Saturday, July 4, 2015

Mookie and the Right Thing

Spike Lee may "privilege morality over politics" as Douglas Kellner argues in "Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in the Films of Spike Lee," but morality is far from black and white in Do The Right Thing. Neither morality, politics or racism is given an easy solution because, Lee would argue, there isn't one. Radio Raheem, in adopting the "love/hate" speech from The Night of the Hunter portrays a worldview that isn't exactly cut and dry (let's not forget Rev. Powell is one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time). He ends his speech saying, "if I love you, I love you. But if I hate you..." and never finishes the thought. Do the Right Thing may be a postmodern morality play, but Mookie is an everyman character: he doesn't know how to respond in this exchange with Radio Raheem saying only, "well, there you have it: love and hate," baffled by Radio Raheem's rant.

Radio Raheem seems to be purporting the MLK philosophy that love can conquer societal hate, and this thought it what Mookie has a difficult time reconciling after Radio Raheem's death. Mookie throws the trash can through the window of Sal's Famous, and I don't believe it has anything to do with protecting Sal's family. Mookie screams "HATE!" as he hurls that can and, with the act, completes the ellipses of Radio Raheem's statement. Kellner seems to criticize Lee for failing to spell how how "a system of exploitation oppresses Black," as if racism were that clear-cut. 
Mookie throws that trash can because of this system, but also because of how this system affects the individual. In the moment, Sal's Famous represented another white establishment entering the Black community for economic gain despite harboring racist attitudes toward the very community it exploits. No, Sal was not directly responsible for the death of Radio Raheem, but these actions all occurred through a thread of hate. Sal hating the Black community he served is only a step (through the narrative) of the police officers' disregard for Black lives. Mookie's destruction of property changes the conversation, trying to get the community to "wake up" (like the moral of School Daze) to the system of hate in their community. 

As we have seen recently in Ferguson and Baltimore, America still gets very hung up on the destruction of private property and neglectful of human lives. Mookie did the right thing, not in the act itself, but in forcing the conversation to be one about the larger community issues and systematic racism rather than eye-for-an-eye violence. It is not surprising to me that many people still don't understand why Mookie did what he did when we can turn on the news and, instead of hearing outrage over the death of Freddie Gray, presidential candidates instead Tweet "Blatant and rampant property destruction in Baltimore as the police stand by and watch. Should be a lesson on how NOT to handle riots. SAD!"

And it is sad in Do the Right Thing, too. Mookie and Sal's morning after is not a time of rejoicing, but they come to a sort of ambiguous understanding: Sal tries to play the martyr, bemoaning the store he built with his "bare hands." Mookie's response to what that means is, "it means you owe me $250." That is to say, private enterprise doesn't trump social responsibility. Sal has a debt to the Black community he serves.
Mookie wasn't deliberately directing attention away from Sal and his sons in order to protect them. When the conflict arises, Mookie is standing alongside Sal and his sons while the community looks at them with disdain. This is where Mookie trades sides in disassociation. This is partially self-preservation, but more important, it is Mookie's decision to take a very political stance.

Mookie seems like the kind of character who would let Sal hear about it if he was acting heroically in order to save Sal's family. When the two discuss the night's events the next morning, Sal accuses Mookie of ruining the place and Mookie says nothing like "you should be thanking me for saving your ass out there" and, furthermore, Sal doesn't interpret Mookie as doing anything other than escalating the situation. He blames Mookie for the window whose response is "motherfuck the window. Radio Raheem is dead." These few words say everything about Mookie's intentions. Mookie may not have participated in any violence directed at Sal and his sons (I don't think most of the characters in the film would have, I don't think many of the protestors in Baltimore today would have), but it's difficult to read his actions in the scene as deliberately deflecting attention away from Sal. 

Furthermore, it isn't clear Spike Lee is concerned with dichotomous morality in the situation. Love/hate are presented like Martin/Malcolm: neither has all the answers. Mookie's actions suggest that the philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X are only ethereal until you're forced into a real-world situation. Their photos burning together inside Sal's Famous isn't so much to say that their philosophies are antiquated, but that we need to act rather than merely pontificate. The film challenges us to do, not buy a photo or subscribe to a given ideology. Our goal should be a common one and there isn't a prescribed road to attain it. By "doing a thing" in the name of fighting against a disenfranchising system and by opening social eyes to lives mattering more than property, Mookie did do the right thing. He acted.

Mookie didn't do the best "relative" or "situational" thing.  Yes, Do the Right Thing is a postmodern work and, undoubtedly, a nihilist fog surrounds the community in terms of dealing with systematic racism, but Lee lack of clear-cut answers doesn't suggest he thinks morality is relative. The title of the film is a call to action and not one to be taken ironically. Sal's Famous was a symbol, but also a real place. Radio Raheem was not a symbol, he was a human life. Doing the right thing is not a matter of ineffable philosophy (no matter the good intentions behind King or Malcolm X), it's a matter of taking action in the real world against injustice.

The film may not be overtly political (in the binary sense), but it's important to note that it ends with Mister Senor Love Daddy saying the city's Mayor will get to the bottom of the dispute because "the city of New York will not let property be destroyed by anyone." Radio Raheem is not in the news or the purview of the city. Black lives do not matter here. That's why the Love Daddy follows the news by encouraging people to register to vote. The system is broken, it disenfranchises Black, and, despite Kellner's essay, that is a very political message. It would not be nearly as powerful if Lee gave a trite explanation as to how to solve the nation's racist ills. Spike Lee doesn't provide political answers to solving the race problem because its solution is beyond the realm of politics and he doesn't see the end of racism occurring in his lifetime. I tend to agree on both accounts.

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