"Do the Right Thing"
Arts & Culture

In Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed 1989 film Do the Right Thing, racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood boil over, ending with the killing of an unarmed Black teenager by a White police officer.

In the climax of director Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed 1989 film Do the Right Thing, a fight breaks out in a Bedford-Stuyvesant pizza parlor between local Black residents and the Italian owners of the establishment. Soon after two police officers arrive on the scene, one of them kills—via choke-hold, and with assistance from the other officer as well as one other plain-clothes man—Radio Raheem, an unarmed Black character played by Bill Nunn.(1) In the moments of anger and disbelief that immediately follow this murder, the film’s main character, Mookie (played by Lee himself), throws a trash can through the parlor’s window, prompting an escalation in which many characters are injured, the building is set on fire, and firefighters eventually turn their hoses on the gathered crowd instead of the flames.

Of note in this scene is Lee’s reversal of Kelling and Wilson’s proposition: rather than serious crime, perpetrated by disinvested vagrants or community members with malicious intent, following the petty crime of breaking windows, here the destruction of property in the form of broken windows follows serious crime — crime committed not by community members but by the police themselves. This broken window, itself precipitated by the murder of innocent and unarmed Raheem, precipitates not just the weaponization of the fire hoses toward those protesting, but also critical reception of the film at the time that focused largely on the ostensible danger such a representation posed for what were deemed impressionable Black viewers.(2)

Note: Though all categories are far from “complete,” the sources originally selected by the Buell Center research team and comprising the category of “Arts & Culture” deserve particular acknowledgement as such. Many songs were drawn from Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists, by Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, and Jeff Mao (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999). Limited by time and individual expertise, the Center’s hope was always that subsequent contributors might build out all categories (and add their own)—“Arts & Culture” especially.

Further Reading
  1. This murder was based on the 1983 murder of Michael Stewart by the NYPD Transit Police. See Mekado Murphy, “‘Do the Right Thing’ | Anatomy of a Scene,” New York Times, August 16, 2019, link.

  2. Jason Bailey, “When Spike Lee Became Scary,” The Atlantic, August 22, 2012, link.

Entry Author
Buell Center (jrm2031)