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Fight the Power: Black Activism in Do the Right Thing

Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" serves as the heartbeat of black activism in Spike Lee's 1989 masterpiece

Note: This analysis contains spoilers.

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) unfolds in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (aka “Bed-Stuy”) neighborhood of Brooklyn on a hot, summer day. As protagonist Mookie (played by Lee) delivers pizzas for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, the camera follows and documents the interactions between the neighborhood’s various residents.

The film remains a masterful depiction of racial tensions between disparate demographic groups. Unfortunately, it also remains painfully relevant to ongoing issues in American society, with the recent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers bearing striking resemblance to the climactic death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) in Do the Right Thing.

In the previous installment of my analysis on Do the Right Thing, I touched upon the film’s portrayal of white privilege. Here I will redirect your attention to the film’s musical anthem — Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” — and its function as the heartbeat of black activism both on and off the screen.

After providing some background on “Fight the Power,” this analysis will dissect the film’s fiery opening sequence, the connection of the song’s lyrics to Buggin’ Out’s demands for representation, the misunderstood character of Radio Raheem, the speech of Love and Hate, the significance of the black boxer, the climactic death of Raheem, and finally a discussion of contrasting views on how to fight racism in America.

Table of Contents
  1. Fight the Power
  2. Opening with Fire
  3. Buggin’ Out
  4. Radio Raheem
  5. Forward March
  6. Love and Hate
  7. The Black Pugilist
  8. Death by Police
  9. Malcolm and Martin

Fight the Power

“I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be rhythmic…I thought right away of Public Enemy.” — Spike Lee

Shortly after Public Enemy released their second album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” solidifying their status as the vanguard of conscious Hip Hop, Spike Lee approached the group to produce a song for his upcoming film. The result was “Fight the Power.”

Gotta give us what we want,
Gotta give us what we need,
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death,
We got to fight the powers that be.

With provocative lyrics and an unconventional sound, this song became the heartbeat of Lee’s film. Producer Shocklee of the Bomb Squad deliberately merged traditionally dissonant sounds — like layering saxophonist Branford Marsalis’s solo in D minor over a Bb7 chord — and placed percussive samples slightly ahead of or behind the beat to build tension and unease. It functions as a perfect anthem of defiance, with aggressive lyrics and an underlying production that deliberately breaks the rules.

Opening with Fire

In Do the Right Thing, “Fight the Power” comes out swinging as it plays throughout the entirety of the opening sequence, paired visually with Tina (Rosie Perez) dancing with fire and aggression on a red-hot sound stage designed to look like Bed-Stuy.

Rosie Perez dancing to "Fight the Power"

Taking inspiration from the opening sequence of Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Spike Lee imbues the sound stage musical opening with Hip-Hop flavor. Instead of the joyful singing of Ann-Margret, the opening sequence of Do the Right Thing features the fiery, urban backdrop of Brooklyn, the militant moves of Rosie Perez, and the provocative words of Public Enemy.

Spike Lee pushed Rosie Perez to her physical limit — she was using crutches by the end of the shoot — to instigate a fit of real-life anger in the actress that would translate into on-screen fury. The film cuts between rugged dance movements and intense shadow-boxing, delivering visual emphasis to each word being rapped by Chuck D. This opening sequence jolts the audience awake, and when the shot cuts to Señor Love Daddy’s (Samuel L. Jackson) first lines, we can already expect this film to bring the heat.

Buggin’ Out

So what does it mean to “Fight the Power”?

For Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), it means to demand representation. He instigates the film’s central conflict when he demands that Sal (Danny Aiello) put up pictures of famous black figures on his restaurant’s Wall of Fame. Since all of Sal’s customers are black, and these black customers keep his business alive, Buggin’ Out reasons that they ought to have some say in the kind of heroes and role models being honored on the wall. While Sal opts for Al Pacino, Buggin’ wishes for Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, or even Michael Jordan.

Radio Raheem and Buggin' Out in Do the Right Thing

To understand the importance of this representation, one can simply look to the following lyrics from “Fight the Power”:

I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped,
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps,
Sample a look back you look and find,
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check.

In rapping about stamps, Chuck D refers to the exorbitant memorializing of white figures in everyday American life: just think about how every cash transaction involves exchanging green paper with 18th-century slave-owners printed on its surface. Chuck D continues, pointing out that textbook American history is filled with “nothing but rednecks.” The hyperbolic, derogatory usage of “redneck” mainly serves to enhance the song’s provocativeness, but Chuck D conveys an important message: the white establishment has “white-washed” history — magnifying white people’s accomplishments, underplaying white people’s transgressions, and ignoring the contributions of those who were black.

