Escalation (and De-Escalation) in Do the Right Thing

The idea of escalating conflicts is explored throughout Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee) as the day escalates in temperature. Buggin’ Out’s initial dispute with Sal (at least literally) starts with a half-dollar argument over how much cheese he gets on his slice of pizza. It then grows into an argument over Black representation in Sal’s Wall of Fame, and further into an argument over Sal’s treatment of the neighborhood and the ownership of his space. Both Sal and Buggin’ believe at each step to be simply responding in kind to the other’s actions, but are in fact taking steps to worsen their conflict. Buggin’s criticism of Sal’s wall in a different context (e.g. after ordering a slice and not arguing over price and value of that slice) would be taken in a completely different manner. Sal seemingly can’t help but take his criticism as a continuation of their argument over pizza and aggressively tells him to leave instead of staying and causing trouble. This escalation continues until Mookie takes Buggin’ out of the store. Neither aggrieved party is willing to de-escalate the situation, and an outside actor in Mookie has to step in to calm things down.

We see similar situations of escalation throughout the film (Radio and the store owners, Mayor and the store owners, Sal’s sons, Mookie and his sister, and of course in Radio and Sal’s confrontation at the end). In all of these cases (maybe not the brothers’). For these situations, neither person/group is necessarily, completely in the wrong (even the police were shown earlier in the film not to “have it out” for the people in Bedsty, though their treatment of Radio Raheem shows racist tendencies). These morally grey situations seem to leave little hope – if neither party is wrong, how can we prevent situations from arising? However, Lee does depict some scenes of de-escalation.

When Buggin’s shoes get scuffed by the biker, the outside parties actually step in and deliberately raise the tension. The biker escalates the situation by being rude to Buggin’s instead of apologizing. Buggin’ has to choose to calm himself down and take no action, rather than escalating the situation further.
We  see Mother Sister and Da Mayor reconcile after years of hostility through Mayor’s gift of flowers, and Mother Sister’s recognition of Da Mayor’s positive qualities.Other resolutions: Mookie and Tina make up, the Korean store owners avoid damage at the hand of the neighborhood, even Sal and Mookie have some kind of resolution at the end in front of a mural showing The American, Jamaican, and Puerto-Rican flags all sandwiched together. In a sense, even the neighborhood’s burning of Sal’s pizza is a de-escalation relative to the loss of a human life.

This write-up was very muddy, but it is a complex topic and my own thoughts and feelings on it aren’t completely settled. I think the most important take way from Lee is that viewing conflicts like these (especially in the context of racially based conflicts) as tit-for-tat is not productive and is missing the heart of the issue. This is especially relevant today, as conversations about violence against Black people get locked into looking at the specific circumstances of these events and not on the larger issues that enable this brand of violence to occur.

Do the Right Thing: Police Brutality and Ideology

Although it’s been nearly 30 years since Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing, the film is still relevant today; unfortunately, it doesn’t feel as though much progress has been made in the last few decades regarding racial tension and police brutality. This article details some of the racially charged events in the 1980’s that inspired the film, especially the 1986 Howard Beach Incident, in which a confrontation outside a pizza parlor resulted in the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith, who was hit by a car after being chased into traffic on the Belt Parkway. The film is also dedicated to the families of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood and Michael Stewart, who were all black New Yorkers killed in the recent years before the film.

However, these types of events have even continued today; some recent events practically mirror the events in the film. Radio Raheem’s death by police chokehold is uncomfortably familiar to the the 2014 death of Eric Garner (often called the “Gentle Giant”), who was strangled to death during a police takedown. Shortly after the footage of Garner’s death went viral, Spike Lee posted a compilation video of Garner’s death and Radio Raheem’s death in the film

Warning – This video is very uncomfortable and shows Eric Garner’s death.

