Gentrification and Class System in the Film "Do The Right Thing"

This paper will discuss the film Do The Right Thing (1989), directed by Spike Lee, as a source of historical knowledge emphasising housing and class systems that have been structured and set into the American consciousness. I aim to contextualize this movie in the discourse of housing and gentrification that started back in 1860 NYC/Brooklyn to now and how we and Spike Lee explore and question the line between fact and fiction and scrutinize the traditional Western-eurocentric archive and portrayal of history. This paper is positioned strongly in the belief that non-traditional sources of narrative are imperative to make significant changes.


“But in the end, they take spaces, redo them, sell them for a certain amount of money, while the people who have been there are displaced. ” Violence (police brutality), racial intolerance and class are all important motifs in, Do The Right Thing. In almost every scene these ideas infiltrate the audience, making them focus directly, often with extreme close up shots of characters speaking directly to the camera on racial tensions in the neighborhood. Spike Lee used many different directorial techniques, such as the pervasive heat, radio host Raheem, and Sal from Sal’s pizza joint that Mookie (Lee’s character) works at to represent multiple voices and voices of reason when it comes to the problems in the neighborhood. It starts with the film’s characters waking up to start their day and climaxes with a neighborhood riot after police officers excessively restrain and kill a young black man named Bell Hooks for fighting an older Italian American restaurant owner named Sal in his pizzeria, and then outside on the street. The film, although released in 1989, with its social commentary on the effect that race has on police brutality is just as relevant today as when it was released 26 years ago.

Violence and racial intolerance are not the answer to the problems of black america, the only way to survive as a community is to come together and get educated on the subject. Frequently the phrase “wake up” is spoken to characters in different contexts when (name) wanted to organize a boycott against Sal’s pizza place because in the restaurant there is a hall of fame wall with framed pictures of italian people. Sal is all about a family business and working together, which he tried genuinely to help the people in the neighborhood get by each and every day, but Buggin’ Out sees it as there should be black people up on the wall considering the restaurant is in the black neighborhood of Brooklyn and he makes the point that the residence there are the only people giving Sal’s business money while no black folks have any business to give to. The only corner store in the neighborhood is owned by Korean immigrants. These culture clashes that Lee stylistically keeps in your face reminds the audience these problems cannot be dismissed, Lee keeps the injustice of gentrification in black neighborhoods alive and timelessly accurate, further entrenching the film (space) with music blaring “Fight the power!” by Public Enemy and a long list, from the neighborhood radio host Raheem, of black artist who he coins as keeping them alive through the heat, which was played as a main character throughout the film. Steel Pulse, Can’t Stand The Heat reggae playing in the background of a montage of newspapers ( another mode of communication for black Americans especially during the great migration) I think the heat added to the tension between the characters because heat can make you uneasy and lead to confrontations which reveal and educate about troubling histories or as Raheem would say on his radio bump “that’s the double truth, root!” .

The characters Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem signify important figures and identities to black Americans as a whole. Radio Raheem is a signature statement for Black pride, independence, and uncompromising strength, a Malcolm x if you will. Radio Raheem walks around the neighborhood with his boombox blasting music loud and in your face lyrics to claim fearlessness, and a demand for respect. And Buggin’ Out who is always being told to chill and not take things so seriously, as he is always trying to organize the people of the neighborhood to fix their situation, a Dr. King. These two characters embody the idea that, whether physical or verbal retaliation is needed for reparations. Spike Lee indulges in stereotypes by using iconography to represent the different racial groups in the film whether it be the Italian American characters wearing crosses and tank tops, the black characters where large chains, caring boomboxes and caring about their sneakers, or the territorial Puerto Ricans listen to salsa music on the stoop. The proliferation of ethnic slurs, Lee has all his characters use towards each other shows the tensions of what happens when their differences are not being heard and one group is always seen as the lesser, other or more oppressed. Lee also shows this when his black activist character Buggin’ Out tells Mookie, who is a black man employed by a white man, to “Stay Black” insinuating that Mookie should never strive to be a Tom or a sell-out.

