Film Studies

Do the Right Thing

with 3 comments

Do the Right Thing was written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee in 1989.  Unlike many other films released during the early 90s, Do the Right Thing takes a realistic approach to the influence of race relations in New York.  Spike Lee stars as Mookie, the central character who interacts with various characters in the neighborhood as he fulfills his duties as a delivery boy for Sal, an Italian who has owned and operated the local pizzeria for over 15 years.  Do the Right Thing addresses race through blurring binary opposition and cinematic techniques allowing the viewer to leave the film with a better understanding of race relations in America.

One of the major differences in Do the Right Thing compared to other films involving race is that it takes a realistic approach to race relations.  A consequence of this realistic approach is a less distinct binary opposition in the film.  According to a review by Roger Ebert, Do the Right Thing “is not filled with brotherly love, but it is not filled with hate, either. It comes out of a weary, urban cynicism that has settled down around us in recent years.”  Rather than have a clear story with a good character battling a bad character, Do the Right Thing has no clear-cut hero or villain.  Instead, each character in Do the Right Thing has both positive and negative qualities.  An example of a character that exemplifies this quality simply is Da Mayor, played by Ossie Davis, who displays good qualities by saving the child from a speeding car and is one of the few people who attempts to stop the rioting of Sal’s pizza parlor.  Although these are good qualities, Da Mayor is classified as the neighborhood drunk who constantly drinks and stumbles around the neighborhood throughout the film.  This blurriness in binary opposition has its benefits and drawbacks.  It is beneficial because it allows viewers to relate more to characters and creates a realistic picture.  The drawback is that it may be harder to understand since there is no clear-cut person the viewer feels he/she should connect with.  Roger Ebert agrees with this statement as he believes Do The Right Thing “doesn’t ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair.”

Spike Lee addresses race in this film by taking a realistic approach to race relations in America.  In addition to doing this through characters who display have both strengths and faults, he also does this through the formal context.  Roger Ebert states that “Lee’s writing and direction are masterful throughout the movie; he knows exactly where he is taking us, and how to get there, but he holds his cards close to his heart, and so the movie is hard to predict, hard to anticipate. After we get to the end, however, we understand how, and why, everything has happened.”  I believe a major way Spike Lee accomplishes this heightened suspense is through the concept of having characters look straight into the camera when talking about certain ideas.  Below is a clip from Do the Right Thing that accomplishes this feat.

The eye contact directly into the camera engages the viewer into the film, allowing the viewer to feel effects of the rant as if the character was talking directly to you.  This was a goal of Spike Lee; to encourage the viewer to understand the level of race intolerance in America.  Roger Ebert says it excellently in his review when he states “anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn’t paying attention.”

As I viewed Do the Right Thing, I also considered the discussion we had about the film a few class periods ago.  When Do the Right Thing was released, it received sub-par reviews, but it now considered one of the greatest films of all time.  Why this change?  My theory is that the world never experienced the sort of realistic race movie as such.  We are accustomed to movies where there is a clear good vs. evil battle, and expect the conclusion of the movie to provide more answers than questions.  Do the Right Thing “comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.”  As time went on and experts reflected on this film, they saw the potential it has to illustrate race relations.  Roger Ebert agrees with this when he wrote his positve review soon after Do the Right Things release and said: “There will be time, in the extended discussions this movie will inspire, to discuss in detail who does what and why.”


Written by matthewpickle

March 30, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Now you mentioned that the characters looking directly into the camera engages the viewer, allowing them to feel “effects of the rant as if the character was talking directly to you.” I do not totally agree with you on that. In fact, I think that by looking directly in the camera the audience feels a certain amount of alienation or uncomfortableness which distracts them from the plot of the film and causes them to think about what is going on outside of the plot.


    April 4, 2011 at 6:49 pm

  2. Your video clip is a great example of the themes that Lee was trying to portray by saying that everyone is a little bit racist. Everyone has their own reasons. Never is it hateful, it is just out of anger, frustration, there is motive. As I said on one of the other comments, I think there is a reason that Lee is a main character but there is not protagonist. This really makes the audience think about what is going on. It awakens them to their own racism and shows them that everyone has a back story. Right?


    April 4, 2011 at 6:56 pm

  3. Matt, I really enjoyed reading your blog. Well done! I definitely agreed with your views on the film they aligned closely with my own. I really liked how you explored the shift in opinions about the film and the significance of this shift. I think it is something that is often seen in significant films. In my blog I related it to how poorly Citizen Kane was reviewed when it came out. Honesty, I think people love to hate controversial things and once the controversy is over they are left with the profound impact the film has left. I loved that you looked into that profound impact, and I agree that it has to do with how closely it reflects the state of race in our world today. Great job!


    April 5, 2011 at 3:11 am

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