Warning: This essay contains spoilers
I want to talk about two Spike Lee films that had a tremendous impact on me: School Daze (1988) and Do the Right Thing (1989). Lee wrote and directed both films and co-starred in the latter as Mookie, a character I will not be talking much about in this essay unfortunately, but plan to in a future essay. These two films impacted me for one obvious reason: Spike Lee is a brilliant director and storyteller. His work is humorous, aesthetically unique, and politically-charged in such a way that it stimulates thought that goes beyond just watching and interacting with the films. Spike Lee’s films stay in my mind. That’s not an easy thing for a filmmaker to accomplish, but Spike Lee seems to do it with ease, and it’s something that I admire and am in awe of as a poet and creative person who would love the chance to become a filmmaker someday.
I’m going to start with School Daze, which is Lee’s second film. Interestingly enough, I first saw School Daze in 2005 when I was going to school in Atlanta at Georgia State. I only spent one semester there; I transferred from the University of Houston after being there for two and a half years. I felt like I needed a change of pace; I needed to get out of my hometown. Although I transferred right back to UH in the fall of 2005, it wasn’t because I disliked Atlanta or Georgia State. Money was a factor, plus, I realized that I felt more comfortable in Texas after being away from it for an extended period of time for the first time in my life. I had a friend from high school who went to Georgia State (that’s why I ended up there) and she was the one who showed me the film. She brought the DVD over and I watched it on my laptop in my dorm room. I was mesmerized. Dap (Laurence Fishburne) is my favorite character in the film; Julian (Giancarlo Esposito) is utterly brutal and brilliant at the same time. I also loved the musical numbers in the film; as a child, one of my favorite films was The Sound of Music (1965). Being in college at the time (although I wasn’t in a sorority) the film resonated with me in certain ways, but being a college student in Atlanta gave me deeper insight into the film. The school the characters attend—Mission College—is based off of Lee’s experiences at Morehouse, which is an all-black college in Atlanta. My friend and I spent some time in the area, so I became familiar with the environment.
The scene I want to talk about is what could be considered a “side scene.” It’s not necessarily meant to push the plot forward, but it’s important for other reasons that help inform and deepen the film. Here’s a little context: Dap and his friends are confronted by a group of slightly older men led by a guy named Leeds (Samuel L. Jackson) in a KFC parking lot. Prior to the confrontation is a humorous exchange between Dap and his friends and a cashier, who asks them: “White meat or dark?” They respond that they want white meat and she says, “We don’t have any white meat today,” which frustrates them. When Dap and his friends first enter KFC, the men are spotted by Monroe, who wants to eat somewhere else. Once they sit down with their meals and start to eat, one of the guys gets up and starts shaking all the salt shakers on the tables, until he comes to the table at the back corner of the fast food restaurant, where Leeds and his friends sit and socialize. One of them wears a red leather jacket and pants; another one wears a shower cap. When the college student asks to borrow the salt, Leeds says, “We ain’t finished.” When he asks Leeds when he thinks he’ll be done with it, Leeds looks around and says “What time it is?” They all start laughing, and the college student goes back to his table. Then, Leeds starts teasing the college students from his table. This causes Dap to make all of his friends get up and leave their food on the table. This is a deliberate move on Dap’s part to not just walk out, but to leave the food, because he is a politically-conscious person. He is an activist. None of the other guys want to leave their food, but they follow Dap outside anyway. Then, Leeds and his friends walk out, calling after the group of college students. Both groups face each other and here is the dialogue that follows:
Dap: Yeah, brother. What do you want?
[One of Leeds’s friends remark: “You ain’t no kin to me.”]
Leeds: That’s right. And we ain’t your brothers. How come you college motherfuckers thing y’all run everything?
[The two groups shit-talk each other a little.]
Leeds: You come into our town year after year and take over. We was born here, gonna die here, and we can’t find jobs ‘cause of you [points at them].
