many films attempt to address racial issues--and there has been no shortage
of these films in the late 1980's and 1990's--Manthia Diawara suggests
in "Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance," that
no film attempting to address issues of racism can adequately do so when
it presents a limited and simplistic portrayal of blacks. His point
mirrors the issue of form and function in the world of architecture and
design: Not only must the ideal building be aesthetically appropriate or
pleasing (form), it must also actually serve its intended purpose or use
(function). Conversely, Diawara says that even if a filmís
intended purpose (function) is racially appropriate, it still fails as
a whole when it lacks appropriate images of blacks (form). Because
of itís numerous and varied black characters, Spike Lee's 1989 film
The Right Thing is both a film that successfully follows this
Diawarian form and function--allowing proper positioning for both black
and white spectator--and a discourse itself supporting Diawara's contention
that there is a dire need for authentic black images in the cinema.
of a Nation to The Color Purple, Diawara suggests the
Hollywood cinema presents unrealistic black characters and that it "situates
black characters primarily for the pleasure of white spectators (848).
By "pleasure" Diawara refers to that which is affirming and empowering--or
at least nonthreatening--to the spectator. Diawara states that most
"black characters in contemporary Hollywood films are made less threatening
to whites either by white domestication of black customs and culture .
. . or by stories in which blacks are depicted playing by the rules of
white society and losing" (848). According to Diawara, one way this
is done is by portraying black characters--particularly black male characters--as
stereotypes and placing them in a predominantly white setting next to a
white hero who shines because he is everything positive that the black
character is not. Within this predominantly white setting, the black
characterís significance to the filmís text comes primarily
through their subversion of order in the film, which often leads to the
setting up the film's white hero.
Diawara uses several characters played by Eddie Murphy to illustrate his
point about the unrealistic placement of black stereotypes. In 48
Hours, the character Reggie Hammonds is the stereotypical criminalized
black man. He is taken out of prison for two days to help Nick Nolteís
character (a detective) solve a case. Reggie is unreliable, exhibitionistic,
and unrealistic, which reinforces Nolteís role as the tough, committed,
and just detective who is ultimately the filmís hero.
The consequence of such portrayals of black male characters and their placement
in regard to white male characters is that black audiences are not allowed
the opportunity to identify themselves with realistic, believable black
explains that there are particular formations of spectatorship that arise
not only from elements of gender and sexuality--as Christian Metz and Linda
Mulvey have suggested--but from race as well: "When blacks are presented
in Hollywood, and sometimes when Hollywood omits blacks altogether, there
are spectators who denounce this result and refuse to suspend their disbelief
altogether" (845). In these cases, which violate Diawarian form,
the spectator resists the dominant reading of the film and refuses to identify
with these Hollywood narratives that are racially biased. Of course,
not all black viewers resist the dominant readings of such films; some
actually identify with them. Diawara refers to those that do resists
as the "black spectator." He also acknowledges that some white spectators
resist these images as well. Consequently, Diawara uses "black spectator"
synonymously with "resisting spectator."
the fact that Do The Right Thing is full of black stereotypes, its
images of black characters do not violate Diawarian form, nor do they require
a normally resistant spectator to resist, because these images are both
varied and placed in a realistic setting. The character Mookie (Spike
Lee) is the stereotypical young black father who is not living up to his
parental/financial responsibilities. Buggin' Out is a passionate,
young black man who (as Jade tells him) often fails to channel his passion
in the best of directions--he nearly picks a fight with a white guy who
accidentally scuffed his Air Jordan shoes. Radio Raheem is
the stereotypical angry young black man who clings to the in-your-face,
militant lyrics of Public Enemy to define himself. There are
three older black men who do next to nothing other than sit under an umbrella,
drink beer, and talk about the way things should be--another stereotype.
And these "umbrella men" actually address another stereotype in the film--the
Koreans who have opened a successful grocery store despite the fact that
their English is poor and that they've only been in the country a year.
The umbrella men are the black voice that complains and criticizes but
does not act.
use extensive use of black stereotypes in Do The Right Thing would
be a problem, except that Lee does not--using Diawara's term--"deterritorialize"
the black images by removing them "from the black milieu" and placing them
in a setting that is predominantly white as the films 48 Hours and
Places do with Eddie Murphy (848). Lee places these characters
in a diverse, but predominantly black, neighborhood that is economically
depressed--itself another stereotype. But Lee understands that stereotypes
are often rooted in reality--poor black neighborhoods do exist, in Brooklyn
and elsewhere--and as long as the filmmaker attempts to represent that
reality, black stereotypes are not necessarily a problem.
