Radio Raheem Is a Broken Record
December 13, 2014 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Do the Right Thing wasn’t ahead of its time. It was behind its time, and it’s ahead of ours. It came out in the summer of 1989, six months before Driving Miss Daisy, but if you can imagine it without hip-hop, it could have come out in 1939 alongside Gone with the Wind; without color, in 1929 with The Jazz Singer; without sound, 1915 and The Birth of a Nation. If you updated the soundtrack and the fashion a bit and released it next week, critics would praise its timeliness and how its depiction of police brutality and racial tension captures the angry zeitgeist surrounding the recent killings of unarmed black civilians by police officers. Some might even predict that it would ultimately end up feeling dated, as some did 25 years ago. If only. - Lessons from Do the Right Thing on Its 25th Anniversary
posted by Artw (34 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't gotten all the way through it yet but it seems like most of this piece is terrific pull quotes.

So many moving, sympathetic, and elaborate readings of the characters.
posted by entropone at 3:13 PM on December 13, 2014

Batman won an Oscar in 1989. Do the Right Thing wasn't even nominated in any category. I remember walking out of the theater after that movie thinking it was the best film I'd seen in a really long time. Guess we weren't ready for it back then, either.
posted by Chuffy at 3:15 PM on December 13, 2014 [18 favorites]

I went to the anniversary screening at BAM this summer, and something about the film struck me for the first time.

There's a lot of speculation about why Mookie shouts "HATE!" before he throws the trash can through the window. But this time, when I saw it, I flashed back to Radio Raheem's "love vs. hate" speech earlier; in that speech, Raheem suggests that love always wins in the end. But it struck me that maybe, then, Mookie was shouting out a cry of despair that Raheem was wrong and that hate sometimes wins after all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:16 PM on December 13, 2014 [15 favorites]

The thing that impressed me was, when Sal smashes that boom box, it seemed to me actually worse and more shocking than if he had cracked Radio Raheem's skull instead. That's some good filmic storytelling.
posted by thelonius at 3:19 PM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm embarrassed to say that I at first thought this was about the song by Simply Red, and that it must have unknown-to-me depths.

I've never heard of this film before, but I read the article. Not a lot's changed in 25 years, it seems.
posted by bunderful at 4:01 PM on December 13, 2014

There's something very true about the central idea that the world of Do the Right Thing is cartoonish. It makes it easy to understand on a gut level. I saw the film when I was a nine or ten. My babysitter had to watch it for class and let me watch it too. I can't say that I understood it on an intellectual level, but the frequency with which scenes from that film would return to my head in my teens when I, a kid living in Iceland, would try to think through issues of race, shows that it really affected my understanding of race and racism. I don't know if I even remembered what that film was or whether I even knew it was all from one film. I can't say that I always reached smart conclusions, but having seen Do the Right Thing certainly helped. Also, a couple of years later the first album I really got into that wasn't in my parents collection was Fear of a Black Planet (which I picked up at a library because it looked science fiction themed, but Do the Right Thing probably prepared me for that, too).
posted by Kattullus at 4:10 PM on December 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

I was in high school when this came out, and felt I had to see it for how much my white friends hated it (their major complaint being that the movie was "unfair" in a way they never really specified). As I watched, I saw a lot of parallels to Baltimore; or more specifically, my neighborhood, which was comprised of Italians, Koreans, Central Americans, a smattering of non-specific white people but was predominantly African-American.

As I eased into, as the author describes, the varied cast, slice-of-life pacing and moments of humor (I will never forget the Dramatic Zoom on the scuff left on Buggin Out's shoe by the Celtics guy's bike), the story very quickly tailspinned into something else entirely. It left me feeling confused, angry, and questioning. It really shook me, and for weeks afterward had to talk about it with anyone who would listen. No discussion I ever had about this movie satisfied me; it only left me feeling still rattled.