By plastering the wall with Italian-Americans in a restaurant supported entirely by black customers, Sal contributes to this problem of white-washing representation. This conflict functions as a microcosm of America at large. America profited for centuries — and continues to profit — off of black people’s labor, and the least it can do is honor some of its most prominent black figures. Likewise, after 25 years of profiting from black customers, Sal really ought to put some “brothas on the wall.”

Radio Raheem

The true impact of “Fight the Power,” however, lies in the character of Radio Raheem, a tall and quiet black man who prowls the block while blasting the song from his signature boombox.

The legendary Radio Raheem

When creating Raheem, Spike Lee envisioned a symbol of the “misunderstood black youth.” He did not want to portray Raheem as perfect, so he created a tall, menacing character that would, in Lee’s own words, make “white people cross the street when they see him coming.”

For much of the film, Raheem is a relatively dislikeable character. He antagonizes other residents by blasting his music from the onset. At one point, he walks by a group of Puerto Ricans who are dancing to their own music, and he purposefully overpowers their music with his better-equipped boombox. Numerous characters throughout the film express their displeasure at the noise when Radio Raheem walks by.

The first time he walks into Sal’s, Raheem keeps his boombox on blast and disrupts both the workers and the customers. Naturally, it is Sal’s right to refuse service to Raheem until he turns off the music, and it is only after much angry yelling that Raheem finally acquiesces. Throughout this scene, Lee enhances Raheem’s menacing demeanor by capturing the character’s face with a wide-angle lens, angled up. Although all he asks for is “two slices,” the viewer cannot help but feel threatened. As he barks at Sal to “put some extra cheese on that mo’ fucker,” he comes off rude and intimidating.

Lee portrays Raheem as a menacing man

Raheem’s rudeness verges on racism when he goes to the Korean convenience store to buy batteries. Besides calling the Korean couple “mo’ fuckers,” he openly mocks their accented English and berates them for misunderstanding his request for “D batteries.”

As Lee himself said, he did not want to portray Raheem as “an angel.”

More Symbol than Human

As much as his flaws are human, Raheem functions more like a symbol for most of the film. He seldom speaks, letting Public Enemy do the talking for him as he blasts their song on repeat. As he transports the boombox around the block, he shows no clear purpose for walking outside on this smoldering day except to spread the word that they must “fight the powers that be.” In this way, he simply serves as a vessel for calling people to action.

Raheem’s outfit enhances this activist role: his T-shirt says “Bed-Stuy” and “Do or Die.” This provocative couplet plays like a Hip-Hop version of Patrick Henry’s famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Lee has a way of fusing politics with pop-culture, and this flashy T-shirt serves as the perfect add-on to the lyrics of Public Enemy.

As the day gets hotter and some troublemakers turn on a fire hydrant, a brief encounter with Radio Raheem most strikingly characterizes his symbolic role in the story. Everyone else is splashing about, cooling off, and enjoying the waterworks. When Raheem walks by, however, he simply glances at the crowd before walking through. He has nowhere to go except onward — to continue spreading the gospel of black activism.

Although Raheem does not appear to be any older than many of the people frolicking in the water, he disapprovingly ignores the scene — as if he is the only man among a crowd of children. This brief interaction captures a certain tension in the African-American existence: a black person in America can enjoy oneself for the moment, but the fight against racism has not been won. White Americans see this carefree life as normalcy, while black Americans can grasp this joy only temporarily. Before long, another tragedy will force them to mobilize and fight for their basic human and civil rights. Radio Raheem, in his unflinching forward march, reminds us that this fight never stopped, to begin with.

Love and Hate

Lee gives Raheem the chance to deliver his message to the audience in a poetic monologue about Love and Hate. Although Raheem is addressing Mookie, Lee cleverly replaces Mookie’s vantage point with the camera — allowing Raheem to speak to the viewer directly. In doing so, Raheem “breaks the fourth wall” to explain the significance of his brass knuckles.

“HATE. It was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. LOVE. These five fingers — they go straight to the soul of man. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand.”
- Radio Raheem

On his left hand, he wears Hate; on his right hand, he wears Love. As he shadow-boxes with his two symbolic fists, he illuminates a path of resistance: somewhere in the everlasting struggle between these opposing forces lies the answer to overcoming injustice in society.

Ted Kulczyky notes how the technique of having Raheem directly address the audience breaks the viewer from the spell of cinematic realism while heightening their involvement. Raheem’s speech alludes to a similar discussion of love versus hate as an internal conflict in the thriller film The Night of the Hunter (1955). Here, love and hate are fighting one another inside Raheem, but they also form the weapons with which he will fight the external enemy that is racism and oppression. Calling upon the imagery of the black boxer, Raheem delivers this message in a flurry of fists.

