The first time I saw Do the Right Thing was when I was in high school; perhaps it was in college, but even if so no later than the summer after my freshmen year, when Cornel West had introduced me, unknowingly and accidentally, to the world of African-American thought: W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, and many others. I knew about the vast differences between MLK and Malcolm X, and that and the end of their lives each began to converge with the positions the other had held. This is not much of an education, as educations go, but it was enough that I could grasp what the film was trying to do, and what it did, not least its central and remarkably evenhanded central idea about the state of race in America. It is, I think, the only film on race that stands, without qualifications, as an equal to the other great statements on race in America--Invisible Man and all the rest.
It is perhaps then needless to say that I make a point of watching it every year, when possible on the hottest day of the year, all the better to appreciate the setting. The ending, in particular, is a unique example of how to use violence without exploiting violence for its spectacle: no one wants to be Sal, or Mookie, or Radio Raheem, or the police. Everyone brutalizes and is brutalized in turn, and no one attempts to calm the situation except The Mayor.
I had always had what might well be the traditional white person response to the end: Mookie's frustration is comprehensible but his decision to turn his anger at the police on Sal's is unjustifiable. I was surprised on my viewing last year to do some research and discover that Spike Lee thinks Mookie absolutely did the right thing in doing so; I could not conceive of how that might work. The essay written by Roger Ebert for the Criterion edition of the film make it clearer: to think that the destruction of Sal's is a tragedy or unjustifiable is to confuse the value of a place and a possession for that of a human life. It might be a tragedy but it is immeasurably less of one.
The justification for this interpretation became clearer on this viewing from a few lines given to Mister Señor Love Daddy at the end: the mayor of New York is coming to the block and is commissioning an investigation, vowing that the needless destruction of property will not be allowed to continue. Radio Raheem is already forgotten, already disappeared from the view of the wider world. That's the tragedy; that's the essence of violence: it makes the victims angry and resentful, and it makes the perpetrators cruel and brutal, and more than any of these things, it strips away individual identity and reduces people, at best, to instances of groups, and at worst, it reduces them to things. Everyone is caught up in a web of forces they can't always control, and that can disassemble quickly that which it takes a long time to build. The genius of this movie is that it is built around this idea, but it never tells you that idea: it's left as an exercise for the viewer. Most movies are about no idea at all, and those that are appear so anxious you might miss the idea that they will explain it or underline it as many times as they can, but this one really is different.