Looking back now, and reading this excellent review, I feel that a major part of what shook me about this movie is exactly the lack of a neat, tidy, uncomplicated dynamic between the characters that the author describes. Everything is so tenuous, everything can completely fall apart, and once certain things are set in motion, there's no turning back from the horrible conclusion that looms ahead. It scared me, and scares me still.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 4:46 PM on December 13, 2014 [21 favorites]

I remember reading reviews of the time, and being astonished at the number of white critics that would recount (and decry) the trashing of Sal's but not even mention Radio Raheem getting choked out.
posted by ShawnStruck at 4:46 PM on December 13, 2014 [14 favorites]

Do the Right Thing wasn't even nominated in any category. I remember walking out of the theater after that movie thinking it was the best film I'd seen in a really long time. Guess we weren't ready for it back then, either.

Believe it or not, during the Oscars Kim Basinger ripped the Academy a new one for overlooking the film
posted by Renoroc at 5:29 PM on December 13, 2014 [22 favorites]

This article was fantastic and you should all go see Dear White People, arguably Do the Right Thing's successor. At least to this half-black, Ivy-educated kid. Different milieu, same complexity.
posted by dame at 5:35 PM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

This was a really good essay. The last line is excellent and sad. Thanks for posting it!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:06 PM on December 13, 2014

Saw it (in glorious 35mm) last spring at EbertFest with Spike answering questions afterward. It's scary how relevant it still is.
posted by octothorpe at 6:48 PM on December 13, 2014

There's so much I love about the film. Whenever I think about it, my mind always drifts to the daytime scenes, the brightness and heat, the colors, the whole funky vibe of the neighborhood and Love Daddy - it's like I subconsciously block out the hate and tragedy. Every time I watch it, the ending upsets me for the obvious reason, but also because it ruins all the visual beauty of the day.
posted by davebush at 6:50 PM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is an outstanding piece of critical writing. I want to take issue with the author's claim that "the idea that everybody is racist [is] a cynical nugget that disingenuously levels the playing field and helps no one." The idea can be used in a cynical way, but it doesn't have to be; and I think it can be a very helpful idea. I don't think the idea necessarily makes whites "metonyms of the white power structure." The idea that everyone is tainted by their racist society can counter the idea that individuals are independent of social structures. And so it challenges people with sincere anti-racist commitments to become individuals in a more effective sense than simply having good wills or clear consciences--which is to say, to become individuals by promoting justice by changing racist social institutions. I would say the only true individuality is the one won (again and again) through ongoing interaction with a social environment that promotes justice. Lee's repeated use of dialectical elements, which the author remarks, shows just such a struggle and how difficult it is. I'd like to take the movie as a challenge to keep fighting the repeating cycle of racist violence by becoming individuals in a sense that goes beyond the sort of atomistic or essentialist or static sense of individuality.
posted by mc2000 at 7:00 PM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Thanks for this link, Artw. I'd never seen the movie before but went ahead and checked it out based on the pullquote from the article. It absolutely does not feel dated in any way even to a fresh viewer in 2014. I think the points about the timelessness are right on. It was one of the best films I've ever seen. There are layers upon layers and I think this is one I would gladly rewatch to appreciate more of them.

This, of course, is the narrative we always get in the United States. The story of the black person who reacts to racist violence is privileged over the story of the black person destroyed by it, with riots and the destruction of white property treated as conclusions rather than epilogues. The narrative doesn’t make room for the question of whether or not the cop did the right thing.

Not even a trial.

Also, the article taught me a new word.

noun: synecdoche; plural noun: synecdoches

a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in Cleveland won by six runs (meaning “Cleveland's baseball team”).

The link between anger and racism throbs under the entire film, a psychosocial premise that would seem a bit simplistic if it weren’t for Lee’s empathy for his characters. In the confrontation at the pizzeria, Sal is being totally sincere when he calls Public Enemy “jungle music” and calls Buggin’ Out a “nigger,” but he’s no less sincere in earlier, calmer scenes when he says how proud he is that the local kids grew up eating his food and that he thinks of Mookie as his son

It really was tragic, because you could tell Sal really believed what he was saying. It wasn't an act, it wasn't, "Some of my best friends are black...", he really believed it. But when anger and hate took over he still lost his head. And at that point, it's too late:

Sal’s personal prejudice, all too human in its emotional immediacy, is overtaken by the impersonal institution of racism, a toxic element in the atmosphere as oppressive as the heat wave and as difficult to pinpoint.

posted by Drinky Die at 7:04 PM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

He makes some truly excellent points but I wish some of the language weren't quite so film-class-final-paper. Leitmotif? Check. Mise-en-scène? Check. Denouement? Check. Synecdoche and metonym? Check. Using the word "narrative" 20+ times? Check.

