Most Characters Are Direct And Opinionated: Most characters state their opinions, outlooks and biases openly and loudly. Mookie’s motivations are one of the few things left to the audience to interpret.
Main Character Is A Closed Book: Contrasting almost every other character, Mookie generally keeps his cards close to his chest. He reacts to things, but often doesn’t reveal his opinions. (Which leads a lot of audiences to ask why Mookie throws the trash can, a question which Spike Lee says he only gets from non-black audiences.)
Greek Chorus: ML, Coconut Sid, and Sweet Dick act as a sort of Greek Chorus: commenting on the action throughout the movie without taking (much) direct role.
Generational (and Racial) Units: The Mayor/Sister Mother, ML/Coconut Sid/Sweet Dick, etc. These characters often have scenes together, and are often grouped and shot with each other when interacting with other characters. The cops follow this rule. Same with the Koreans, the Latinos with their own boombox, and the other groups who occasionally interact with the main characters.
Characters as Witness: Characters are often in scenes simply as a witness, without dialog. The Mayor, for instance, is often on his stoop, just watching.
STAGING and FRAMING
Staging: Different groups are staged together in units, often speaking as one character. Characters rarely break from those units within a single scene. Even if one takes the lead, the others are usually present in the frame. Examples: Ella/Cee/Punchy/Ahmad; ML/Coconut Sid/Sweet Dick, The Koreans, The Cops.
Dutch Angles: A lot of Dutch Angles used to express character and imbalance. Radio Raheem is usually dutched: sometimes subtlety destabilizing the viewer, such as in his monologue on Love and Hate. Shots from Mother Sister’s perspective are highly canted.
High and Low Angles Used For Power and Status: Mother Sister is often shot from below, until her reaction to the firefighters turning the hose on the neighborhood. When Buggin Out gains status in his argument against the cyclist, the camera slowly lowers, shooting him from below.
Tight Isolation Shots on Wide Lenses: A LOT of isolation shots on individuals and groups. As the tension escalates, the shots on faces and groups get tighter and tighter. The wider angle lenses give the shots a claustrophobic feel. In later films, this develops into the double dolly shot, which will become a signature of Spike Lee.
The Camera As Mirror: Spike Lee often puts the camera straight on, like a mirror, like in the racial epitaph montage. Characters frequently break the forth wall to deliver their monologues.
Ground Shots: Radio Raheem’s death, Buggin Out’s shoes, The Mayor and Eddie on the ground.
Shot On Location, but still Expressionistic: Do The Right Thing is shot on location in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. But many buildings were painted bright colors, murals were added, lighting is often unrealistic, and angles/lens choices distort the view to help convey theme/feeling. The graffiti and signs contain political themes and direct statements from Spike Lee, such as “Tawana told the truth”.
Time: Action is a single day (plus a morning): All scenes take place in a single day. We learn backstory through dialog, montages, monologues, and visuals.
Locations: The action never leaves the block. Outsiders enter the block, but we are never given much of a picture of anything that happens outside the block.
Informed Attribute (Heat): Heat isn’t just shown. It’s talked about. Constantly, throughout the movie. Even in the final lines of the movie.
In 1983, Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist, was (presumably) choked to death by the police, after being hog-tied and tethered hands-to-feet. The city’s medical examiner first announced that he died of alcohol poisoning, then by spinal injury, then by blunt force trauma. However, doctors at the receiving hospital said he was brain dead upon receipt and that his injuries were consistent with being choked or strangled, and that he had been brutally beaten. All six police were acquitted of criminal charges. The medical examiner was eventually fired and Stewart’s family was compensated $1.7 million dollars. The apparent death by choking was the specific inspiration for how Radio Raheem is killed, according to Lee.
In 1986, Michael Griffith (who was black) was killed by an angry mob with baseball bats after exiting a pizzeria in Howard Beach, after the mob had earlier tried to chase him and friends out of their neighborhood for being black.
At release, Ed Koch was mayor on NYC, and widely blamed for being an “architect of racism.” At the time Do The Right Thing was being released, Koch was under attack for ignoring the needs of black citizens, and soon after it was released, he was defeated by NYC’s first black mayor, David Dinkins.
Historical Notes: Historian Michael Lanigan says that ethnic relations in NYC were eroding at the time, and there had been a spike of racially motivated crimes in the city. There was wide-spread indifference to poverty in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Lee wanted to ask whether it was possible to adhere to Dr. King’s philosophies in that time, and survive, or whether the communities needed to adopt Malcolm X’s philosophy of intelligent self-defense. At the time, he said, “If you don’t use self-defense, you’d be annihilated… Both [the] philosophies [of Malcolm X and Dr. King] can be appropriate, but in this day and age… I’m leaning towards the philosophies of Malcolm X.” … “There are still times when it is appropriate, but when you’re being beat up… I don’t think young black America is going to turn the other cheek and say ‘Thank you Jesus for hitting me on the side of the head with this brick.”
