Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing Cultural Mediation Criticism. “Works of ethnic literature -? written by, about or for persons who perceived themselves, or were perceived by others as members of ethnic groups -? may thus be read not only as expressions of mediation between cultures but also as handbooks of socialization into the codes of Americanness” (Sollors, 7). American Iilmmaker Spike Lee is widely known to create controversial, politically minded and oppositional dramatic cinema. From his fairly indie Iilms such as She’s Gotta Have It and School Days to his mainstream feature length blockbuster, Do the
Right Thing, Lee attempts to paint a picture of an ethnic group that may or may not be relatable to a dissimilar ethic group. Lee’s Iilm is a unique perspective into “blackness” in NYC, but it is dangerous to categorize his Iilm as truth; dangerous to accept his Iilm for its accurate depiction of reality. Wahneema Lubiano, in her article Reading Realism, Representation and Essentialism in Do the Right Thing, explains that Lee’s over criticized Iilm was reviewed on the grounds of realism, where the Iilm itself represent the “real black ghetto” in a satirical manner. Lee’s narrative form is only real in the sense hat his slice of rice has some elements of fact, and therefore, the whole is mistakenly accepted by many as fact. Lee’s version of reality is promiscuous (Lubiano, 263). However, Do the Right Thing cannot be immediately marked off as an ethnic text. As Phillip Hanson points out in his article The Politics of Inner City Identity in Do the Right Thing, Lee has a unique discourse of the inner city ghetto and expresses the oppression and anger felt by the black community represented in the Iilm and possibly, a black audience. Even though Do the Right Thing has it’s Ilaws as an ethnic text, this representation ay still function as an ethnic text, as Werner Sollors, in his article Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture mentions that ethnic literature provides Americans with a grammar of conduct (Sollors, 7). Lee’s use of the Iilm medium marketed to a wide audience gave him the ability to express frustrations of the black community in a controversial, yet popularized manner, and made audiences of all races aware of the wide concept of “racism”. Lee’s representation of blackness in America cannot be taken as real, and therefore, Do the Right Thing looses some credibility as an accurate ethnic ext, but it’s unique discourse of the politics of inner city ghettos and its broad theme of racism asks the audience to “come to terms” with racism and therefore, mediates between the white, black, korean and latino cultures. Do the Right Thing is a dramatic narrative about the Iictionalized city and events of Bedford-? Stuyvesant that attempts to paint an accurate picture of an inner city ghetto. The Iilm takes place over the course of a day in a black ghetto in Brooklyn. The main character, Mookie, struggles to get paid at work at Sal’s Pizzeria, owned by an italian-? american family. The community and
Sal’s Pizzeria are in constant struggle with their ethnic identities. Mookie’s friend, Buggin-? Out, is outraged over the lack of black Americans on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria, which ultimately leads to a violent confrontation, ending in a riot headed by Mookie destroying of Sal’s Pizzeria. The repressed nature of the community boiled over in a violent confrontation that shares many similarities to the race riots of the 1960’s. However, there are signiIicant unrealistic differences between Lee’s ghetto representation and the historical ghettos of NYC. Many elements of Lee’s ghetto were incredibly satiric nd comedic, far from what one would expect to see in the projects of New York City. During the 1980‘s, Harlem was Iilled with crime, crack dealers and high infant mortality rates. The ghetto was further isolated by the removal of the middle class african Americans, leaving the ghetto with conditions one would Iind in a third world country (Jargowsky, 287). The ghetto that Lee creates is far from the ghettos of the 1980‘s. Even from the non-? black side of the ghetto, the “white” characters (Sal, the Korean grocers, police) were disturbingly humorous in their presentation. Sal, and Italian American, owns pizza shop in Brooklyn with his two younger sons, all with distinguishable Italian accents and salami hanging from the windows. The Korean grocers have embraced their “entrepreneurial heritage” and opened up a proIitable grocery store on the corner of a street, again, with almost incoherent accents. Lastly, the tall, white, seemingly Jewish police ofIicers with muscles just a bit to big for their uniforms patrol the neighborhood and respond with super-? human like speed. The black perspective is even more absurd. Buggin’ Out’s character wears his groucho classes, has obnoxious attitude and and obsession ith his sneakers. The three arguing black men on the corner, angry lover of mookie, and radio are all examples of stereotypes gone out of control and Lee’s unrealistic view of the inner city ghetto. To establish a basis of Lee’s presentation of truth, one must take into account what Lee’s “realist” view is based from. The resonances of authenticity depend on who is doing the evaluating (Lubiano 269). Lee, as the auteur, may be a major contributor to these evaluations, as he was known to bike through ghettos in Brooklyn to ascertain a “Iirst hand” knowledge of the culture he attempted to capture. In Lee’s
