Do the Right Thing: Fight the Power! (But do it Right)

Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” opens and pervades Spike Lee’s highly recognized 1989 film Do the Right Thing. The song itself asserts a strong resistance to authority and establishment; whether this be for justice or just simply rebellion is the subject of debate that permeates the discussion of the song and its respective role in Do the Right Thing. In the film, this voice is projected through the character Radio Raheem, who patrols the Brooklyn village of Bed-Stuy spreading the word of “Fight the Power” with his great and always blaring boom-box. Moreover, the song is tied to the film’s overall theme and question: what is the right thing to do? Is fighting the power the right thing? Is it right in the context of the film? Or, perhaps, can it be the right thing, but is misconstrued in the context of the film? The answer, of course, is ambiguous. However, through analysis, Lee’s message can be revealed[1]. In this essay, I will explain why the third option—that fighting the power consists of a middle ground philosophy between action and non-violence—is the director’s position on the topic. I will do this through the analysis of “Fight the Power” and Radio Raheem.

The song “Fight the Power” opens Do the Right Thing. Isolated from the chronology of the film, the scene—functioning like a music video—instead serves as a prelude to the film, setting the mood for the story to come. As the song plays in its entirety, the character Tina performs an aggressive dance that seems to complement the audio. Off the bat, then, it would seem that Lee supports the message of the song: “to fight the powers that be.” While this is not quite definitive yet, further analysis will make Lee’s stance clear. It is hard, however, to imagine that a director would set the mood of their film—and in this case a film on a topic that we know Lee is particularly concerned with—with something they hate.

An obvious defense that Lee disagrees with “Fight the Power” is that perhaps the most positively portrayed character, Dr. Love, never plays the song on his radio station. Throughout the film Dr. Love seems to mediate the action—whenever tensions get particularly high, Dr. Love seems to encourage calmness and nonviolence. He also serves as a godlike figure—his presence being a voice that descends upon all the civilians of Bed-Stuy. So, the fact that Dr. Love never plays “Fight the Power” seems like clear evidence that the song is not a positive force. This is not the case. “Fight the Power” is only played through Radio Raheem to reinforce the misuse of the direction violence takes in the film. This would appear to strengthen the original argument, but note this: Dr. Love mentions Chuck D in his list of great black musicians. Chuck D, the front-figure of Public Enemy, is most prominently represented by his politics in “Fight the Power.” The reason Lee does not have Dr. Love play the song is not because Dr. Love doesn’t support “Fight the Power” or Public Enemy, but because the song plays a very specific role in its relation to Radio Raheem—a role more complex than the isolated meaning of the song[2].

Whenever Radio Raheem appears in a scene, he is accompanied by “Fight the Power” playing through his boom-box. However, it soon becomes obvious that he is not an objective representative of justice. In a scene where a group of Latinos are listening to music, Radio Raheem arrives playing his music louder than theirs. When the Latinos adjust their music to an audible volume, Radio Raheem turns his music even louder. After they submit to his louder volume, Radio Raheem triumphantly marches away celebrating his victory. It appears here that Radio Raheem is less concerned with fighting the power—at least for justice or against oppression, that is—than he is with fighting, and winning, in general. Then, in a later scene, we discover that he in fact appears ignorant and unconcerned with equality. In this scene, Radio Raheem’s boom-box dies and he ventures to purchase new batteries from the neighborhood’s general store. At the store, he criticizes and badgers the Korean storeowners for their broken English. The ignorance he demonstrates suggests that he is not very much concerned with equal rights. How, then, could he be a figure of justice—the force which “Fight the Power” seems to demand[3]?

Radio Raheem does, however, provide strong evidence that he is concerned with justice. Consider the scene in which he tells Mookie the Story of Love and Hate:

Let me tell you the story of right-hand-left-hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate [holds up left fist]: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love [holds up right fist]: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man—the right hand, the hand of love. The story of life is this [interlaces fingers]: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean it looks like the right hand, love, is finished, but hold on, stop the presses, the right hand’s coming back! Yeah, he’s got the left hand on the ropes now, that’s right! Yeah it’s the devastating right and hate is hurt. Down! Oh! Left hand hate K.O.’d by love.

He demonstrates here that the fight for love is the right thing. Thus, it would seem that he should view fighting the power as fighting for love, justice, and equality. In the forward to Malcolm X’s autobiography, Alex Haley writes: “Malcolm X never advocated violence. He was an advocate of cultural and social reconstruction—until a balance of equality was shared, ‘by any means necessary’” (X xiii). From his Story of Love and Hate, it would seem that Radio Raheem is of the same mindset. But, as we’ve seen from the counterexamples, this is not the case. The fact of the matter is: the issue is not so easily black or white[4]. Radio Raheem simultaneously has good intentions and bad actions; while he is informed on matters of achieving civil justice, he is misled by the violent society around him.

In the film’s climax, a major dispute erupts when the pizzeria owner Sal, frustrated with the incredibly loud music, destroys Radio Raheem’s boom-box. The two begin to brawl and the scene quickly escalates into a riot. When the police show up, Radio Raheem resists their arrest and is killed trying to fight the power (an officer strangles him). In the last shot we see with Radio Raheem, he is in the back of the police car with his right hand (in a fist)—the hand of love—over his heart. It is hate, Lee reveals, that killed Radio Raheem.

Ultimately, Radio Raheem let hate consume his instinct to do the right thing, to fight out of love and justice. He let the words of “Fight the Power” become more about the battle than the cause. His resentment towards Sal was not about the racial issue that the character Buggin’ Out fought for, but for the dominance over how loud he could play his radio—just as was the case with the Latinos. He fought the power, but out of hate instead of love, echoing the dogma practiced by Malcolm X in his younger years: “violence to achieve blacks’ objectives” (Marable). Unlike Malcolm, however, Radio Raheem never saw the opportunity to adjust his motives, and was killed by violence accordingly. Therefore, Spike Lee contends that fighting the power can be the right thing, but is misconstrued in the context of the film. In closing the film, Lee provides two quotes: a nonviolence philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and an advocacy of violence when necessary by Malcolm X. The contrast of these two quotes exemplifies exactly that middle-ground philosophy that Lee presents in Do the Right Thing.

[1] Or, can be attempted to be revealed. Whatever “the right thing is” is ultimately subjective—that is, after all, how Lee constructed the film. Therefore, various arguments of what Lee’s message is can be asserted. For the purposes of this essay, however, I will assert my analysis as if it were Lee’s objective message.

[2] This, of course, is the topic of its own debate.

[3] Again, a topic of debate.

[4] No pun intended.

Works Cited

Marable, Manning. Malcolm X A Life of Reinvention. Viking, 2011. Print.

X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York:

Ballantine, 1999. Print.

Written in 2011 for an advanced study ethnic literature course.


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