The Right Thing takes place on a terribly hot day in a Brooklyn
neighborhood. Although more blacks are represented in the film than
any other group, we know that whites, Hispanics, and Koreans live in the
community as well. It's in this neighborhood where Mookie (Spike
Lee), delivers pizzas for Sal's Famous Pizzeria. Inside the pizzeria,
Sal--an Italian American---has created "The Wall of Fame," comprised of
framed photos of famous Italian American celebrities. After paying
for a slice of pizza, Buggin' Out asks Sal--in a disrespectful tone--why
there arenít any black people on the wall, and Sal replies--in an
even more disrespectful tone--that the wall of fame is for Italian Americans
only, that if Buggin' Out wants "brothers" on a wall of fame, he can open
his own pizzeria. Buggin' Out then bugs out, gets upset, and
Sal asks Mookie escort him out of the place. Shortly thereafter,
Bugginí Out tries to organize a boycott of Sal's Pizzeria.
The tension created by the boycott attempt, serves as the ostensible central
conflict of the film. The underlying conflict, of course, is how
to deal with racism in a nondestructive manner.
makes nearly every character in Do The Right Thing complicit in
the communityís racist sentiments and the filmís central
conflict. Everyone is a racist--not just the white folks--and the days
unbearable heat both represents and exacerbates this boiling racism in
the community. The consequence of having so many characters of the
characters this racist complicity is that both the black and white spectators
are each denied a pleasurable viewing experience, as defined by Diawara.
That is to say Lee's realistic portrayal of characters from a variety of
races--in a narrative that neither glorifies or vilifies one race exclusively--creates
an equally discomforting experience for all spectators.
method Lee uses to accomplish this equalization of discomfort is to give
both sides in this racial discourse a voice, whether that voice is right
or wrong. In one scene, a police car drives by the umbrella men.
As the cars drive by, the officers glare in their direction--seeing the
men sitting there, doing nothing but drinking--and one of the officers
says, "what a waste." But the umbrella men read his lips and have
a chance to respond to that comment, which inspires their own discourse.
Another method Lee uses to discomfort spectators equally is through the
juxtaposition of five brief monologues in which white, black, Italian,
Korean, and Hispanic characters each unleash a string of ethnic slurs directed
toward another ethnic group. What's interesting here is that these
monologues directly address the camera, causing the spectator to both see
and feel the characterís hatred, a hatred equally distributed among
the ethnic groups in the film.
Just as the racist monologues exemplify the filmís belief that racism
is in all of us--even if we keep our racism from surfacing at times--so
does the character development of Sal. Sal is a racist, and his racism
triggers the chain of events leading to the burning and looting of his
pizzeria. The first time Buggin' Out questions Sal on the exclusion
of blacks on the wall of fame, Sal looks at him and says, "Are you a trouble
maker? Are you makin' trouble?" Lee is playing with the traditional
role, to which Diawara refers, of the black male as one who subverts social
order in the predominantly white environment. The white environment
is a white owned pizzeria, and the order is that imposed by Sal.
When Buggin' Out answers Sal by saying, "Yeah, I'm a trouble maker,"
Sal's method of restoring order is a suggestion of violence. "Suppose
I bust your head," he says. He obviously feels threatened by
the young black man, and his racism is apparent in his response.
Sal's racism is complicated. Later that day, Sal explains to his
son Pino, whose racism is more extreme, that he is proud of the fact that
he the black kids in his community have grown up on his pizza. Just
before all hell breaks loose in Sal's place, he tells Mookie that
he's like a son to him. But moments later, when Radio Raheem and
Buggin' Out come into the pizzeria carrying Raheemís blasting radio
and demanding that Sal put some pictures of black people on the wall
of fame, Sal calls the music "jungle music" and says "this isn't Africa."
He uses the word "nigger" as he destroys the radio with a baseball bat
after Raheem refuses to turn it off. Sal is a racist for sure, but
his racism is both complex and realistic. This incident would not
have occurred--his racism would have not manifested itself in such an extreme
way--had he not let the four young blacks into the pizzeria after they
had closed, which was an act of kindness and appreciation of them on his
of Sal's racism in violence leads to even more violence. After Sal
destroys Raheem's radio, Raheem grabs Sal, chokes him, and pounds his head
into the ground. The police (all white) arrive shortly thereafter
and have a difficult time restraining Raheem. One officer restrains
Raheem by placing his night stick under Raheem's neck from behind, lifting
him, choking him, and ultimately killing him. The gratuitous measures
taken by the officer are obviously racially motivated. And after
the police leave, the looting of the store begins after Mookie throws a
garbage can through pizzeria's plate glass window.