Monroe: [To Dap] Can we go?
Leeds: We may not have your ed-u-cation, but we ain’t dirt neither.
Dap: Ain’t nobody said all of that, aight?
Leeds: You Mission punks always talkin’ down to us.
Dap: Look, brother. I’m real sorry you feel that way, okay? I’m really sorry about that.
Leeds: Are you black?
Guy with Shower Cap: Take a look in the mirror, man.
Dap: Look, you got a legitimate beef, aight, but it ain’t with us, okay?
Leeds: ARE. YOU. BLACK.
Dap: Hey, man, don’t ever question the fact whether I’m black. In fact, I was gonna ask your country-bama ass why you got them drip-drip chemicals in your hair. And then come out in public with a shower cap on your head.
[More shit-talking happens between the two groups.]
Leeds: I bet you niggers do think y’all are white. College don’t mean shit. Y’all niggers. And you gonna be niggers forever, just like us. Niggers.
Dap: [Stands face to face with Leeds] You’re not niggers.
What also makes this scene significant is that it is sandwiched between two short car scenes: the group driving to KFC and away from KFC. The first car drive is humorous; the guys tease each other about their ability to get (or not get) women. After the confrontation, the car ride is very serious; a debate begins about whether or not Leeds is right: do they think they’re better because they’re getting an education? Are they the problem? These scenes reinforce a deeper thread that has to do with Black empowerment through education. Although the main tension of the film is between Dap and Julian who are polar-opposites—Dap is a Black radical and Julian is an egocentric fraternity leader—this scene sets up another kind of tension that exists outside the university: young college-age Black men being confronted by disenfranchised Black men. I like this scene a lot, not just because it’s probably one of the rarest scenes ever in the history of film, but because it widens the scope. The film is primarily concerned with racial tension within the all-Black college environment: light skin versus dark skin, issues about social status and what it means to truly become educated, the importance of what it means to attend an all-Black college in the late 1980s, how fraternity/sorority dynamics are played out at a prestigious all-Black college. These are the main concerns of the film. But this is the one moment in the film where Dap and his friends (who would be considered to be the good guys of the film) are confronted with Black oppression in the form of bitter, resentful Black men who are angry at them.
I think Spike Lee did an excellent job capturing that uncomfortable dynamic in this scene. Dap, who always seems to have all the answers due to his raised consciousness, is challenged by Leeds, who is struggling, but has more life experience, and feels justified in attacking what he feels is the real problem: Black men who believe a college education will make them white. When Leeds asks Dap if he’s Black, that places Dap in the difficult position of having to apply his political beliefs in a real-life situation. Leeds wants to provoke him, but instead, Dap chooses to be firm and nonviolent; he turns the question right around on Leeds and his friends by pointing out their unconscious attempts to be white by altering their hair. What I also found interesting about this scene is that it points to the literal environment as a source of tension. The scene takes place in a KFC parking lot. In Atlanta, there are two separate cultures operating within the same space: Black college students who attend all-Black colleges like Morehouse and Spellman, and Black people living in poverty. And often, they inhabit the same locations, like KFC. To give another example, Texas Southern University (a historically black college), which is in the same neighborhood as the University of Houston, is also located in a primarily Black ghetto. Lee captured this tension incredibly well in the film, which brings up the question: how can Black people better themselves in an environment that is ultimately controlled by inequality and racism?
