Oftentimes, directors who have cast themselves in the central role of a film do so as a perceived vanity. They are the action star that is infallible, the romantic lead who is witty and charming in the perfect proportion. In Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s Mookie is not any of these sorts—his character is a central hub of the neighborhood, but the plot does not primarily hinge on his actions or interactions. Instead, we have the characters of Sal [Danny Aiello], the pizzeria owner, Buggin’ Out [Giancarlo Esposito], the Black Pride-infused b-boy, and, most notably, Radio Raheem [Bill Nunn], a man who carries a boom box around the neighborhood, always playing “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy.
Radio Raheem is interesting in that he is played as a quiet, intense man—as with so much of the film, this plays differently to white and black audiences. To black audiences, he’s a proud black man, wearing iconic graffiti art on his shirt from the neighborhood of Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. To white audiences, he’s perhaps seen as intimidating, menacing. He wears golden “Love” and “Hate” brass knuckles. Some circles of people might see him and call him a “thug.”
The iconic scene where he explains his knuckles is a riff on earlier films, primarily Night of the Hunter. In that film, Harry Powell uses the same speech as a way to con his way into the lives of several people, only as an attempt to find a hidden stash of money. He is menacing and threatening throughout the film, and though the adults that are listening to the story he tells are taken in by it, the children [and we the audience] know better. He’s a murderer, a thief, and a fraud.
But how come Spike Lee uses that same speech with Radio Raheem? He’s not a murderer or thief or fraud. “Brother, Mookie,” he says as he wraps up his speech, “if I love you I love you, but if I hate you...” And then, in conclusion, “I love you, my brother.” Perhaps Lee is playful in his usage of the speech; a cinephiliac nod and moment of indulgence. That seems awfully uncharitable towards Lee, and even more so towards the characters.
As a cinephile, the interpretation of the scene is generally that Lee has turned the speech on its head, and played with our expectations. The movie plays with dichotomies throughout, and a character giving the famous “Love and Hate” speech from Night of the Hunter is a fun way to underscore those dichotomies.
But notice how differently this speech is filmed than the scene in Night of the Hunter. Radio is not talking to Mookie—the camera turns and he is talking to us and the speech becomes something more than old Harry Powell’s cavalcade of lies. In that film, Powell was a fake preacher, a guise he’d adopted to insinuate himself into the lives of the innocents. Radio, though, is an honest-to-goodness street preacher, an apostle of the truth. Later in the film, Sal misses this point: his boom box is not so much for him to listen to, but for everyone else around him. “Fight the power / We've got to fight the powers that be.” To turn it off as he entered the white-owned business that they had little choice about would be to surrender that message.
But why is Radio using those words in his speech? We have to ask what the two options are. Is this movie set in a world that somehow didn’t have Night of the Hunter, and Radio’s speech was extemporaneous? Or, the more likely scenario, that Radio was aware of this old movie, and adapted those words into his own mantra. Why couldn’t he be a film buff? Audiences unfamiliar with the prior film would think he's preaching, but those who are familiar with Hunter might miss this detail entirely. It is easy to imagine young Raheem wandering into a second-run theatre on the weekend, showing the film in a revival, and the film affecting him profoundly.
What, then, did Radio Raheem see in that film that spoke to him so intensely to adopt it into his life? Was it Harry Powell’s cold blooded villainy? The starkness of violence and morality? Perhaps it was the moment early on in the film, where the father of the young boy at the center of the film is roughly taken in by the police—perhaps it was the police violence that seemed utterly relatable.
The speech is designed to shape our understanding of Radio Raheem through the rest of the film, the importance of which frames the climactic scene of his death and the immediate aftermath. Mookie’s interactions with the rest of the neighborhood have little impact on the plot up until that point, and his actions can be traced directly to the speech that Raheem gave him about Love and Hate.
The film—and, in fact, much of Spike Lee’s work in general—is often written off as “message films,” movies that are just statements on racism. But it’s better to look at it not as a statement-with-a-period, but one with a very large question mark at the end. Lee is too good a filmmaker to make a movie with clear answers. The question is not whether either “love” or “hate” are winning, but how can we live inside that struggle and come out on the other end.