In the film, Buggin’ Out verbally attacks a property owning white man for running over his new Air Jordans and then asks him “What are you doing in my neighborhood?” In this brief scene Lee is able to show how a character in a poor neighborhood feels the psychological need to compete with others economically. This is an example of the Culture Industry and Buggin’ Out displays this because he buys the latest shoes and does not want to feel that he was literally and symbolically being run over by a man who was much wealthier than he was. Buggin’ Out then proceeded to tell the white man to move back the Massachuites expressing his irritation with the new arrival on ‘his block’ and being so readily dismissed by the white man because of his ‘hood antics. ’ According to Understanding Film Theory, “Marxism was conceived as a revolutionary theory that attempted to explain and expose the relations of power in capitalist societies”. It also says that Marxism’s founder, Karl Marx, was “concerned with the apparent division between the ruling and the working class”. These are very strong contingent behaviors that have shaped American consciousness and imaginations of who can be in relation to who and what kind of work denotes success. The heat and tension of the film can also draw parallels to housing and gentrification of black boroughs of Brooklyn in our timeline of housing history. The projects (row homes) built in Manhattan and Brooklyn between 1860 and 1910 were built with minimal quality and meant to be left to blight.

As Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens were successively linked to Manhattan through better transportation and political consolidation, the row house spread into other Speculative builders put up row after row, varying the size (2, 3, or 4 stories), the amount of exterior ornament, and the quality of the interior finish to suit the market in a particular neighborhood. Such row development began earliest and became the most extensive in Brooklyn, the borough best served by streetcar lines. Not until the 1920s were apartment houses as often built. Although for the people who became the permanent residence to these boroughs, “many also appreciated the communal aspects of the row house, with neighboring shared across backyards and on front stoops” a trade mark for black communities to gather and a constant occurrence throughout Do The Right Thing, as Mookie walks up and down the streets of Brooklyn delivering pizzas, the streets around him are filled with kids playing with fire hydrants, women sitting on stoops doing their hair and men talking and drinking. But as immigrants started to enter NY in higher and higher numbers, the quality and time put into sustainable and healthy housing depleted for blacks, Latinx, and immigrants alike. But the one reality that stayed present for the black residence was no chance of upward mobility to leave the situation created for them. While it was recognized that the main impediment to designing a “profitable” healthier and safer dwelling was the small size of the lot, this was not acknowledged in competitions or in the law for almost twenty years. During the interim, areas like the Lower East Side would be covered with these appalling structures, such neighborhoods reaching densities of half a million people per square mile.

A sentiment that is striking but prevails throughout Lee’s film, is that it is important to emphasize that these issues are not solely with race, but also who is in control. It is the combination of the two that takes things to a boiling point. Also, Lee unapologetically reveals this rage, violence and class issues to his audience to realize the beauty and ugliness that resides in all of his and how capitalism, housing projects and gentrification keep us alienated from anywhere with hate and fear because we believe our struggles are more traumatic, worthy of help, or that hard work will save us all.

At the end of the film the only business owner whose business is vandalized and burned to the ground is a white man’s. Lee shows that, although there is a conflict between Korean Americans and African Americans, the history between whites and blacks is much more conflicted. Furthermore, even though many of the black characters love Sal’s pizzeria, they do become aware of what Sal really thinks of them when he feels threatened by Buggin’ Out and denies him the chance to put a picture of a black man on the pizzeria wall. The movie also clearly shows how by denying the picture, Sal keeps control over the black patrons in his restaurant. Director Spike Lee chose to create a film that is able to both entertain and emotionally resonate with an audience by pointing out that when racial and social disparities are not properly addressed by those in power, they can ultimately lead to acts of extreme violence by those who feel powerless. The film is realistic in its approach that a melting pot of different cultures and races doesn’t mean that everyone will live happily ever after. Lee knew that in order to make a film about social issues he needed to embrace the stereotypes in order to criticize them. At one point in the film the police officers are driving through the neighborhood and say “What a waste” while they are driving by. The residents outside at the moment were not committing any acts of violence, but in a brief instant it shows that the officers whose job it is to protect the community do not respect the residents they serve.


For me this was one of the most effective pieces of fictional and historically accurate non-traditional sources to examine this issue of gentrification rooted in people's daily lives. Lee being one of the few black directors in Hollywood who have status to be respected but also still have the humbleness to make movies true to the black experience in history is deeply important, not only for me as a black creative but for the countries consciousness as a whole. An aspect that I always felt missing in my education was a black center and focused narrative showing the lives of regular people who happened to be black, written and portrayed by a black creative who had no ulterior motive of pseudo-diversification but examining the intersectionality of what it would mean to talk to one another, listen and hear one another to build upon each and every one of our needs. But as the street bum, Mayor, tells Mookie, just, “always do the right thing!”

10 October 2020
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