Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee has gone down in history as one of the best films of all time. And this not mainly thanks to the filmmaking techniques or incredible performances which are undoubtedly stellar and genius;
But its brilliant portrayal and exploration of the film’s main theme in what has now become a major reference point when discussing film themes in screenwriting.
This is what, to my own understanding, makes the movie ever so relevant, even three decades after its release. And here is how I think it worked in Lee’s screenplay.
Lee’s spectrum approach to themes
First of all, there is clarity of the movie’s main question. We are able to recognize it as soon as we get along with the start of the movie, however stylized it was revealed;
But it is how the movie tackles that main question that I find most outstanding.
Do the Right Thing is a film about tension. Race tension in workplaces, and how it is clouded by yet another unbearable heat in the world surrounding it.
This tension holds to the film answering its titular question: what is the right thing?
Where the average movie gives you the main answer to its main question — It’s either this or that — Do The Right Thing, presented us with many possibilities and an almost fair portrayal of all of them. It used a wide spectrum of perspectives to not just proffer an answer–
but many answers.
This brings us to consider the two main schools of thought evident in the film: that of Martin Luther King vs Malcolm X’s.
Peaceful demonstrations vs violent action.
Spike Lee used the story’s characters to portray these different perspectives.
For instance, Da Mayor seeks peace in the community and wants things to stay calm. He is also nostalgic for the way things used to be and tends to gloss over major events as they happen.
But Buggin’ Out, a unique friend to our main protagonist Mookie seeks for more confrontational solutions. He [Buggin’ Out] prefers to speak out against issues rather than sweep them under the rug.
Both of them are answers, neither of them is said to be the right one.
When the climax hits in the film, Da Mayor is the one who worries more about keeping the peace than he is about the fact that murder just took place in his community, in cold blood.
On the other hand, Buggin’ is a character that doesn’t know how to choose his battles; this is why he is known to “bug out” about things that don’t require as much passion.
So, when biker steps on his shoes, his behaviour, which would lead us to the fatal climax in the story, could be seen as excessive.
And then there is a third answer to this question which is apathy. Do nothing.
We see it in the many characters that are seen to simply go about their day-to-day. The morning after the fire and murder, that’s exactly what they do again. The community moves on, but without truly dealing with the events of the night before.
Nothing feels resolved, or answered, even though we as the audience are given many answers and resolutions.
In the end, a pizzeria is burned down, a black man is killed, and a pizza delivery boy loses his job. So, did any of them, do the right things leading them to their ends? Or were they all wrong?
The film leaves answering that to the audience.
Another thing to consider when doing themes such as this is raw honesty. Do the Right Thing gave us an honest view of a community with flawed characters and neighbours.
Truly, the characters -having both strengths and flaws and all the colours in them – are part of what makes this film work so well.
For example, In the beginning, Sal, the owner of the pizzeria, appears to be a kind man, but by the end, we see how kindness turns when pushed to a limit.
And Mookie, our main who for the most part is apathetic until his friend is dead at his feet.
This movie shows that racism is not a case of black and white. But that It is about all of us moving through society and making choices every day. It’s about the sad truth that in the end, we are all doing the right things for us, and not necessarily for others.
And on that note, the theme comes full circle, without being a didactic story.
So, what do you think of this spectrum concept of approaching themes? If you are a screenwriter, please join and share the Gist in the screenwriting village.