When Spike Lee’s 1989 Do The Right Thing is discussed, the topic that always comes up is whether or not Mookie did the right thing by throwing the trashcan through Sal’s window. This is a topic that always has been and always will be up for debate. When it comes to the issues of race and racial tensions, there is often never a right answer for how to react. If it is too peaceful a reaction, it is attributed to the silent being comfortable in there suffering. If it is too aggressive a reaction, it is attributed to people of color being destructive. There is never a right thing to do by the oppressed in these situations because at the end of the day they end up in the same place, looked down upon, or like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King (racial leaders on two of these ends), dead. This is shown in the ending scene where Smiley puts the picture of the two leaders on a wall in Sal’s pizzeria as it burns. So this analysis will not focus on this aspect. It will instead focus on how the film highlights the fact that black kids are often seen as older than they are and consequently less innocent. “Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association” (Atiba and Jackson). This fact is illustrated in the film mainly with the reference to (or lack of reference to) parental figures.
With exception from one scene featuring Mookie and his sister Jade, none of the black characters were associated with or mentioned having parents. This created the illusion to viewers that these kids were not kids at all. The only characters presented as having parental figures were Tina, who lived with her mother and Vito and Pino who worked with their father, none of whom were black. This raises the question: If the lack of portraying the main group of kids as having parents or even having them allude to having parents affects the age they are perceived as. Although age is never mentioned it is clear by the choices made by these characters and even choice of wardrobe that most, if not all of the kids portrayed in the film were at most teenagers or not far removed from being teenagers. If this is not too hard of a fact to see it is at least forgotten by the audience multiple times, if not throughout the entire film. The scene where all the kids come out to play in the water of an opened fire hydrant is the only scene throughout the movie that depicts these characters as the children that they are. Yes, for most of the film these same kids cause trouble in more than one instance including an incident during this scene where they soak a man’s car as he drives by; but a part of being young is doing things that will get you in trouble. Not saying that children should not be punished for their actions but the man demanding an arrest be made on one of these kids was a bit overboard.
Not only did their actions aid in identifying them as kids but so did their clothes. Incorporating the time period the film takes place and the time period the film was made, the choice of costumes of the characters show that they are in fact kids, from the colorful outfits, to graphic tees, to Mookie’s race car watch. The disrespect for the age of these characters is shown throughout the film, from the introduction scenes where Sal did not give Buggin Out a plate with his pizza, to the closing scene where Radio Raheem was murdered, these kids were treated as if they were not only adults but less deserving, and in a way inhuman.
The mistreatment of black kids based on perception is seen in everyday life incidents like that of Michael Brown, Shakara, Trayvon Martin, and many others. Maybe Lee’s point to depicting these characters in this way was to highlight this fact, or maybe he subconsciously incorporated stereotypical beliefs into these characters as he wrote them. The same reason why people refuse to notice these three victims as kids is the same reason Radio Raheem was not treated as a kid, because of the way black bodies and black children are perceived. Everyone looked to Mookie to do the right thing, but he was just a kid.
The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online Feb. 24, 2014; Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, and Matthew Christian Jackson, PhD;