Unfortunately, although the use of force by police is poorly monitored/documented, it seems as though police killings/police brutality has hardly improved. This website gives some easy-to-read police violence statistics for recent years. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, 30% of black victims were unarmed, and 69% of the victims were suspected of a non-violent crime. In fact, levels of crime in a city do not even seem to have a correlation between the likelihood of police killings. Most strikingly, 99% of cases in 2015 have not resulted in the officer being convicted of a crime.

So why are we still having the same issues with police brutality that were present in a 29-year-old film? I suspect part of it is due to our society’s ideology. Beyond a police officer’s official duties, there is an ideological justification for police violence. A large portion of society expects this of police officers, and therefore gives them the authority to be violent. I recognize that there are many gray areas and case-by-case bases on this topic, but this ideology is so ingrained in our society that no matter how obviously avoidable a killing may be, someone will try to justify it. It’s admirable and important that Spike Lee steps away from this ideology to show what real experiences with racial tension and police violence feel like. It is also interesting that he does it in a way that lets the viewer reflect on their own views and beliefs without forcing them to change their ideology.

 

The Complete Permeation of Ideology in Life

This video talks about the existence of ideology in general and uses visuals from film, specifically superhero and serial killer films, to assist that. I find it interesting how ideology is described as a perspective that is specific to the individual, being fed by the individual experiences of a person while also feeding directly into the experiences that individual has in a recurring cycle. As humans, we are trapped within our own experiences and perspectives, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to completely understand how our ideologies compare with the ideologies of others. If people are unable to see the effects of their ideology and other people are clearly able to see how certain ideologies affect them, a rift forms between the two people. Ideology informs language and decisions in everyday life. Because of this, everything that exists and happens has some sort of ideology behind it. The language we use to communicate is built on perspectives of the people who created it and popularized it. The people in power make their decisions based on their ideologies, which leads to injustice. The fact that people’s experiences are limited and different from each other on the individual level, creates ideologies in everyone and about everything. I found it interesting what the video said about every sign having an ideology with it. The words, the message, and the purpose of the sign are an ideology in themselves. It made me think about the signs and words that appear in films and what they mean. Specifically, I thought about the clip we watched in class from They Live (1988). As Roddy Piper put on the glasses, he saw the messages that the signs and words around him were really saying. He saw the ideologies existing within the words and the messages innately. However, it is important to note that Piper was looking at these words through his own eyes and with his own ideologies and the film as a whole was made by people with their own experiences and ideologies attached to them. Ideology has permeated life so thoroughly that observing and dissecting ideologies of another person is affected by the ideologies of the observer.

Conflicting Ideologies in Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing, is as relevant now in America as it was when it was created nearly 30 years ago. Racial tensions remain nearly as high, or at least they seem to, in part because of the intense media focus on racial tensions. Roger Ebert interviewed Spike Lee in 1991 about many things but some questions specifically referred to Do The Right Thing, and many questions dealt with race relations in general.

Lee stated that the majority of the white viewers primarily identified Sal as the most sympathetic character, but black audiences viewed him as exploitative and racist while instead identifying more with Mookie. It does not surprise me that white and black people identify more with the white and black characters respectively as that has a cultural basis. Sal is certainly more likable than Pino. I did not find Sal to be overtly racist, however, simply proud of his Italian heritage just as Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem are proud of thiers. The riot that occurs follows much conflict, but the first destruction of property occurs when Mookie throws the trash can through the store window. Mookie seems to align in his ideals more with Malcolm X than Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolence. I found that aspect of Lee’s answer somewhat surprising. The cautious reconciliation that occurs at the end with Sal and Mookie is redeeming to both of their characters, however, and serves to show that despite each of their flaws, it is possible to move beyond the differences in race.

Tension and Realism in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing places special emphasis on the nuanced complexities of the interactions that occur across cultural boundaries on a daily basis.  His film shows the beauty and intricacy of life on a block in Bed-Stuy, almost effortlessly developing its characters with depth and complexity.  The argument of the film is centered around the largely conflicting activist arguments of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  Lee works to show that violence begets violence, while also asking his audience how else one is to respond to senseless death and institutionalized victimization.  He uses realistic characters with opinions and actions that prevent them from being completely pinned into a single box (good or bad).  In doing so, Lee points to the unavoidable complexity that comes with looking at the humanity in the emotions individuals develop.  Sal frequently shows compassion and camaraderie towards his black neighbors, but when angered he quickly slips into racial slurs that show quite the opposite.

