Do the Right Thing – Social Justice Sometimes Hurts

I watched the movie “Do the Right Thing”, A Spike Lee joint (his words, not mine) on my Netflix Instant last night; it had been sitting there on the queue for several weeks and possibly months, partly because I knew it was going to be challenging (it’s Spike Lee) and party because I was tearing through several TV shows and rather than investing in a 2 hour movie that might be challenging, I often opt for the thing that I can knock out in 30 minutes or so and keep it moving.

But anyway, “Do the Right Thing” featured a star studded cast, including the dude that I would later grow to be disgusted by as Burrell on the Wire, Danny Aiello who I only knew from Peter mentioning him on Family Guy, Spike himself, Bill Dunn, who I mostly knew as the guy who looked out for Whoopie Goldberg in Sister Act, and John Turturro.  Ok, maybe not star studded, but more studded with a bunch of “hey, it’s that guy!” actors.  The basic gist is that it’s really hot in Brooklyn and when it’s really hot, the racial tensions also rise, resulting in a catastrophic fire, all with the encouragement to do the right thing.

The idea to “do the right thing” is an interplay between the philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, MLK, of course, standing for non-violence and Malcolm X believing that violence was the right means by which to achieve racial justice and societal equity and fairness.  While counterphilosophies in some obvious ways, a photo is shown of the two hugging, dapping it up and laughing, the message being that both of these men were fighting for the same goal, racial equality, and that the listener should take both of their philosophies in, ponder the situation and then do the right thing.  To go all biblical with it, there’s a season for war and a season for peace, and everything has it’s season.

The movie is quite jarring, both for Spike’s style of filmmaking and for the subject matter.  No one is completely in the right and no one completely in the wrong, much like real life, it’s more complex than that in the film.  Movies and books, at least the weaker ones, have a tendency to tie things up in neat bows so that the consumer of the media can leave the media feeling a little better.  “Do the Right Thing” doesn’t give you that option.   The ending scene left my stomach stirred up in knots.  The actions of the young African American men, fighting to have a black person up on the “Wall of Fame” and blasting Public Enemy on a stereo in Sal’s pizza parlour feel more than a tad silly; they seem to want to fight for justice and “fight the power” (not too subtle chuck d inclusion) but don’t know how to do it for something consequential.  Sal, in a fit of rage, smashes the stereo and uses the n-word; this man, up until this point doesn’t seem to have a racist bone in his body and talks with great pride about feeding the African American neighborhood and even seems to be in love with Spike’s sister in the film.  No one feels right, but no one feels wrong.  In fact, everyone feels right and justified but everyone feels wrong.  It’s just complex.  I’m still wrestling with what happened after that tipping point moment, and may have to watch the film again to continue processing.

Also, the film confronted me with an awkward realization.   I really don’t think about how to “do the right thing” ever at all.  I know that 100%, this is my privilege talking, but I can honestly say I’ve never had to think about how to fight for justice and equity.  As a white/straight/protestant male, I am the power that is being fought.  We still hold all the keys to the doors, even though, it does seem that slowly others are getting in and I think that’s great.  But from my upbringing until now, I’ve lived a mostly homogenized life, definitely never living in a situation like Sal, where he was literally the only white guy serving an entirely black populace.  Nor can I identify with the experience of the African American folks in the film, where one step outside of the lines of the law can place you in a situation where a cop will far overstep his bounds, mostly just because he can.

I don’t think this is something that you can just remedy.  I know that people who work in my line of work like to do programs that try to help stupid white people like myself understand the experiences of minorities.  But these programs remind me of my friends in college that told me they were “going to be homeless for a summer” and my response was “no, you’re not”.  The truth is that you can’t be homeless for a summer, because if you’re like these gentlemen and come from good loving families then you can’t appreciate the experience of being homeless.  If they got tired of being homeless, they could just turn around and go home.  So, for me to try to understand the experience of a minority by trying to be like a minority for a day is completely insulting to the minority experience.  When I leave the Tunnel of Oppression, I go back to being white/male/straight/protestant.  And here’s the kicker, as long as I’m in that tunnel, I know in my head that it’s just a game, like going to a movie or something and even if it sucks, it will all be over soon.

Here’s the thought I was left with after the movie…I think we can all encourage each other to not be dummies about things.  Try to see the darkness and the weakness, and dare I say, the racism and hatred within ourselves.  So, you know, that sounds like enough.  But here was my other thought that tied along with that.  I think that when it comes to my minority brothers and sisters, I understand that sometimes you’re gonna have to do what you have to do.  Sometimes that might involve burning a place down and sometimes it might involve just being really pissed off about things that I have a hard time understanding.  But I want you to know that I’ll do my best to support you, even if I don’t understand, because I think that’s the best way that I can do my right thing.  Do yours, my friends.

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2 thoughts on “Do the Right Thing – Social Justice Sometimes Hurts

  1. Great post… I often think about a lot of these issues, having been involved with several non-profits and having friends from many different countries, cultures and walks of life. You want to help but you realize that there are some things you just don’t have answers for. I run into the clash between the MLK-Malcolm X ideologies all the time as I studies of Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution. It’s very easy to beleive in ideals, but when the rubber meats the road sometimes you burn for action. In the end, I arrive often at the point where i admit almost to being helpless, but fully willing to support the people behind the cause in whatever way I can.

    Btw, love the Ecclesiastes reference. I’ll have to check out the movie!

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