Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 1 Viewing

Do the Right Thing

Kathryn Herron

Eye of the Story

Caryn Cline and Sam Schrager

Close Viewing: Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing


                Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a brilliant film. I was, admittedly, a little intimidated when I found out I was going to be analyzing this film. I am very much aware of my white skin and the privilege it offers me, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do this film justice with my analysis because I am not typically exposed to racism. But then I realized that I should use my position of privilege to talk about this film – this incredible film that dares its audience to address their racist behavior.

                It seems obvious to me that Spike Lee hoped not only to call attention to racial tension in America with this film but that he also hoped to make his audience feel uncomfortable. Lee forces his viewers to address one of the most avoided topics in this country – systematic racism. Lee manages to do this quite expertly with his use of camerawork and the excellent execution of a rebellion against classic Hollywood cinema. Lee isn’t afraid to be aggressive. He isn’t afraid to shove the message of his film down his audience’s throat.

                One thing I particularly enjoy about Do the Right Thing is how unapologetic it is. It’s honest. Lee shows us that racists aren’t all evil cowboys who don white hoods in secret. Rather, he highlights the fact that racism is everywhere. It is persistent. It’s something that people have to deal with on a daily basis – while walking down the street, at work, home, or even at their favorite pizza shop – and that is a fact that Lee knew most of his white audience wouldn’t understand. Racism is commonplace in America and the topic isn’t just black and white.

In Do the Right Thing, Lee shows us that even minorities can believe that their race or ethnic group is superior to others.  We can even see this in how the characters handle themselves. Take Radio for example. Whenever he interacts with someone of another race, he turns the volume on his boom box up with his right hand – the hand of hate. In contrast, he always uses his left hand to adjust the volume when he’s interacting with another black character.  

The movie as a whole does a wonderful job of exploring the topic of racism, but none do so as beautifully as the scene in which Lee aggressively cuts between different point-of-view shots that break the fourth wall while characters deliver a string of racist slurs. Lee shows each of these characters in “their territory” – we see them on their stoops, in their streets, in their shops and restaurants, etc. – which further “others” his audience. It makes it impossible to ignore the tension and viewers are immediately thrown into the headspace of these characters. Lee makes us go to them; he zooms in and brings us face to face. Each of them stands still, which could be interpreted as a visual representation of their stubbornness. Senior Love Daddy eventually breaks this pattern by rolling up to the camera. He comes to the audience and attempts to get into our headspace. Unlike the others, he actually moves in the frame which suggests that he is less stubborn than the others and more likely to be willing to change his point of view. He yells at the audience, gives us a time out and orders us all to chill.

I still don’t know enough about cinema to comment too much on how Lee challenges the classic Hollywood formula with Do the Right Thing, but I did notice some of the various ways he twisted it or did something different. Instead of giving us one clear-cut hero to follow, Lee throws a huge cast at his audience. Most of the background characters in this film have repeats visits and even though we see them time and time again, they don’t tend to stick around long enough to introduce themselves or explain their role in the film. They all have voices and the audience can tell that they’re all going about their own business (for the most part), we never get to know their full story. Often these characters will crowd the frame, making it impossible for white audiences to ignore their black faces. In the scene in which Buggin’ Out and his friends confront the white brownstone owner who messed up his shoes, we see extras literally crowd the white character, trapping him in the frame.

There’s a lot I could say about Do the Right Thing but I think what strikes me most about this film is its lasting power and continued relevance, which is actually somewhat tragic. On first viewing this film, some white viewers are still surprised when Mookie decides to throw a trashcan through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. Meanwhile the murder of innocent, unarmed black men and children has become so common that when someone asks if you heard about the police shooting that happened you need to ask which one they’re referring to.

Do The Right Thing, Jackie Pleus.

