“Do the Right Thing” by Spike Lee

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Although the film, “Do the Right Thing” by Spike Lee takes place in the late 1980’s, the film reveals important themes, issues, and ideas associated with how African American culture was perceived by the other minority races in Brooklyn, New York. The concepts presented in Lee’s film are still prevalent within society today, and form an important conversation around police brutality and how minor racial pressure can even escalate to fatal consequences. Similarly, in her article, “Musing New Hoods”, Guthrie P. Ramsay articulates how racial rhetoric can be further distinguished by examining the musical scores and cinematography throughout the duration of the movie. In his directorial piece, Do the Right Thing, Lee utilizes unique filming methods, such as, striking camera angles, contrasting musical scores, and recurring symbolism to show his audience that there are several tough realities that come along with being of African American descent and coinciding among other minority races in a small New York neighborhood.

The racial pressure and stereotypes prevalent in this movie are clearly brought to light in the scene where Mookie confronts Pino about his negative disposition towards African American people, and the scene quickly transition into each character spewing verbal insults towards each other and their respective nationalities. By using salient, slow-focusing camera angles, the director provokes an uncomfortable conversation about how minorities are exposed to unreasonable antipathy precisely because of the color of their skin. Dr. Tani Sanchez expands upon this notion in her book, “Understanding Black American Aspects of Hip Hop Cinema” by claiming that the use of stereotypes in films have a large impact on how viewers perceive each nationality in their everyday lives. For instance, “Cinema has played a distinct role in an American culture that eagerly consumed Black creations but mocked and ridiculed the humanity of the people who produced it” (17). The quote from Dr. Sanchez speaks on how there is a prominent history- dating back to early cinema-of arbitrary discrimination amongst African Americans portrayed in cinema.

Moreover, there are aspects of racial pressure in the film that are highlighted by contrasting musical genres like rap, jazz, and blues in various scenes. Ramsay articulates how the use of classical music in the film serves to deliver emotions of stress and signal that conflict may be about to occur, “Thus, I see the score not so much signaling community. It functions, rather, to highlight conflict and tension in the narrative world of the film” (316). The motivation for Spike Lee to develop this type of un-easiness with the viewer along the movie is to reinforce the theme of needless hatred and discrimination towards African American people. Additionally, Lee allows the viewer to relate to the environment of residing in Brooklyn in the late 80’s.

In contrast, the repeated use of the song “Fight the Power” with Radio Raheem carrying a boom box and walking along the streets creates a perception that a fight may break out any second. It is unique that we can see a contrast of musical genres used in the film to create similar emotions of-racial pressure, hatred, and animosity. According to Ramsay, “As the film progresses, however, the audience experiences a level of familiarity with “Fight the Power” because of its persistent use” (316). It is important to note that by doing this, Lee can also build the tension with his audience up until the tipping point, where Radio Raheem is killed and Sal’s Pizza Shop is burned down, which highlights the repeated themes of violence and loathing in the film.

If we compare the rhetoric towards African American culture in Do the Right Thing to a modern film like, “Get Out” directed by Jordan Peele, it becomes clear that there has been a massive progression towards racial equality since the late 1980’s. Get Out captures a similar theme, in where there are intentional feelings of uncomfortable racial hatred created within the audience. Whereas, Spike Lee uses more subtle film elements to create tension with the viewer to foreshadow the climax. For instance, Lee comments on his motivation behind the creation of Do the Right Thing, “I knew I wanted the film to take place in one day, which would be the hottest day of the summer. And I wanted to reflect the racial climate of New York City at that time” (Edwards, RollingStone). The quote shows that even though Get Out was made nearly 20 years later, and carries a similar message, there are still racial issues prevalent in America today.

With Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee showed his viewers a window into what a typical hot summer day in Brooklyn was like in 1989, while also delivering an important statement on racial injustice and police brutality against the African American race. Additionally, contrasting musical genres was a method used by Lee to provide the audience with conflicting feelings of community and ethnic strain. Though we still have issues with police brutality and discrimination today, we have made large steps towards true racial equality, and must continue to do so in the future.  

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"Do the Right Thing" by Spike Lee. (2021, Feb 26). Retrieved November 28, 2023 , from

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