That aside, I particularly enjoyed the observation that tucked in between the broad stereotypes, Lee was meaningfully imbuing his characters with complex, sophisticated tastes and perspectives. In the case of Radio Raheem, he was a real human being who knew something about old movies, not just a caricature of a lumbering street brute who deserved to die because, after all, he was walking in the middle of the street, I mean, he was selling unlicensed cigarettes, I mean, his music was too loud.

With its seemingly deliberate blend of the Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Jordan Davis situations, Do the Right Thing would be almost certainly be deemed "too on the nose" if it had just been released last week.
posted by xigxag at 7:36 PM on December 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

I want to take issue with the author's claim that "the idea that everybody is racist [is] a cynical nugget that disingenuously levels the playing field and helps no one." The idea can be used in a cynical way, but it doesn't have to be; and I think it can be a very helpful idea. I don't think the idea necessarily makes whites "metonyms of the white power structure."

I think you've misread the passage you're quoting. I don't think the writer thinks the idea that everybody is racist necessarily makes whites metonyms, etc., either, any more than you do. He's describing two separate conventional shortcuts which Do The Right Thing avoids.
Lesser films that have copied Do the Right Thing, like Paul Haggis’ cheesy and pretentious Crash, have reduced much of this material to the simple idea that everybody is racist, a cynical nugget that disingenuously levels the playing field and helps no one. Lee refuses to take the easy way out and make his white character metonyms of the white power structure from which they passively benefit.
The point of the first sentence is that the idea that everybody is racist is a cynical nugget in Crash and movies like it, bad, inartistic movies with such individualistic analyses of racism in America that they fail to depict how racism in America really works. The systemic legal privileging of white people's bigotry against people of color hardly appears in such movies. This willful blindness to systemic white supremacy is one easy way out of the artistic difficulties of depicting American racism, and Do The Right Thing avoids it.

The point of the second sentence is that Do The Right Thing also avoids another easy way out, distinct from the first, but also appearing in bad movies about American racism: that of identifying its white characters with the white power structure from which they passively benefit, which is an extremely boring oversimplification.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:45 PM on December 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

The use of Metonymy, more precise, synecdoche is quite apt. It helps to convey to the viewer indefinable connections, those moments when we understand but know not why.

That's why the title is so great.
posted by clavdivs at 7:47 PM on December 13, 2014

For people who have thought more about the movie...what exactly was Lee trying to communicate with Sal's crush on Jade? It was a very hard scene to watch because what was going on was so obviously creepy beyond belief, but at the same time it felt like he was genuinely admiring of her, it didn't come off to me like he was fetishizing her. Is it foreshadowing that his base instincts overwhelm his intellect or am I totally off target with how I read this?
posted by Drinky Die at 7:52 PM on December 13, 2014

This presumes Sal had an intellect.
posted by clavdivs at 8:33 PM on December 13, 2014

And what exactly did she feel towards him...? She seemed a very smart character who would know what was going on. This could absolutely not have been the first time based on the reactions of everybody else present. She did not like being told not to come back. What exactly was she thinking? I seriously can't put myself in the headspace to figure it out. In every other scene in the movie she struck me as the voice of reason.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:41 PM on December 13, 2014

is that a question or an observation? If both I would think to observe more and re-phrase the question. For example: she seemed
What draws you to a conclusion about the characters morality, you have already stated your reason, her Sudden lack of reason.
Perhaps conflicion is more on track to what I think your saying.
posted by clavdivs at 11:07 PM on December 13, 2014

amazing article about a great film. thanks for posting
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:14 AM on December 14, 2014

See, that's one of the reasons DTRT is possibly my all time favorite film: I'm still finding new layers.

I was 15 and subconsciously seeking a rebel identity when it came out. So it makes perfect sense that I would have seen the martyred Radio Raheem as, like, a steely voice of Black righteousness, and not an insecure, vulnerable dude gathering tough-guy cultural signifiers around himself like armor. That's exactly what I was doing, right?

