The character Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), who is remembered for his stuttering and pestering of the movie’s main character Mookie (Spike Lee), really has only one purpose in Do the Right Thing. Every time we see him, he is holding a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands. Though this picture is the sole purpose for Smiley’s existence in the story, it is the essence of what makes Do the Right Thing a great movie.
The picture shows two very different people with very different ideologies but a common goal come together. That is something that never happens in the movie in any complete sense, though there are many attempts to make it happen and much resistance to stand against it. I’ve seen the movie several times now, and I’ve always thought of it as posing the moral question of which one of these great leaders was right. Some of the characters are extremely passionate in their stances of non-violence, and some are equally passionate in their stances for equality at any price including violence if perceived necessary. But Spike Lee wisely never answers the questions for us but allows his character to be right in their own eyes so we have to make our decision.
But the last time I watched Do the Right Thing, I came to realize that the point really isn’t to confront viewers so that we think about these issues and make up our own minds about this question he raises. The point of Do the Right Thing is encourage us to be people who allow the good that both King and Malcolm X accomplished to speak for itself and to let their legacies live in our society long after their deaths. Along with the passionate characters, there are just as many who really don’t care, people whose indifference would be equally despised by both King and Malcolm X. They just want to do their own thing, instead of doing the right thing. These are the people who need the passionate people to wake them up. By the end of the movie, everybody’s passionate about something, whether it’s real justice, self-preservation, or personal grudges and racial prejudices that have eventually become full-blown hatred.
In addition to the three types of characters I have mentioned already, there is Da Mayer (Ossie Davis) and Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who along with Smiley and his picture (which is itself just as much a character in the movie as all the people) watch over the rest of the Brooklyn neighborhood. Smiley watches over the neighborhood hoping to someday see the unity represented in that picture.
Da Mayer watches over the neighborhood as the voice of sensitivity and reason. The movie’s title comes from Da Mayer telling Mookie to “do the right thing.” But Mookie’s one of the characters who just doesn’t care so he responds with the very capricious, “That’s it? I got it. I’m gone.” That’s how most people react to Da Mayer’s wisdom, because he’s known as a drunkard and nothing more, but he has opportunities to show that there is much more to him than that and that if the people around him would just be willing to enter the lives of others, to start caring about others, they can become sensitive to the needs of others and start respecting people for who they truly are.
As his nickname implies, Mister Señor Love Daddy is the voice of love. The greatest scene of the film involves four or five different characters, each of a different race, standing in front of the camera documentary style screaming racist epithets against the people group they are angry with. After the last one finishes, a quick cut takes us into the radio station where Mister Señor Love Daddy is the DJ. He’s just as loud, just as angry, and just as passionate as the people who have just been screaming hatred. But he’s loud, angry, and passionate in the name of love, screaming that all the hate and injustice needs to stop.
So, back to the question of who was right, Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. After this last time watching Do the Right Thing, probably my sixth time, I no longer think it’s Spike Lee’s intention to have us wrestle with the big morality question. I think he wants us to see that the question really has no purpose. They were both human, so that means they were both right about some things and they were both wrong about some things, but their goal was the same, and they came to a point of unity because of that same goal. The characters in Do the Right Thing all have very different goals, conflicting passions, and very different perceptions of what it means to “do the right thing,” but that doesn’t mean that they can’t all eventually come together, following the voices of those three characters watching over them. Do they come together? Some do, some don’t. Can they all come together? Because of those three voices, absolutely they can.
Do the Right Thing is an extremely important film for the time we live in, in America. Many liberals label all Trump supporters as racist, and many conservatives (especially Trump supporters) label Blake Lives Matter activists as anti-white racists. That’s just one example of the many polarizations in America right now. Spike Lee beautifully shows us that we can overcome those polarizations. In his movie, there’s really only one true racist, but many accuse others of being racist, and those accusations keep the divisions alive. That’s just like the current situation: on both sides, there certainly are very dangerous, racist people, but that does not give us the right to assume that the entire group is. We need to listen to the voice of reason and sensitivity, to come to understand why people have become the way we know them. We need to listen to the voice of the past, to the people who have made a great difference in our society whether we agree with the ways in which they did it or not (both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X). Most of all, we need to listen to the voice of love so that we can really know what the right thing is for any given situation so we can do the right thing. And that’s the triple truth Ruth.