The Black Pugilist

To fully appreciate the significance of Radio Raheem’s punch-by-punch delivery, one must know of Jack Johnson, the black boxer who overcame all odds and became the first-ever black heavyweight world champion at the height of Jim Crow.

Jack Johnson

Even when Jack Johnson defeated the defending champion Tommy Burns in 1908, white Americans so desperately clung to notions of white supremacy that they deemed Johnson’s title as “empty.” They claimed that, since he never defeated James J. Jeffries, who had retired in 1905 while still undefeated, Johnson was not truly the greatest.

These insecure white Americans sought a “Great White Hope,” placing their bets on white boxer after white boxer that challenged — and lost to — Johnson. It was under immense public pressure that Jeffries returned from retirement to challenge Johnson in what was deemed “The Fight of the Century.” In his words, his goal was simple: “proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

Jeffries lost, solidifying even in skeptics’ eyes that a black man was indeed the best boxer in the world. This victory carried enormous significance as it permanently damaged the myth of white supremacy. Although such notions would live on and continue to this day, Jack Johnson was one of the first to punch plot-holes into America’s racist narrative with his own two fists.

Following in Johnson’s footsteps, Radio Raheem dons a pair of brass knuckles that are heavy with symbolism: each punch of Love and Hate is a reminder of the victory won many decades ago by Jack Johnson. Each punch chips away at the persistent yet weakening evil that is racism in America. He carries the mantle of the political black boxer — fighting to defeat the powers that be.

Death by Police

Raheem’s confident delivery, however, culminates on an unfinished thought: “But if I hate you…” He falls silent, and Mookie cuts in to continue the conversation. We never get to hear what happens if hate is the fist that deals the last blow.

The answer comes when tensions boil over at Sal’s Pizzeria: Sal demolishes Raheem’s boombox with a bat after an exchange of racially derogatory name-calling. Raheem pounces on Sal, the police are called, and one of the officers ultimately chokes Radio Raheem to death. It is at this moment that Raheem feels most human; after all, what can be more human than our fragile mortality?

In death, Raheem reminds everyone of his humanity, and his roles as both symbol and human merge into the spirit of a movement. Mookie, unable to keep the peace any longer, becomes the instigator of destruction: he throws a trash can through Sal’s window and the rioting begins.

Mookie takes action

Even as all hell breaks loose, Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) walks into the now burning pizzeria. As “Fight the Power” starts playing once more, the camera pans to the burning boombox. Throughout the film, Public Enemy’s anthem plays diegetically — that is, the song plays within the context of the story (through the boombox) and can be heard by its characters. At this moment, however, the song has become non-diegetic (part of the soundtrack). Raheem may be dead, and the boombox may be destroyed, but the spirit of Raheem’s fight, the tune of his struggle, and the words that delivered his message live on. They have stirred the people to action, and their rage fans the flames of progress.

Within these flames, and upon a now empty wall, Smiley puts up a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. For the first time in the film, the simple-minded Smiley finally lives up to his name and displays a pure, authentic smile. Somewhere in the struggle between love and hate, a step was taken was taken in the direction of equality.

Smiley puts a picture of Malcolm and Martin on the Wall of Fame

Malcolm and Martin

Do the Right Thing ultimately delivers a narrative of resistance built upon Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” introducing it in a fiery opening sequence, channeling it through Buggin’ Out’s demand for representation, broadcasting it diegetically through the boombox of Radio Raheem, and immortalizing it through Raheem’s death and subsequent ascension into martyrdom. Armed with hate, Mookie instigates the riot that destroys Sal’s Pizzeria — the film’s symbol for the white establishment. Armed with love, Mookie reconciles with Sal the next morning atop the ashes of the old establishment. With the future on both of their minds, they finally stand on equal footing.

Mookie and Sal stand on equal footing

In the film’s final frames, Lee juxtaposes two quotes from civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is as follows:

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys the community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

Then, the words of Malcolm X:

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.

On the surface, Martin’s approach seems to represent Love, and Malcolm’s approach seems to represent Hate. These two men, however, held more nuanced views not entirely represented in the quotes Lee selected. Malcolm advocated for violence only as a form of self-defense, while Martin simultaneously acknowledged the validity of urban riots. The film ends on the photo that Smiley put onto the wall — depicting both Malcolm and Martin, smiling and laughing together. This final image reminds us that the correct path of resistance lies somewhere between their opposing ideologies. It is only through combining Love and Hate that one can defeat the oppressor.

That is what it means to Fight the Power.

That is what it means to Do the Right Thing.

Rest in peace and power