I should thank my mom daily for not letting me wear one of those leather Africa medallions like I wanted to. Sheesh.

So anyway, I am seriously planning to have a DTRT dinner-and-a-movie party soon. I have some pals who run some activities at a Black arts and community center nearby and I'm pretty sure they'd be down to host it. Doesn't that sound like a pretty good idea?
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 6:23 AM on December 14, 2014 [12 favorites]

I think seeing Sal's crush on Jade as "creepy beyond belief" stems from the influence of Lee's reaction shots of Mookie and Pino. Those shots tell us they think it's creepy, but it's more about racism than the age difference. It's really nothing more than an older man with a crush on a younger woman, but Lee has cleverly made us see it through racist eyes.
posted by davebush at 7:43 AM on December 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Previously, on Metafilter.
posted by magstheaxe at 8:55 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like that the person demanding black faces on the wall was played by a man named Giancarlo Esposito. Finding some black skinned Italians seemed like the easiest compromise, a more enlightened Sal would have considered it. (Also I did not realize he was also Gus until looking at the IMDB)
posted by Drinky Die at 9:25 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was a really interesting article, and makes me want to watch DTRT again for the first time in years. One quibble, though: Raheem doesn't wear brass knuckles, does he? If I recall correctly, he wore 4-finger rings, which are a pretty far cry from brass knuckles.
posted by still bill at 2:29 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd say the difference between his LOVE HATE set and brass knuckles is a cracked versus a shattered eyesocket, rather than a far cry.

Fight the Power is the apex of the first big wave of the hip hop revolution. There may not be a song that has that particular amped up quality recorded for another generation.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 5:20 PM on December 14, 2014

The reason they're totally different is that brass knuckles are made for beating the brakes of someone whereas 4-finger rings were just a big fashion thing in the era (and would likely break if you tried to hit something with them). So saying someone wore or carried brass knuckles says something more about the wearer. Saying that Raheem wore brass knuckles makes him into something he isn't. He wasn't looking for a fight or an excuse, as anyone carrying brass knuckles certainly is. If someone says "you know Raheem? Big dude with 4-finger rings?" I will understand Raheem to be a dude into 80s-90s east coast hiphop fashion. If someone says "you know Raheem? Big dude who always wears brass knuckles?" I will understand Raheem to be an eager fighter and someone interested in extreme violence. To me, one of those is the Raheem in DTRT.
posted by still bill at 1:16 AM on December 15, 2014

I wonder if the brass knuckles/4 finger ring thing wasn't intentional at that, because we aren't the only people who'd confuse the difference between the two - Sal, and the cops who killed Raheem,would be confused too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:44 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Totally possible! I personally never read the rings as menacing or part of a tough guy persona, but perhaps that's just because when the movie came out, I was totally obsessed with that style and fashion, so they just read to me as 'oh cool, rings like the type I'd love to have but my parents would never allow!'
posted by still bill at 5:53 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

That was a really good piece! DtRT is an endlessly unpackable film---so sophisticated in its techniques, so complex in its message. I particularly appreciated what they had to say about the "reset" at the end. And about Mookie as a protagonist, but no hero---our last sight of the guy is him on his knees, scrambling for money. For all of Lee's active filmmaking, he favors passive protagonists---School Daze, Mo' Better Blues, all the way up to Summer of Sam, Lee has a taste for protagonists who drift along the current of events, only acting when their back is against the wall and then lashing out without much thought.

I was, like a lot of people, thinking about DtRT in light of recent events, and one thing that struck me... When Raheem is being killed, there's an obviously post-dubbed bit of dialogue from another cop, saying "He's had enough. Put him down." Lee seems to have added it to keep things complicated, so we couldn't see even the cops as a faceless, murderous mass. But considering the behavior of all the other cops on the Eric Garner tape, it seems like the most unrealistic moment in the movie.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:48 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

After my first viewing sometime after it opened I couldn't help comparing in tone and narrative structure to 'It's a Wonderful Life'..utterly American and local.
posted by judson at 9:09 AM on December 15, 2014

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