The scene that stands apart from the linear storytelling of the rest of the film, wherein characters yell racial stereotypes towards the camera, is a direct commentary on the narrow line that seems to separate racial and cultural divides.  This scene draws attention to the thinly veiled tension that runs between the individuals cohabitating this neighborhood, a parallel to America at large.  Interestingly, the cool and collected DJ that offers the neighborhood its soundtrack is the only member featured in this scene who comes to the camera, urging everyone to cool down.  However, even this voice of reason cannot fully restrain himself in the aftermath of Radio Raheem’s death, the senseless murder an unavoidable catalyst.  The only remaining voice of reason, Da Mayor, tries to calm the crowd and preserve King’s seemingly herculean love in the face of hatred. This film gives its audience a glimpse into the constant struggle of working to make progress in the face of infuriating circumstances.

What did you think of Spike Lee’s characters?  Did they feel real?  Were their motivations and beliefs well-developed?

Do you think Spike Lee successfully communicated his argument with this film?

Starting Conversations

Spike Lee looks back upon the impact of Do the Right Thing and its impact on society in this 2014 interview.  He makes a claim that his movie simultaneously predicted events like the LA riots and started the conversation that would begin racial reform.  However, in hearing these statements, I can’t help but ask whether Lee and the host are giving more credit to this movie than it has earned.  There is no doubt that this film began talks around the nation that we were in desperate need of.  How long does a conversation last, though?  Considering none of my peers or I had seen this movie before beginning this class, I have to wonder if the conversation associated with this film died before it had run its course.

I think perhaps the more likely scenario is that the conversation got sidelined by the very events which Lee claims it predicted.  Perhaps we stopped talking about Do the Right Thing because the conflict had moved from the cinema screen to our television screens.  Can a film, which though based on reality is innately fiction, ever hope to create action?  Conversation is great for opening the eyes of the people, but conversation alone does not create change.  Maybe the populous needs to see the true oppression in order for those that are willing to take action to rise up and make change.

Ready Player One and the Myth of Total Cinema

I recently read the book and saw the movie Ready Player One. I will try my best not to spoil anything it in this post, but it has some interesting implications to the Myth of Total Cinema that we talk about in class often.

Quick background: In the future, everyone spends most of their time in a virtual reality world (The Oasis) and people are looking for an Easter Egg left behind by the developer.

The scenes from the movie are all almost completely different than how it played out in the book, but both were enjoyable and they reflected on two sides of the Myth of Total Cinema.

The movie hits the topic of not realizing you are in the Oasis strongly. Some people are equipped with suits that replicate how things feel on your body and fancy rigs to walk around on. What is more interesting is that in select scenes, there are times when players are shown throwing something to someone else in the game but from the real world (ie a person with goggles throws something invisible to someone else with goggles). This is something that sounds ridiculous because the orientation in the game is not reflected in the real world like that, yet it makes us see how closely the two worlds are to these people. Another time, a group of people standing next to each other in the real world are all killed in the game at the same time by the same strike. This further  blurs that ground between the real world and the Oasis.

The book focuses more on the personal relationships. Do you know who someone is even if you have never met them? This hits much closer to home in that we communicate often with people we never meet. It is less aligned with the Myth of Total Cinema, but it does touch on the idea some. How real are your relationships with friends if they are able to put on a different face when you talk to them? Are they the same person online as they are in person?

In my opinion, I liked both the movie and book very much and I would recommend both.

The consistent yelling in Do The Right Thing

The characters do a lot to anger each other throughout the film, but the way it is filmed makes the viewer more involved. The most obvious of the techniques used are the shots when people are yelling directly into the camera and at the viewer. Most of the time this happens, the person yelling doesn’t have a point to get across, they are just angry and shouting. To a viewer, getting yelled at for no reason about nothing made me uncomfortable, but we are forced to take it like the characters in the story.

