Milestone Movies : Do The Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee’s critics fade to black

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

Spike Lee is a filmmaker whose public persona is frequently given more attention than his films, and his third and best film Do the Right Thing was no different on its release in 1989. The film created a storm of criticism for its ending, and for a perceived inflammatory depiction of urban life. However, the film was also critically lauded, and helped make Lee into one of the most talked about young directors working in Hollywood.

Yet, despite Lee’s status as a critically well regarded filmmaker, he’s also been linked to one label in spite of whatever his films may be about – Lee is “black”. Lee’s status as a filmmaker has so consistently been tied into a perceived ethnicity that his films have always been read through racial frameworks. Whereas other “white” filmmakers never have their ethnicity tied into how they’re described e.g. they’re simply filmmakers, Lee has never managed to escape being seen as a spokesperson because he is seen to be a black filmmaker’ rather than simply a filmmaker – despite the deeply problematic results from such a reductive label.

Do the Right Thing came after Spike Lee’s commercially successful She’s Gotta Have It (a film that grossed $7 million at the US box office on a budget of $175,000) and the profitable but less critically well received School Daze. Do the Right Thing was originally going to be made by Paramount, but the studio baulked after Lee refused to change the ending. It ended up being made by Universal. The film premiered at Cannes, and although considered a frontrunner for the Palme D’Or, the award ended up going to Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape. Lee’s reaction – accusing the Cannes Jury of racism – did little to quell the talk around the movie.

The reaction to the film was divided, and media like the Village Voice ran eight reviews of the film. The reviews almost immediately defined Lee as “black” (for example, Newsweek saying Spike Lee is the “most important black filmmaker…[who] muscled his way into the mainstream with films uncompromisingly about black lives, black problems”) – ignoring everything else about Lee (e.g. his educational background, his gender, his social position, his filmic influences etc.). This occurred even in most positive reviews of the film – the film couldn’t escape being read in a racialised way. Lee’s status of a filmmaker was immediately tied into racial politics, and this helped frame the way the film was viewed and read by the critics. It also meant that any controversy was due to ‘Lee’s viewpoint’ and his obvious “blackness”, rather than the fact it came from a Hollywood studio, or from a New York filmmaker.

One of the key talking points about the film was the ending – in which a pizzeria is demolished by an angry mob, following the killing of a “black” man by “white” police. A number of film reviews read the film as having a different effect on “black” audiences and “white” audiences. Micah Morrison review in the National Review said the “black” audience in her screening were yelling at the screen to “go get ‘em” at the end. Joe Klein in New York magazine wrote that Do the Right Thing would incite riots by “blacks”.

One Village Voice review said Spike Lee “will be responsible in part for any race riots which flare up in America”. The Economist’s review agreed with the viewpoint of that Village Voice review and directly quoted it by saying “these charges are not ridiculous”. The New Yorker denounced the film as an incitement to riot against “white” property. The reviewers had assumed that “black” audiences would riot upon watching the film – no such fears were held for any “white” audiences who may end up watching the film, or for “white” audiences with other hit movies of the time such as Die Hard or Rambo III. Further, the reviewers didn’t consider the impact that watching “white” policemen strangling “black” men would have on “white” audiences. The reviewers essentially worried more for “white” property than ‘black” lives.

Further, the reviews homogenised “blackness” as a unified concept, and assumed that “black” people would react in the same way. In the process, they ignored the diversity that suggests racial categorisation is an outmoded cultural concept. In fact, the film itself hardly presents race as a unified concept – the “black” characters in the film are made up of all different classes, tastes, ages, ethnic backgrounds and social situations.
Similarly, the film’s soundtrack is composed of different types of music and therefore, different kinds of voices : soul, jazz, hip-hop, and silence.

The film is also explicitly critical of viewing people in simplistic ways, and Lee criticises his characters for adopting such simplistic viewpoints of the world. For example, Lee presents the Korean shopkeepers as being maligned by some in his community, yet Lee shows what a little hard work and perseverance can do (though some critics called Lee racist for his depiction of Koreans). Lee’s character Mookie’s own casual racism is criticised by the goings-on (and by Mookie’s sister). Lee also problematises “whiteness” – Sal is explicitly Italian rather than simply being “white”, suggesting the “black vs white” way in which the film was read was a little too simplistic.

As Lee was read as a “black filmmaker”, he was also given the task by many reviewers to explore other therefore apparently “black” issues. Newsweek said the film couldn’t be a depiction of reality in the ghetto because “there’s not a single reference to drugs”. Time wrote that “there was no crack dealers, hookers or muggers”. Other reviewers criticised Lee for not engaging with issues such as AIDS or mugging, or for the streets being too clean, despite their irrelevance to the story itself. The reviewers were using stereotypes of “blackness” to criticise the film, and rather than engaging with the film as a stand alone text, brought in their own stereotypes of the “blackness” to read the film.

However, this was after all, the period of Willie Horton (the infamous mugshot of a “black” criminal used by George Bush Snr to accuse his presidential rival Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime), the Cooke scandal (in which the Washington Post invented a story about a “black” eight-year old drug addict and won a Pulitzer Prize) moral panics over gangsta rap and NWA, and just before the racial turmoil surrounding Rodney King and OJ Simpson. As Lee caustically noted at the time, why was no-one asking where the drugs were in Wall Street or Working Girl?

Of course, the film does explore concepts of race throughout, which would explain why the reviewers would use such frameworks. For example, Lee makes sly digs at “white” basketballer Larry Bird, makes references to murdered “black” youths at the hands of “white” people, and uses quotes by civil rights leaders. The film is about racial politics – e.g. the explosion at the end comes from a debate about “black” people on the walls of a pizzeria. Spike Lee has also talked about race throughout his career – though in a much less simplistic way than he has mostly been read. Yet, despite all of this, he has had little control over how the debate to Do the Right Thing was framed by audience members, and the way the critics read the film was almost in complete defiance of Lee’s own viewpoints.

This suggests that if a person is defined as a minority, or at least sets the debate about the way the minority-ness is defined, then audience members will read that minority via their own individual conception of how it should be defined. An example of this in contemporary times was Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, in which he explicitly refused to call himself “black” – yet a considerable amount of the rhetoric around him by the media debated concepts like race, and racial stereotypes.

Other figures such as Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan have had similar things happen to them whereby they were reduced to being a racial minority. Interestingly, Michael Jordan’s teaming up with Spike Lee for a Nike commercial to promote Jordan’s then new Air Jordan shoes, led to the two being criticised for inciting “black” ghetto kids to steal shoes. The reaction to Do the Right Thing also highlights a problem that filmmakers and artists who are defined as “minorities” commonly face (e.g. in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class etc. They end up being reduced down to their “minority-ness” even if their films aren’t about their minority-ness, or indeed criticise the construction of that minority-ness.

Contemporary reactions to films such as Brokeback Mountain or The Hurt Locker suggest that such a simplistic approach still takes place. Which suggests that for as long as minority-ness continues to be seen as the sole determinant in defining something, it will remain an important, if problematic, way of defining a film.