Do the Right Thing. Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee.
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 11, No. 4, 1989, p. 26
A scene late in Spike Lee’s movie, Do Thc Right Thing, depicts white firefighters trying to hose down the blazes at Sal’s Pizzeria, torched earlier in a small riot in the Bedford-Stuyvesant part of Brooklyn. While the firefighters are trying to save the building and the neighborhood, its black residents are throwing things at and fighting with the white firemen.
When I came out of the movie house last Saturday afternoon, I thought about another firefighter I had seen on television earlier, a member of the Birmingham Fire Department who was one of the white plaintiffs in the recent U. S. Supreme Court case that now gives white firefighters a belated opportunity to challenge that city’s affirmative action plan. When asked why he opposed the plan to remedy past discrimination against blacks, the white firefighter said, “I feel I’m paying the price for something I had nothing to do with.”
It’s a line that Spike Lee should have used, and one his film acknowledges as fundamental in the attitude of many whites on issues of race relations today. A couple of whites in the film are clear bigots, but the only white who really suffers is Sal, the Italian owner of the pizza parlour who, over 25 years, has grown to care deeply about the neighborhood and some of its people. His store gets burnt, not for anything he does directly, but because a white policeman kills the black youth with whom Sal had had a fight earlier.
Like the firefighters, perhaps–in the film and in Birmingham–Sal thinks of himself as a victim of something he had nothing to do with. He has provided respectful service to the black community for decades; he didn’t trespass on someone else’s property and cause a disturbance as did the slain black youth; he didn’t call the police; he didn’t kill the youngster.
Yet it was his store that was trashed by rioters.
In this dramatic setup, Lee captures accurately the current standoff of race relations in every major urban area on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. Today, the underclass of blacks continues to grow, usually within unnoticed isolated areas of our central cities. Some places have become literally no middle-aged man’s land; all are populated by many who are virtually helpless to improve greatly their own circumstances through their own efforts. On the other hand, many whites–near and far from the ghettos–don’t see why we should pay the price for fundamentally helping the underclass. After all, as individuals we go to work and pay our taxes; we didn’t create the ghettos; we, don’t discriminate against blacks in our own personal lives’ Some of us even try to help blacks whom we consider particularly deserving.
In the film, as in urban life, older blacks who have lived through the terror of white violence demonstrate genuine remorse after the burning. The opinions of most younger residents are embodied in the voice of Mookie, Sal’s black deliveryman (played by Spike Lee) who explains the burning essentially as a justifiable reaction to the white policeman’s killing. It’s a perspective that probably seems grossly unfair, if not outrageous, to many whites who cannot believe that we should be held responsible for the bigotry of other whites. To be sure, it is a dangerous equation for people to reach on the streets of any peaceful society. Yet, Mookie knows how fairness in Bed-Stuy works: Sal has insurance; most of his damages will be recovered. His pride and selfworth, more than his pocketbook or person, have been hurt while, in fact, a black youth has died.
The white mayor will have a blue ribbon panel investigate the disturbance, not the killing.
Admittedly oversimple, the film’s conclusion is too much a reflection on our society in places like Bed-Stuy for comfort or condemnation: It is usually the white majority who elects presidents, senators, governors, legislators, and, in most cities, mayors whose policies and appointments allow racism and racial discrimination to continue in places like our police and fire departments, and it is primarily white indifference in our society that permits a new generation of blacks to be born into the deadend and hopelessness of an underclass. For that, Spike Lee bluntly suggests we must all pay the price, one way or the other, one time or another. And, God help us, he is right.
Steve Suitts is publisher of Southern Changes and the executive director of the Southern Regional Council.