Iilm however, his representation of blackness is not reality. Simple, factual reproductions of hyper-? selected aspects of vernacular culture are neither necessarily counter-? hegemonic art, social commentary nor anything else, and don’t really set the record straight; these carefully chosen reproductions only serve to create enough of a distorted reality for the viewer to reject or approve of the visual subtext (Lubiano, 277). Therefore, Lee did not paint a universally truthful portrayal of “blackness”, rather, a narrow narrative expression to serve his directorial views in an almost comedic method. His ruth was not based historically, rather, a recreation based on ideals held by Lee. One must realize that Lee’s Iilm is not a documentary, indie Iilm, or a Iirst hand account of the black ghetto, and should not be considered an accurate depiction. As Thomas Doherty points out in his review of the Iilm in Film Quarterly, “Hollywood has no idea what these folks are about…no brand name director has the inside-? dopster access to the vernacular, manners and values of black America, still less the black underclass. Lee-? a product of the black middle class to be sure-? is as close as mainstream American cinema s likely to get” (Doherty, 36). His Iilm had a budget of millions, so to say that his Iilm painted an “authentic” picture of the black ghetto is inaccurate. In the view of Lubiano, “the likelihood of that production’s remaining oppositional or subversive with regard to race might well be in inverse proportion to the extent the Iilm relies on the support of large (of whatever races), politically uncritical audience to turn a proIit” (Lubiano, 258). The Iilm grossed over 37 million worldwide. Lee used Iilm conventions to construct his narrative view of the black ghetto, with the array of absurd characters and himsical view of New York City (Rosenbam). Furthermore, the opening title sequence, obviously Iilmed on a sound stage, and the deliberate lack of drugs and weapons further detract from the realism of the Iilm, but made it popular to a wide audience. Even with its inaccuracies and it’s satirical approach, Lee proposes important social theories of the politics of the inner city ghetto and to anger in the black community. Do the Right Thing takes place on the hottest day of the year, giving the Iilm a consistent theme of oppression. Mookie struggles to support his girlfriend and child, Da-? Mayor struggles ith his identity, and Buggin-? Out struggles with his personal injustices such as the scufIing of his air jordans and the lack of black Americans on the wall of Sal’s. All of these frustrations eventually erupt into violence as Radio and Buggin-? Out storm into Sal’s blaring “Fight the Power” and demanding that black’s be put on his wall of fame. Sal insists that his ownership of the restaurant is reason to post pictures of whoever he wants, and in his frustration, destroys Radio’s boom box. Radio is fury lunges for Sal and attempts to strangle him on the sidewalk. The police attempt to break up the Iight, nd accidentally suffocate Radio. This infuriates the community, and they begin to seek vengeance for the death of radio. This vengeance is targeted towards Sal and his sons, until Mookie picks up a trash can and throws it into the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. This results in the total destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria. This violent reaction, as pointed out by Hanson, is a result of Lee’s belief that the ghetto construct is directly related to the oppressive assigned identity given to it from the outside. This assigned identity constructed from the outside chokes the construct of the ghetto, and that there must be reaction to the suffocation of the ghetto, or their identity will be lost. Destruction as seemingly the only alternative to oppression is “the particular manifestation of the frustrations inherent in the black identity in the urban underclass that has characterized race riots in the twentieth century America” (Hanson, 59). Lee does not necessarily want to instill militant habits in black Americans, but rather, a call to action. After the riot in the Iilm, the DJ encourages the citizens to go out and vote. Lee wants the community to express itself, and his ideology is that a riot is an emotional response to he assumptions behind an imposed status (Hanson, 63). Even though Do the Right Thing is high in ideals and not necessarily a realistic view of an inner city ghetto in the 80’s, it cannot be immediately disregarded as an ethnic text. Lee, as a black Iilmmaker, has certain presumptions of identity that an individual of another race, gender or ethnicity may not be able to fully comprehend. This assumption of biologic insiderism and that experience is Iirst and foremost ethnic may be argued in Lee’s Iilm, as one cannot say that just because Lee is black, the Iilms he made are authentic ethnic texts (Sollor, 12).