Mookie's, decision to throw the trash can lead to an ending with clear
closure, with some positive conclusion, Mookie could have served as the
film's hero. But that's not the case, and no other character steps
forward to become the hero either. As Diawara states, black male
characters are generally not allowed to become the heroes of a film.
And if a black character momentarily becomes the film's hero, he is quickly
punished and returned to his proper position subordinate to the real hero:
the white. father-type male. But neither Sal nor any other white
man steps forward to fill that role. Do The Right Thing has
no heroóat least not an obvious one. Nearly every character
is complicit in the racist words and actions in the film, and this is yet
another way that Lee provides ample room for both black and white spectators
to position themselves. No character, black or white, is all
good or all bad. No single character or race is singled out
as hero or villain.
one level, the central conflict regarding Sal's wall of fame seems too
trivial a matter to trigger a chain of events leading to the tragic death
of Radio Raheem and the burning of the pizzeria. After all, what's
wrong with a little ethnic pride? Sal's is an Italian pizzeria.
In that light, the fact that only American Italians are celebrated on his
wall makes some sense. However, if the players in this conflict
are viewed through the lens of black spectatorship, the conflict
seems both more significant and more justified. The film and the
wall of fame conflict operate as a discourse on black spectator theory.
Considered in this way, Buggin' Outís demand for the inclusion of
black faces on the wall goes beyond a Brooklyn pizzeria. Buggin'
Out is making the same statement as Diawara: Realistic images of blacks
need to be included in the Hollywood cinema.
Through the black spectatorship lens, Sal is the owner and controlling
interest in the cinema, his wall of fame representing the screen.
Since it's his pizzeria--and his screen/cinema--he controls what faces
are appear on the wall. Despite the fact that black viewers support
him with their business, he feels he is under no obligation to represent
them on his wall/cinema. Buggin' Out is a black spectator who's
sick and tired of resisting. He want to be able to identify with
the characters he sees on the wall/screen, and his anger comes from the
fact that not only is he being denied access to identifiable characters,
but heís paying $1.50/slice for this denia--just as the black spectator
pays $7.50 for his denial at the box office.
Other characters play roles of different types of spectators as well.
Mookie is a resisting spectator and participates in the discourse.
The difference between Mookie and Buggin' Out's spectatorship is that Mookie
is financially obligated to the man who controls those imagesóSal.
Buggin' Out can afford to bite the hand that literally feeds him
with his demand. But that same hand not only feeds Mookie, it pays
him too. Mookie is like the black actor who perhaps is "selling out"
when playing "inauthentic" roles. Maybe he's aware of what he's doing,
but he needs the work. Jade is the unaware spectator--she wants to
keep the piece. Maybe sheís negotiating her own space in regard
to the wall, but that isnít clear. What seems clear is that
she appears comfortable with the wall/cinema. She wants Buggin'
out to channel his energy into more positive things, like improving the
community. What she doesn't see is that the community looks for its
reflection in the movies--on the wall of fame at Salís--and there
arenít any black faces there.
the screen/wall of fame analogy, there are several other scenes and
motifs indicating Leeís concern for black images. One is the
"role call" Love Daddy does on his show--a rather exhaustive naming of
black musicians, some names well known to both white and black audiences
but others more obscure, even to music buffs. Another example comes
from Raheem's radio that repeatedly blasts Public Enemyís
song "Fight the Power," with its lines, "Elvis was a hero to most
but he never meant to be a straight out racist / the sucker was simple
and plain / mother fuck him and John Wayne." The significance here
is that Elvis was an entertainer who dubiously "borrowed" style and material
from black musicians who were not marketable themselves because of their
race. And John Wayne, of course, is the quintessential male hero
in the American film tradition. Other repeated lines from the song
include, "Iím black and Iím proud / Iím ready and
hyped cause Iím amped / most of my heroes donít appear on
no stamps." Again, the stamps address a lack of black images.
The Right Thing is a discourse concerned with black spectatorship
and consistent with Diawarian form and function. The black and white
spectator that would normally resist a racially biased film have room to
move and participate in Lee's discourse. But as interesting as Leeís
attention to spectatorship might be, it may also present a few problems.
What about the spectators who do not normally resist racially biased filmic
texts? It's possible that these spectators--black and white--may
have trouble positioning themselves within this film (ironically) because
racism and the images of white and black characters in the film are so
authentic. They may not know what to do with the discomfort Lee distributes
so equally throughout the film. But, perhaps, discomfort is preferable
Jeremy Corey-Gruenes is an English teacher
at Albert Lea High School, Albert Lea, MN.
Diawara, Manthia. "Black Spectatorship: Problems
Resistance." Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy
Cohen 5th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.