Like the iconic song solicited for it, Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing (1989)(hereafter, DRT), highlights the competing voices and values underlying the banal term ‘community’. Using a heat-wave as metaphor, it follows the increasingly tense relationships between individuals on a Brooklyn block. Tensions erupt, NYPD officers kill a young black male, and Sal’s Famous Pizza burns to the ground.
DRT illuminates how individual, heated exchanges are merely the peak of a massive subterranean mountain. Its plot covers 24 hours, the setting less than a square mile. But, direct address and Lee’s ‘signature shot’, for example, interrupt realism with surrealism. These techniques and others make it difficult to abstract generalized truth, whether about a racialized Other or about a sibling, from one perspective and, as a result, moral imperatives: how does one do the right thing and to whom is that owed?
The film garnered both acclaim and criticism as fundamentally neoliberal fare. That an African-American man directed, wrote, produced and acted in a film populated by mostly non-white actors deepens the film’s significance in an industry that rarely uses people of color to drive plot. Yet, as bell hooks explained, Lee avoids tackling race as a gendered phenomenon. Moreover, because the film focuses on spectacular violence, brazen utterance, and interpersonal conflict, entrenched structural racism remains untouched. In other words, Lee doesn’t go particularly far down the mountain once he uncovers it exists.
Lee’s challenging 2015 film Chi-Raq rehashes DRT on many fronts. Drawing on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and its perceived contemporary legacy, Chi-raq portrays a neighborhood negotiating America’s gun violence epidemic. Following a Black child’s murder, gang-affiliated women ‘sex-strike’ for peace. This time Chicago provides the setting, not Lee’s native Brooklyn, and Kevin Wilmott adapts the ancient Greek comedy alongside Lee. They versify most of the dialogue and inject humor into their adamantly labeled satire (instead of, as some deem appropriate, tragedy).