The next film I want to talk about is Spike Lee’s third film Do the Right Thing. I saw it for the first time in 2021 and it’s one of those films that has stayed in my consciousness precisely because of the issues it brings up: police brutality, racial tensions within a particular community, and the role of hip hop music within the Black community. After doing a little research, I found that there was a lot of controversy over this film; Spike Lee has talked about it in various interviews, so I will paraphrase some of that here. There were people who didn’t want this film to be made and/or released during the summertime because they erroneously believed Lee was trying to start riots. Lee was also unreasonably criticized for not including drugs in the film. However, the biggest injustice that was done to the film is that it didn’t any awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. Not one. The film that won the Palm d’Or that year was an utterly terrible film called Sex, Lies, and Videotape, written and directed by Steven Soderbergh. It was his first film and he was the youngest solo director to win the award in the history of the festival. Lee remarked in an interview he gave for Brian Linehan’s City Lights in Toronto in 1989 that Soderbergh’s film was described as being “the future of cinema.” He also explained that the jury did not like Do the Right Thing, except for Sally Field, who was on the jury that year, and went out of her way to let Lee know what had happened on the plane ride back to New York. One jury member said they didn’t think Mookie was heroic enough, which is an incredibly ignorant statement to make. Unfortunately, the scene I will be discussing does not center on Mookie, so that issue will have to be saved for another essay.
The scene I want to talk about focuses on Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a character Lee based off of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who was murdered by the New York City Transit Police in 1983. Radio Raheem shows up at various moments in the film carrying a giant boombox blaring hip hop music. That is his sole function: to walk around playing his music. However, his role becomes incredibly important during the climax of the film. There are multiple places where one could pinpoint the exact climax: when Sal (Danny Aiello) smashes Radio Raheem’s boombox; when Radio Raheem is choked to death by the police; when Mookie throws a trashcan through the front window of Sal’s pizzeria, thereby causing a riot that results in Sal’s pizzeria being destroyed. For me, the climax is when Sal breaks Radio Raheem’s boombox and that is the scene I will be discussing. A bit of context that is important is that one of the main characters, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), has been boycotting Sal’s since earlier that day because he refuses to put pictures of Black people up on his wall of fame, which consists entirely of Italian Americans. This scene takes place at the end of the film after Buggin’ Out has enlisted Radio Raheem to boycott Sal’s along with him. Mookie works for Sal and is close friends with Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem. However, in this scene, a line is drawn between Mookie and his friends: they want pictures of Black people on the wall of fame. Period. Here’s the scene:
Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem walk into Sal’s pizzeria. Radio Raheem’s boombox blares Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Smiley is behind them. They walk up; the room gets a little darker as they pass underneath the ceiling light. The camera looks up at them.
Sal: [Tosses his washrag down; the camera looks down at him.] What’d I tell you about that noise?
Buggin’ Out: What’d I tell you about them pictures?
Sal: What the fuck are you? Deaf?
Buggin’ Out: No! Are you? Fuck you! We want some black people on that motherfuckin’ wall of fame NOW!
Mookie: We’re trying to fucking go home! We’ve been here all day!
Sal: Turn that jungle music off! This ain’t Africa!
Buggin’ Out: Why it gotta be about jungle music? What it gotta be about Africa? It’s about them fuckin’ pictures!
Sal: It’s about turnin’ that shit off and get the fuck out of my place!
Pino: Radio Raheem!
Radio Raheem: [Turns to Pino] Fuck you!
Sal: Fuck you too!
[The four diners jump up and shout. The camera looks down at them.]
Radio Raheem: This is music! My music!
Sal: Fuck your music!
[Radio Raheem sets the boombox on the counter and leans on it.]
Radio Raheem: Well turn it off then!
Vito: Get the fuck out of here! We’re fuckin’ closed!
Buggin’ Out: [Turns to Vito briefly] Fuck you! We’re closing you guinea bastards for good! For good, motherfucker! Until you get some black people on that motherfuckin’ wall of fame!
Sal: You’re gonna fuckin’ close me? [grabs a baseball bat]
Buggin’ Out: That’s goddamn right!
Sal: You black cocksucker! I’ll fuckin’ tear your fuckin’ nigger ass!
The diners shout: “So we’re niggers now?” Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem start yelling at Sal.
Mookie: Sal, put the fuckin’ bat down!
Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem continue to yell at Sal; Smiley jumps in from behind, holding out his orange marker. Sal yells “You black cocksucker!” and smashes Radio Raheem’s boombox with his bat. The boombox goes quiet. Sal drops the bat. The camera shifts to each person in the pizzeria. Radio Raheem stares at Sal, slowly walks up to the counter, then looks at his destroyed boombox.
Sal: [The camera looks down at him. His hair is sweaty.] I just killed your fuckin’ radio.
Radio Raheem: [Picks up his boombox, drops it on the ground, and lunges after Sal.] My music! [He throws Sal over the counter, onto the ground, gets on top of him, and tries to strangle him. Chaos breaks out in the pizzeria.]
At this point in the film, everything is coming to a head: it’s the hottest day of the year; Buggin’ Out makes an aggressive stand to get pictures of Black people on the wall of fame; Radio Raheem has been playing his music all day; Sal is frustrated. But I want to focus in on the music aspect. The reason why I feel like this is the climax is because it isn’t realized how important the music is until it’s been destroyed by Sal. Radio Raheem just does what he does; he plays his music. But, it’s not just any music: it’s hip hop. Hip hop serves a very important cultural function: it empowers. Do the Right Thing is very much about personal freedom: Buggin’ Out has a right to demand pictures of Black people on the wall of fame; Sal has a right to ignore Buggin’ Out’s demand; Radio Raheem has a right to walk around Brooklyn playing hip hop music on his boombox; Sal has a right to demand that he turn the music off in his pizzeria. But, the first thing that gets shattered during the final confrontation is the boombox. This is prior to Radio Raheem getting killed by the police and Sal’s pizzeria getting destroyed. The music gets destroyed first. That is the catalyst that sets off the chaos. Since hip hop music is a symbol of empowerment, and Sal singlehandedly smashes the boombox that plays hip hop, he is essentially killing those feelings for everyone in the room, even if they don’t consciously identify with hip hop in that way. It is the implication behind that act that says fuck empowerment. When silence takes over the pizzeria, it is incredibly uncomfortable for the obvious reason that Radio Raheem’s most treasured possession has been destroyed. But, it’s about more than that, it’s about what the music represents. That’s actually what gets destroyed first. And that’s really what causes Radio Raheem to go after Sal: he killed a major source of Black empowerment.
In an interview Spike Lee gave in 2019 at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), he said that one of the most frustrating comments he received repeatedly when the film came out was about the lament over white property being destroyed. He thought it was extremely sad that people would place more value on white property than a Black person’s life. And he’s absolutely right. But I want to make a little bit of a controversial point: the real tragedy is the fact that there was no lament over the fact that Sal destroyed Radio Raheem’s boombox. That’s actually the first piece of property that gets destroyed. And if the music coming out of that boombox is a metaphor for empowerment, then the boombox itself is also a metaphor for empowerment. Sal took a lot of pride in his pizzeria; it was his source of empowerment, but he felt completely entitled to destroy Radio Raheem’s source of empowerment because he didn’t understand it. And yet, once the music was gone, it was felt by everyone, including Sal, who said: “I just killed your fuckin’ radio.” Obviously, Radio Raheem getting killed by NYPD at the end of the film is in fact the primary tragedy, but I wanted to make it clear that if white people are quick to point to damaged property as an injustice, it should be obvious that Radio Raheem was the first person in the film to have his property destroyed, but because he was Black, and because he was playing hip hop, it’s less significant than a place of business, never mind the fact that the business and the boombox serve the same function: to instill empowerment.
