We now possess more evidence regarding Michael Brown’s death, and so one would think we’d have a better collective understanding of the situation. Unfortunately, it appears we’re still having trouble even beginning to comprehend what happened to Brown, what’s happening between police and People of Color across America and what is still happening in the microcosmic city of Ferguson, Missouri.

As a film reviewer, my capacity for commenting on current events is usually pretty limited, but sometimes film avails itself for the task, shining light into the darkness of our present issues. Art, especially film, has the power to examine the world in a way that takes the confusing and makes it understandable — as is the case with Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and the killing of Michael Brown.

“Do the Right Thing” shows us life on a hot summer Sunday in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, New York. Sal Fragione opens his pizzeria just as he’s done every day for the past 25 years. In that time he’s seen the neighborhood shift demographics to a more Black and Hispanic community. Sal accepts this fact without resentment: He sees himself and his restaurant as a part of the community. His elder son Pino, on the other hand, hates it there and hates the customers who are primarily Black. Pino wants Sal to move the restaurant to their own neighborhood. What begins with a Black patron somewhat belligerently complaining about the lack of Black people on the restaurant’s wall of fame devolves into violence and ends with the murder of a large, unarmed Black man (Radio Raheem) at the hands of a white police officer. The film explores racial and ethnic relations, the factors that drive conflict and the challenge to do the right thing.

The present controversy surrounding Michael Brown’s death can be understood largely as one that resulted from poor storytelling. How far back does the story begin — when Brown stole a pack of cigarillos, to Officer Wilson’s childhood, to the Civil Rights Era, to slavery? Who instigated the conflict between Brown and Wilson? What were the personal antecedents in both Brown and Wilson’s lives? What situational factors influenced the event? Films like “Do the Right Thing” offer us a narrative framework to help us answer these sorts of questions and, in turn, more deeply understand the issue.

The police killing in “Do the Right Thing” is eerily similar to the killing of Michael Brown, and the film does not offer any simple moral explanations for this type of violence; the film asserts that Radio Raheem is not entirely innocent. Indeed, he did instigate the conflict by provoking Sal with his boom-box and then assaulting him. But why did Raheem provoke Sal? Because Radio Raheem believed that he had the right to play his boom box as loudly as he wanted wherever he wanted, including in the White Man’s pizzeria, where Sal did not want Raheem playing his boom-box.

The fundamental point here is that any particular conflict between African- and White-Americans exists within a much larger framework of race relations that goes back through the Civil Rights Era, slavery and beyond. The contingencies that lead to the particular conflict between Sal and Radio Raheem (the hot day, the poverty in the community) were produced by an economic system and a history much larger than the particular “actors” immediately before us.

Social psychologists often talk about what’s called the fundamental attribution error, as Wikipedia defines: “people’s tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors.” The first lesson I draw from “Do the Right Thing” is this: Ranging from the current sociological factors that maintain our respective statuses as well as the historical factors that have led us all to our current places in the world, appreciating and accepting the complexities of one another’s identities and how these identities interact to produce a community is imperative for resolving interpersonal and intergroup conflict when it arises. Broadening our minds in this manner can prevent us from committing the fundamental attribution error, which too often fosters hate, violence and destruction, and instead can lead us to understanding, love and creation.

The rioting in the film and in Ferguson pains me personally for many reasons, not least of which is its thoughtlessness. In “Do the Right Thing,” one line by the owner of the market across from Sal’s speaks to the absurdity of the often self-destructive nature of rioting. When the mob has finished destroying the pizzeria, they turn on the Korean-owned market across the street. The Korean owner waves his broom side-to-side in vain, trying to deter the mob, and he says to the mob in broken English: “I Black. You, me: the same.” Despite what might be the more salient differences between the groups in the community (skin color, accents, etc.), they are all more or less the same, as we all are.

Looting local businesses only perpetuates the shared economic deprivation of the community. The end goal, it seems to me, should be creative local initiatives to address the community’s issues. This approach will lead to more constructive and overall better solutions.

But what do I know? I’m just a film reviewer.

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