In 1714, Parliament passed the Riot Act.
It was aimed at groups of over 12 people who were “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together.” If an authority figure asked a rowdy group to disperse, they were required to go home within one hour. If they were still there in an hour, the rioters instantly became felons and violent force could be used against them. After that hour, anyone who hurt or killed a rioter was free from prosecution.
This is a restrained, sober, and reasonable law.
Rioting is one of the most destructive and unforgivable crimes a person can commit. I am anti-murder, but murder is a fundamental part of the human condition and can’t actually be eradicated (ask Cain and Abel).
Rioting destroys neighborhoods, businesses, and personal property for zero positive gain. It is an ugly consequence of packed cities. And it can be eradicated. The first thing we need to do is all agree that rioting is disgraceful and unacceptable.
“Do the Right Thing” is part of the problem. Spike Lee’s third film is a thought-provoking meditation on rioting. It is bursting at the seams with intelligence, intensity, and ambiguity. It is both the most gut-wrenchingly anti-riot and the most frightening pro-riot film.
The film takes us through one tumultuous summer day in a mostly black Brooklyn neighborhood.
Spike Lee stars as Mookie: a mild-mannered pizza delivery guy. Danny Aiello is Sal: proud owner of the neighborhood pizza shop.
The first 2/3 of “Do the Right Thing” is an ensemble comedy. Writer/director Lee tries to show us every little quirk about black urban life. There’s a scene where the neighborhood drunk buys a single beer from the Korean grocer with the only dollar he has. And the scene where the local hothead is furious because someone scuffed up his new Air Jordans.
The film gets deadly serious in the final act, when the neighborhood racial tensions come bubbling to the surface.
For years, Sal has had a Wall of Fame in his pizza shop that features great Italian Americans (Pacino, De Niro). The local hothead demands that Sal put some famous black Americans up there. Sal refuses. Another guy enters the pizza shop blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on his boom box. Sal loses it and starts yelling racial slurs. A riot ensues.
In the film’s most thought-provoking scene, it is mild-mannered Mookie who throws the first garbage can through a window.
The unique virtue of “Do the Right Thing” is its inscrutable ambiguity. In each character, there is love and hate. Spike Lee encourages us to empathize with every single character – even white guys, even cops. Yet Lee is plainly predicting an American race war, and partially looking forward to it. This has been an undercurrent to his films for decades.
The one thing missing from “Do the Right Thing” is a reminder that riots never help anyone, particularly the rioters and their cause.
Do you think the lives of black Americans were improved by the riots of the mid to late 1960s? Do you think Donald Trump’s political career was helped by the numbskulls who rioted on January 6th?
A lot of people are like Spike Lee and feel a sympathy for rioters who are angry about a good cause. This is the problem. Rioting is always 100% destructive and 0% helpful. I love this movie. But rioting is absolutely never the Right Thing.