COMMUNITY RADIO SERVES AS LENS FOR SPIKE LEE’S DO THE RIGHT THING
Those already familiar with Spike Lee’s, Do The Right Thing, know that Nelson isn’t alone in boasting Community-Powered Radio. In fact, the views expressed by Lee’s, circa ‘89 Bed-Stuy residents, filter through dual community radio broadcasts, giving the film its structure. Broadcasting from 108 We-Love Radio, DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy speaks on behalf of love on the one hand, while anger, the left hand of ‘Hate’, is fueled by Radio Raheem’s continuous boom box broadcast of his sole anthem, Public Enemy’s, ‘Fight The Power’.
We wake to the film’s world in the radio booth, DJ Love Daddy holds a ringing alarm clock to the microphone and calls the community to action, “Wake-up!…It’s hot!… Get out there, wear that black and get involved.” The camera cranes-out of the window of the We-Love Radio booth, perfectly situated to bear witness to the Bed-Stuy street coming to life on a heat wave day. The radio broadcast provides the perfect transition as we cut into a crane-in as Da Mayor stirs in his bed, Love Daddy’s broadcast continuing from the bedroom clock radio.
As the opening scenes progress, we meet other key characters of the film, Mookie, played by Lee himself and the other key radio voice of the street, Radio Raheem, announced first through sound. ‘Fight the Power’, blares from his 20 ‘D’ cell powered audio assault box, shattering the conversation of a group sitting on the stoop of a brownstone. “Radio Raheem, cold rocking the scene”, reports Love Daddy, as Raheem salutes him as he crosses the window ‘screen’ from the We-Love vantage point.
The character of Smiley exists between the two radio transmissions, a symbol of broken communication in the film’s soundscape. Smiley literally can’t get his words out behind a severe stutter as he struggles to say the names of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, who pose together in a picture embellished by Smiley’s original art that he tries to sell to residents.
Mid-movie, the racial tensions culminate in a great shift to direct address; characters across races shout litanies of targeted racist comments directly to the camera. Where the camera pushes in on its subjects of hate, it becomes static when it cuts to Love Daddy, who propels himself toward the camera in his rolling chair to call for a
“time out!, you need to cool that shit out!” The radio of love, the radio of Martin Luther King Jr., transcends all the levels of the film, from the narrative space directly to the viewing audience, to get things back on track.
Ultimately, racial prejudice bubbles up at Sal’s (the local Italian pizzeria) and leads to Sal killing Raheem’s radio with a baseball bat. The death of the one radio voice, the radio of Malcolm X, sets off a violent chain of events that lead to police brutality taking a life and finally activating the previously apolitical Mookie to start a riot on his own place of work to give voice to his forcibly silenced people.
The film doesn’t end there; instead, it continues into the aftermath of the following morning where we see life continue on the street with no end in sight for the heat wave. The use of radio bookends the film with the final words belonging to DJ Love Daddy as he dedicates his next track to Radio Raheem. The lack of traditional film closure is typified by the scrolling quotes of King, condemning violence in the pursuit of equality, and Malcolm, supporting its use if necessary. We are reminded of how racial issues still remain unresolved in America since the Civil Rights movement, which is all too clearly evidenced to this day with Black Lives Matter, “and that’s the triple truth Ruth!”