Film & Philosophy: How to 'Do the Right Thing' (According to Plato)
Updated: Feb 15
Plato writes, “I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life.” In other words, to grow older means that life is no longer to be lived, but to remember how one had lived.
In the 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, the neighborhood’s residential drunk, Da Mayor, wanders the streets with little to do and little in his life. Still, he makes conversation with everyone that he encounters, serves as a citizen of the neighborhood, saves a young boy from getting hit by a car, and seeks out a new relationship with a local nun.
Life has passed Da Mayor by, as he attempts to distinguish his memories from his past with what he hopes to gain in the future. Though in old age, memories seem to be the way of one’s life.
Plato writes, “money-making–these do us good but we regard them as disagreeable; and no one would choose them for their own sakes, but only for the sake of some reward or result which flows from them?” In the eyes of Plato, money does not hold value other than what that money can give you (whether that be a thing, experience, or moment in life).
Mookie works to provide for his son, and for his son’s mother. He doesn’t earn the money to buy expensive clothes or chains like other men his neighborhood, but as a means to an end. Similarly, Sal maintains his pizza shop not because he wants to provide pizza for a neighborhood that is different than him, but because he created the shop as a legacy for his life’s work, and one to leave his sons with when he is gone.
Plato writes, “And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.” Ultimately being just and unjust are two extreme ways of living life, and it is difficult to tell which is which until our actions result in the most extreme consequences.
One of the final scenes of the film depicts the horrific strangling and ultimate death of Radio Raheem, a local neighborhood man who is can seen wandering the streets with a boombox in hand. The death is a result of a fight between Radio Raheem and Sal, a local restaurant owner and sole Italian in the neighborhood.
The death strikes even harder, considering Radio Raheem’s actions until this point were questionable, maybe even unjust for his circumstances. He had yelled nasty things towards Sal, almost strangled Sal to death, and encouraged others in his community to retaliate unjustness surrounding them.
But he also spread love through the music in his boombox, and never held any ill intentions until the fight. Though his actions were seen as both just and unjust throughout the movie, he ultimately died as a martyr for the cause he was fighting for, and was seen as a just man.
Plato writes, “And our State must once more enlarge; and this time the enlargement will be nothing short of a whole army, which will have to go out and fight with the invaders for all that we have, as well as for the things and people whom we were describing above.”
A state’s function is to be a place, both literal and metaphorical, for those with like minded intentions and ways of living to reside. When this way of living is threatened by ‘the other’, the state must either retaliate or change its function to incorporate more intentions, goals, and ways of living.
Following the riot at Sal’s pizza place, many of the black members of the neighborhood took to the streets to demand justness for their cause. From just Radio Raheem confronting Sal in his store, to a group rioting on the streets, this group mentality creates a sense of community, and further a sense of state that Plato alludes to.
In enlarging the state, a nearby Korean family ensures the black rioters that they are all the same, with the same intentions and way of living, to convince them that, unlike the Italians, they can all reside in the same state.