Spike Lee’s overwhelming theme of heat got to me. While trying to pick a scene to analyze I was getting hot, agitated, stressed out, overwhelmed. Fingers burning on the keyboard as “Fight the Power,” plays through my head, “Fight the power! Fight the power!” should I focus on the introduction scene where Mina is dancing her heart out through her pores in the red glowing light, -“Fight the power!”- or the scene that introduces Sal and his sons Pino and Vino, when Lee strongly foreshadows the culmination of the film, -“Fight the power!”-or the trio of scenes of interracial conflict starting when Mookie pulls Pino aside to ask him who his favorite celebrities are. Maybe I should just focus on the culminating scene itself, the one that brought the most emotions, the most unanswered questions, the most heat, to the surface.

            Radio’s body has just been carted away in the back of the cop car, there is unrest in the streets, the weight of what has just happened is settling like dust, people gather their thoughts, a formidable mob is forming. Coconut Head concludes a string of statements spouted from the mouths of the front line of the mob, “Its as plain as day, they didn’t have to kill the boy.” The camera shifts to Mookie, blinking slowly he turns and looks to his left at Sal, the camera switches to Sal who blinks and slowly looks back at Mookie. Then the camera cuts to a medium low angle shot of Mookie, Sal, Pino, and Vino standing on the pizzeria stoop, with Mookie looking back and forth between Sal and the mob. This shot gives a last air of strength to the Italian family before Mookie slowly walks away hands on his hips. At this point as a viewer I thought Mookie was ducking his head, simply running away, avoiding the problem, which is probably what Sal and his boys thought and wanted to do in that moment too. Sal watches Mookie go, the camera is still at a medium low angle shot, Mookie walks through the crowd, they don’t seem to pay him any attention, but it is evident that they don’t blame him for the murder. Sal’s hand gestures helplessly, like a father watching his son betray him there is such sadness and hurt in his eyes. He looks defeated when he says, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” The lighting has cooled now, there are hardly any bright reds, or fervent music beating your heart, making you feel the heat. Perhaps this is to help the audience focus on the palpable lines of tension running through the crowd as they move in. Da Mayor takes a stand in front of Sal and his boys, spreading his arms in wings of protection, trying to bring reason back in the fray, “We gone stop, and stop this now, or we gone do something we gone regret for the rest of our lives.”

            I find it interesting that he says “We,” because Da Mayor has no intention of attacking Sal or the pizzeria, yet to connect to the crowd he must depict himself as one of them, but his advice isn’t accepted and he is quickly thrown out. The camera angle is high to low with a wide frame taking in the crescent moon crowd surrounding the shop. This view helps give the audience an idea of the bigger picture, the chaos of voices becomes overwhelming, then it turns to a panning shot from left to right a close up of the vocal frustration venting and fuming from the lips and bodies of the men and women in the crowd. The camera passes between the pan of the crowd and a close shot of Sal and his boys. Showing both sides with equal frustration in their eyes. Mookie stands nearer the back staring, moving slowly and with silence, as he has throughout the scene he brings his hands down over his face in distress, thinking hard, he rests his hands over his nose watching, then dropping his hands he turns. This is the moment he decides to get the trashcan; this is the moment he decides to “Do the right thing.” As he walks back there is a fleeting shot of the Korean man grabbing his wife from the crowd by her arms pulling her to safety, does the man know what is going to happen next? Mookie takes out the bag and tosses the top onto the curb, kicking it as he walks back towards the shop. The lighting is still cool, the shot is wide taking in the shadows of the night as they creep down the street. As he crosses the street he is walking, walking towards the camera, with the people he passes turning their heads to watch him. It seems as though people are confused, which takes the attention away from Sal and the boys. But then as Mookie gets to the other side of the street he starts running, he runs past the camera, his motives suddenly becoming clear to the bystanders. He tosses the can and we see it crash through the window, the glass breaking easily, and then we see it crash through the window again, this time from the inside of the shop. The crowd erupts and Mookie raises his fists, in triumph or surrender it is hard to make clear. If you look at it from the point of view that this act was intentional and well thought through, it makes sense that is fists are raised in triumph because he knew that this was the only way to save Sal’s life, to divert the heat from him and let the mob release it on the shop. What Mookie does isn’t necessarily right or wrong, positive or negative, heroic or evil, because he is still destroying a man’s life’s work. In this way the scene shows the depth of Mookie’s understanding of the heat, and plays a key role in supporting the polyphonic style of the movie.

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The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

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