Film Students, Do the Right Thing, and Developing a Critical Sense of Race

Film Students, Do the Right Thing, and Developing a Critical Sense of Race
This entry is part 2 of 16 in the series Essays / Analyses.

For almost six years now, my students have learned about the elements of mise-en-scene from screening Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1988). And for nearly six years now, they have reacted to Mookie’s trashcan-tossing in much the same way: most students of color feel that Lee’s character “did the right thing” while the majority of the white students cannot understand why Mookie “would do such a thing to Sal.” Since my mind is generally focused on relaying the significance of the film’s mise-en-scene — e.g., Radio Raheem’s boom box, the bright red wall behind Sweet Dick Willie and friends, the glaring high-key lighting, Buggin’ Out’s stylized characterization — I haven’t thought very long or hard about why such disparity exists amongst my students. But I will today.

There is no doubt that the narrative and message of Do the Right Thing are complicated and challenging. For instance, throughout the film and even in the closing credits, Lee rams together the conflicting ideologies of Malcolm X (violence when necessary) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (always non-violence) without explicitly informing the spectator which is the better choice. Also, the slew of secondary characters as well as their intermittent commentary on the day’s (hot!) events confuses some of my students, who are used to experiencing Hollywood’s more traditionally structured narratives that require them to follow only two or three lead characters. But without a doubt, it is Lee’s characterization of Sal (Danny Aiello) as well as Mookie’s decision to throw that trashcan that most baffles my students (and evidently many of the film’s reviewers).

A first thought is this: students of color readily identify with Mookie because he is the film’s lead African American character while white students relate to Sal because he is the film’s central white character. This conclusion, of course, is too simplistic. After all, a spectator of any race, ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, etc. can connect with a character of any race, ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, etc. But as Dan Flory points out, perhaps there is a little bit of truth to this rather naïve assessment about identification and audience reception.

In his essay “Spike Lee and the Sympathetic Racist,” Flory considers in depth the characterization of Sal. According to the critic, Spike Lee wrote Sal as a racist, perhaps a sympathetic one, but a racist nonetheless. On the contrary, Danny Aiello sees/constructs the character otherwise: “He’s a nice guy,” Aiello claims, “and he sees people as equal” (70). For instance, Aiello points out that in the film’s climatic scene — when Sal smashes Radio Raheem’s boom box with his “All-American” baseball bat — Sal has to look deep inside himself “to find the most insulting words he could to throw at those who made him angry.” As a result, the character “ends up acting like a racist, even though he is not one” (70-71). It appears that many of my white students make similar conclusions.

However, Flory also locates several anti-black cues in Sal’s actions and speech. For instance, when talking to (his racist son) Pino (John Turturro), Sal refers to his African American customers as “these people,” language that distances himself from them and in essence, “others” them. Similarly, when Buggin’ Out first grows irate about the Wall of Fame, Sal instinctively pulls out his baseball bat, a symbol of white on black violence in the 1980s. Moreover, at the film’s climax, Sal insults the black characters via such terms as “jungle music,” “Africa,” and “niggers.” Also, after demolishing Radio Raheem’s boom box, Sal unapologetically declares to Raheem, “I killed your fucking radio.” Finally, Aiello’s character reacts indifferently to Raheem’s death by uttering to the growing multiracial crowd around him, “You do what you’ve gotta do.” (71-74). With such vitriolic words and actions on display — both before and during the onscreen uproar — one wonders why over half of my students don’t see Sal as a racist. Flory, I believe, has a valid answer for this question and one, admittedly, I hadn’t thought a great deal about until this semester.

In brief, Flory posits that both life and viewing experiences have caused nonwhite and white viewers to develop exceedingly different ways of interpreting race and awareness. Specifically, nonwhite viewers have formed “a critical sense of race or double consciousness merely to function and survive in cultures like America’s.” In other words, my students of color likely possess a more “finely tuned racial awareness” than their white classmates. Conversely, Flory notes that white viewers have difficulty “imagining their whiteness from the outside.” After all, they are rarely asked to look at their whiteness critically and, furthermore, their life (as well as viewing) experiences have generally not required them to develop such forms of cognition. Consequently, when called upon to question and/or recognize such issues — as is the case with Do the Right Thing — my white students often find it challenging.

This is, then, a reason that nonwhite and white viewers interpret a character like Sal as well as the outcome of Do the Right Thing in completely different ways. For white viewers to see Sal as a racist, they would be required to make “a disruptive change in their system of belief” — an ideology that already (although unconsciously) privileges “aspects of white advantage and power.” So rather than seeing Sal as racist and problematic, many white audiences view him as empathetic and morally good. Nonwhite audiences, on the other hand, see a character that represents, as is doubtless Spike Lee’s goal, a more realistic, more complex perspective on race (71-75).

While I agree with Flory’s conclusions here, I also want to clarify one thing: neither the critic nor I believes that white viewers are somehow incapable of analyzing a complex and racially-charged text like Do the Right Thing. Certainly not! At the same time though, for nearly six years the majority of my white students have read the character of Sal (and Mookie’s decision to throw the trashcan) somewhat simply, which suggests that there is still some work to be done. And without sounding too sappy, I must admit that I am  glad to travel down that analytical road with my students, all of my students.