In the picture, these happened back to back and are obviously talking about a person/group but the audience feels attacked in a way because it feels it is still directed at us or we feel involved someway. The first person view also gives us more emotion during the “20 ‘D’ batteries” scene when Radio Raheem is yelling at the camera at a dramatic angle to make us feel small.

On the flip side of being yelled at, there is an element of humor that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Once the viewer gets past the fact they are being yelled at about nothing, they start listening to what the person is saying and it is so ridiculous that it becomes humorous.  Obviously this humor is not for everyone. It took me a while to get past the phase of “stop yelling at me!” and get to just laughing at what they were yelling about. It really was not until the afterwards when watching the “20’D’ batteries” scene again that is struck me how hilarious the whole exchange was.

To me, it felt odd to have a film go from making me uncomfortable and angry to making me laugh after re-watching some scenes. For others, I would like to hear your initial reactions to all the shouting and yelling, and if those reactions changed throughout the film or afterwards. Do you think it changes the way you might feel as a viewer after watching the movie multiple times? Does the viewer getting yelled at build more sympathy for the characters in the story when they get yelled at, or does it desensitize us to it more to whats going on?

“Do the right thing” – But what is right?

While walking out the room after seeing this movie, all I could think was that how similar the film mimicked our current news. How is it after almost 30 years the story is still the same? Society seems to pride itself in so many ways that we have grown and evolved from times like these, where there was such a divide,  but have we? We still live in a world were racial issues are prevalent and we even have our own modern slogan to show for it, “Black Lives Matter”.

Why is are there those who are  still are unable to see that people are just people? No matter their race, religion, ethnicity or gender, we are all the same. I forget sometimes how much inequity there that exists in the world outside the bubble that I live in, because I am surrounded by progressive minds that look beyond the color of someone’s skin. At Georgia Tech we have such a wide range of people and so that bigotry shown in “Do The Right Thing” seems to be non-existent. However, even in 2018 we have police brutality and inequality between race and gender in all sectors of our society. We are still at the point where in the United States we were amazed that we finally had an African American president! This shocks me because why should it matter what  someone’s race is as long as they are qualified to do their job?

I may have a varying view from many others  because I am more or less a pacifist. To me violence and intolerance of others seems like something that would be left in the Middle Ages, because  how can there be an overarching idea in society that one group of people is better than another? How is judgement due on a person because of something (like skin color) that they can’t change? To me, it seems like pure happenstance that we are placed where we are in the world. Say I was in another person’s position, I wouldn’t want to be treated so unjustly? The concept of empathizing  with others might not come naturally to everyone, but violence, in my mind is never the answer. All extreme force does is teach that the powerful deserve the authority and thus have the ability to oppress the weak, when instead we should help those less fortunate than ourselves.

Now, getting down from my soap box and back from that tangent, how does someone even know what the right thing to do is? The title of the movie seems to say it as a statement, that one must do the right thing, but that can be construed in numerous ways depending on a person’s place in the world. In the film, many of the characters seemed to believe they were doing the right thing even thought they all had different opinions on what was correct. Which makes the situation even more complicated when you bring violent acts into the matter. Once violence, such a permanent  response, is enacted there is not an easy way to turn back. Which is why, the movie  ending perturbed me so, because neither side seemed to have a completely  clear vision of the situation but it got even more muddled once the first punch was thrown. Violence escalated the situation to a detrimental point, creating a line that could not be returned form once crossed.

My opinion on the final two credit quotes is probably clear. I believe in the efforts of peaceful protest. I know that not all can be achieved through simple negotiations, but it is certainly  a starting point so that some understand of both sides can be reached. I hope that because as a society, since we thus far have been nescient or maybe just neglect to the facts, we might be to finally learn from the past and stop making these same mistakes. To understand that race should not be a factor to divide, because those superficial characteristics are not what make a person who they are.

(*Extra viewer response)