This scene in particular is why I love Spike Lee so much as a director/writer. He created a moment of tension in Do the Right Thing that is multilayered, multifaceted, but at the same time, very basic: what happens when empowerment gets destroyed? Bad chaos; murder; riots; the breakdown of a community. I’ve thought about this particular scene often ever since I first saw it, and although I do recognize that the true issue of the film deals with what happens when undealt-with racial tensions boil over and explode within a community, I can’t help but feel like a good portion of the film deals with this brutal truth: that Radio Raheem literally had to die for his music. He couldn’t just be permitted to listen to it and share it with others in the community. He had to die for it. He would not have attacked Sal if he hadn’t destroyed his boombox; he wouldn’t have been murdered by the cops if he hadn’t attacked Sal; he wouldn’t have been killed by the cops if they’d been enlightened. There is a chain reaction that happens due to the destruction of the boombox that is hard for me to ignore. And this is why I respect Spike Lee as a director; his films allow space for nuanced, thought-provoking realizations to take place.
Spike Lee talked about what makes a good drama and I’m paraphrasing him here of course, but he explained that in order for drama to work, two people have to butt heads, and both people have to be right. I think this is true of School Daze; Dap and Leeds are on opposite sides of the issue, and yet both have their reasons. Dap is a politically-conscious radical Black college student; Leeds is an underprivileged Black man who has a right to be frustrated. However, his frustration is misplaced. In Do the Right Thing, both sides have their reasons for acting the way they do. All Buggin’ Out wants is for Sal to put pictures of Black people on his wall of fame; Sal, as a business owner, does not feel he has to accommodate Buggin’ Out’s demand. However, Sal’s biggest customer base is Black people. It seems unreasonable to ignore the request when they are the very people who fund his business. Sal can’t stand Radio Raheem’s music and wants him to turn it off in his pizzeria; Radio Raheem feels entitled to listen to his music where ever he wants and forces Sal to turn it off himself—which he does, by destroying the boombox altogether. However, what Sal destroyed is more than property; he destroyed a symbol of empowerment. These are the kinds of issues Spike Lee’s films stimulate within me, the desire to think it over and come to my own conclusions about how I feel the films are communicating with me on a personal level. This is what I find compelling about Spike Lee’s work, and these films in particular. They are perpetual food for thought.
It would be easy for me to say that one of the reasons these two films are important is because they’re still relevant, and that is not something I say with enthusiasm. In contemporary American society, there is still a cultural distinction that is made between those who are Black and educated, and those who are Black and poor. Police brutality against Black people is still prevalent. Riots are still seen as a threat to white property rather than the consequence of undealt-with systemic racism. Spike Lee made both films in the late eighties that addressed the issues of that moment, and they are still the issues of the moment. But I want to point out the fact that they are primarily important because they provide space for deeper thought about social concerns in general, and the scenes themselves lend to multiple points of view. The films are aesthetically and politically flexible, which is what makes them truly timeless. However, I want to point to one question a French reporter asked at a press conference Spike Lee gave at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 about Do the Right Thing and let his response be the final word about why racism is still a prevalent global problem. Here is the reporter’s question:
Your movie deals with the very disturbing issue of New York City ghettos. I would like to know if you think that it is possible to live a truly integrated life in New York City, and if all communities might become integrated. Your point of view suggests this will never happen, and that’s very disturbing. I feel you have a very pessimistic view of the future. Do you believe equality is just a dream—an ideal—or do you believe in it?
Aside from the fact that Lee turns the question back on the reporter by pointing to racism as a French problem just as much as it is an American problem, and explaining that people shouldn’t come to a film expecting answers to social problems, he gives a very thorough answer that worked very well for its time (1989) and in the current moment (2022) as well:
What I have to do as a filmmaker is present problems so the discussion can start. You have people in America who still say that racism ended when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the civil rights acts, and black people are allowed to vote, and because Michael Jackson is the number one rockstar along with Prince and Eddie Murphy—the biggest box officer drawer in the world. Bill Cosby is the number one TV star along with Oprah Winfrey, and Mike Tyson is the world heavyweight champion, and Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the world. That black people arrived and everything is all right. But it’s not. The black underclass in America now is larger than it’s ever been, so you can’t be lulled to sleep just because Eddie Murphy is huge, and Arsenio Hall has a great show, that we’re living in a world where everything is right, righteous, and humane.
December 19, 2022