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.