Do the Right Thing is the most incendiary, honest, and unflinching portrait of race relations in American film history. Most importantly, the film avoids the trap of suggesting that racial tensions exist entirely within a vacuum constructed on the concept of prejudice as some kind of genetic predisposition. It may be all too easy for viewers of
Do the Right Thing to overlook the fact that from what can be gathered, this multiracial community in New York City for the most part seems to have gotten along quite well for decades. The violence escalates not as a result of mindless racial hatred; the encroaching racism is ignited by the disparity in economic power between the haves and have-nots. The opening credits set the stage for a showdown with the subversive lyrics to the rap song “Fight the Power.” The power will wind up being Sal, the businessman, and the police who are charged with the protecting the interest of business rather than the people’s rights.
The neighborhood is overwhelmingly African-American, yet the only two businesses that are seen are the pizzeria owned by whites and the market store owned by Koreans. It is a simple case of the consumers being alienated from the producers who have all the power. “Sal here gives voice to one of the ideological tropes through which racist, consumption-driven ‘white Americanism’ constructs its own moral self-justification: the specious conflation of the owner’s self-serving economic interest in the subject-as-consumer with a paternalistic emotional interest in the subject-as-child” (Mckelly). What Mckelly is driving at is that the film dares to suggest that racial tensions in American are constructed upon a solid foundation of disempowerment that also confuses the producer/consumer relationship as an extension of all societal relationships. Sal views his customers not with the explicit racism of his son Pino, but with an implicit racism that is allowed as one of the privileges of ownership, just as putting up photos only of white heroes is a privilege.
Do the Right Thing postulates that racism is inextricably intertwined with the paternalistic component inherent in capitalism. The fact that it is Mookie and not Buggin-Out who finally starts the riots by tossing the garbage can through pizzeria window can be read just as easily as rebellion against the father as it can a racist awakening against the white-controlled power structure.
Do the Right Thing quite obviously could never have been made until the 1980s, or at least the 1970s, and not just because of the language or the fact that showing blacks talking to white business owners would have been inconceivable. The film operates on a level of intensity that forces the audience to address the issues of personal racism and prejudice. As such, it is a model example of a movie that speaks to issues that have been in play throughout American history, but had to wait until the time was right to be made. That Do the Right Thing is twenty years old, but feels as if it could be taking place today, says much about how little has changed. That no other film has even come close to replacing it as the definitive cinematic statement on racism in America may say even more.
Source: Mckelly, James C. “The Double Truth, Ruth: ‘Do the Right Thing’ and the Culture of Ambiguity.” African American Review 32.2 (1998): 215+