wants the viewer to try to understand from another person’s point of view and potentially “wake up” to notice why violence happens.

However who is Lee telling to “wake up” when Dap yells it at all of Mission College at the end of School Daze? Unlike Do the Right Thing, this “WAKE UP!” scene is delivered at the end and in a much more explicit way. Dap is literally yelling at his classmates, enemies, and administrators, as if to tell them that their actions up to that point have been misguided and wrong. Why on an HCBU campus is their so much intra-racial tension and hate? I think Dap is also addressing the viewer, though–as if to ensure the viewer is alert to the satire and senseless animosity between black students. Is Lee suggesting that the entire film was just a dream–a non-reality–that could not, or should not exist?


Also, just for fun, here is Spike Lee feeling the Bern and telling the people of South Carolina to “WAKE UP”


Do the Right Thing | Passive Viewership and the Panopticon


In discussing Do the Right Thing our class discussion turned to the concept of the panopticon and the various panoptic structures featured throughout the film. We discussed the troubling surveillance of the police as well as the all-knowing presence of Mother-Sister. All of our examples featured characters in the film exerting their panoptic power over other characters. Is it possible that the film’s characters could act as a panoptic structure over the audience?

As I watched Do the Right Thing one of the main cinematic elements that became a focus was the way that characters seemed to predominately focus their gaze into the camera, especially in scenes of dialogue. Oftentimes the viewer would be looking directly into the eyes of a character as they spoke, as if they audience were engaging in the conversation themselves. I initially read this technique as a way to pull the viewer in and perhaps even make the film have an interactive feel. It read somewhat like the use of the second person  in literature. When an audience reads a “you” sentence it’s immediately jarring and engaging.

After considering the panoptic elements of DtRt, though, and the notion of viewer passivity, the effects of having the actors stare directly into the camera became more ambiguous.

A particular examples comes 47:48 into the movie, during the scene in which the actors representing various ethnicities attack each other with a slew of slurs. This moment points to other themes in the movie: the lack of solidarity in the face of oppression, the concept of community and more. But the intense eye contact then paired with Mister Love Daddy’s sudden break and call to action contributes to a skewed concept of viewer passivity. It’s interesting that the consecutive derogatory remarks are directed at the audience, but then Mister Love Daddy’s sentiment is also directed towards the viewer. They are simultaneously attacked and rendered guilty in this moment.

It’s important, though, to keep panopticism in mind. Mister Love Daddy’s comments serve as a way of policing of the audience, acting under the assumption that the viewer experiences guilt upon hearing the exchange of insults. The immediacy of the gaze creates a panoptic effect. Viewers passively sit watching the movie, and once they are immersed in the film, it’s impossible to avoid the effect of Mister Love Daddy’s call out. Perhaps panoptic power functions differently in this example, but it is still being exerted. The audience is still rendered submissive to Spike Lee’s manipulation of gaze and dialogue throughout the film.