Langian also notes that the summer the movie came out was notably free of any rioting, but that three years later, the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD would launch the Los Angeles Riots–which lead a lot of Lee’s white critics to reevaluate his not as instigator, but as
REFERENCES AND INFLUENCES
Cinematographer Dickerson says they looked at The Third Man for the canted angles, and at Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and use of color in Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes.
Radio Raheem’s knuckles and monologue are reinterpretations of Rev Harry Powell’s tattoos and monologue in The Night of the Hunter, one of Spike Lee’s favorite classic movies. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcTv-BEwabk)
- New York City
- Racial Tensions
- Black Nationalism
- White Gentrification
- Martin Luther King Jr’s Non-Violent Resistance
- Malcolm X’s Intelligent Self-Defense
- Police Abuse
- Generational Differences
- Group Trauma
- Oppression / Resistance
RECEPTION (At the Time)
Awards: The movie was snubbed for Best Picture, which instead went to Driving Miss Daisy–still a source of tension in questions of equity and representation in Hollywood.
Black Audiences: “This is what’s out there. This is reality,” — Jamez Williams, 21, grew up in the neighborhood.
Tarsha Tarry, a black 19-year-old mother of two, who saw the movie in Flatbush, said she liked the movie because it brought out the stress people are under “but it doesn’t tell people to be violent. When they burn the pizza parlor down, it was clear it wasn’t the pizza man’s fault,” she said, referring to a scene in the film. “The movie shows that what Martin Luther King said was right: an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”
Barack and Michelle Obama related the story of their first date, to see the movie: “I took her to this new movie everybody was talking about directed by a guy that not that many people had heard of,” Barack said. “But it was supposed to be pretty good.” Michelle agreed: “It ended up being a pretty good movie—really great!” “So Spike, thank you for helping me impress Michelle,” Obama joked. “And thank you for telling a powerful story. Today, I’ve got a few more grey hairs than I did back in 1989. You don’t look like Mookie anymore. But ‘Do the Right Thing’ still holds up a mirror to our society, and it makes us laugh, and think and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.” (Lee once told Barack Obama, “Good thing you didn’t see Driving Miss Daisy”.)
White Audiences: “I’m not sure if the problem is that highlighted as the movie makes it out to be,” said Kushner, who is white. “I know plenty of black people my age and we get along; we get along fine.”
“I hope they don’t see me that way, as an outsider,” said Gloria Greenhut, a white public school teacher who works in a predominantly black junior high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.”
“I was absolutely shocked,” said Marion Kwartler, a 33-year-old white reporter for a religious newspaper in Hackensack, N.J., who saw the movie in Bay Ridge. “I think that it did the most tremendous disservice to black-white relations that I have ever seen. I felt that it may pit white people against black people, black people against white people,” she said.”
Black Film Reviewers: I have not been able to find any black film reviewers who’s contemporaneous reviews of the film are still published, which, you know, is a pretty strong reminder of inequity in and of itself.
White Film Reviewers: As far as white reviewers: Film Reviewers David Denby and Joe Klein both (incorrectly) predicted that black people would riot after seeing the film and accused Lee of increasing racial tensions. Lee has stated he’s still angry about this, because they haven’t apologized: “I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theatres killing people after they watched Arnold Schwazenegger films.” Other white reviewers pushed back against this narrative: “Lee will probably be trounced for not taking a clear-cut stand. But how could he? The black community has been struggling for years to reconcile those two philosophies. It would be presumptuous of Lee, not to mention disastrous for the film, to do the thinking for an audience.” (Peter Travers), ” I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters. Lee does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations. ‘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.” (Roger Ebert)
Spike Lee’s Anatomy of a Scene (or Murder): Lee walks us through the climatic murder of Radio Raheem: https://nyti.ms/2UavSEY
Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jul/22/how-we-made-do-the-right-thing-spike-lee
Fear of a Black Picture, Michael Lanigan: https://www.headstuff.org/culture/history/spike-lee-do-the-right-thing/
Do The Right Thing — Turn Up The Heat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=peizm3vJ-Do&feature=emb_logo
Tony Beeman has lived in Seattle as a writer, performer, director and software developer since 1998. In addition to performing, directing and serving as Artistic Associate at Unexpected Productions in Pike Place Market, Tony performs regularly with 4&20 Improv, Seattle Experimental Theater, and Improv Anonymous. He has taught workshops in seven countries. His Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is INFP.