Spike Lee’s Rhetoric


After recently re-watching Spike Lee’s class Do the Right Thing my swelled up with tears. I felt my chest tightened and I wanted to scream. I sat there with the TV off for a few seconds. Such is the power of Spike Lee’s rhetoric and how successful he is at getting it across. Say what you will about Spike Lee his movie Do The Right Thing evoke powerful emotion and a strong reaction from his audience. Roger Ebert said, “He made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants.” In Do The Right Thing Spike Lee tells a rhetorical story about race and forces his audience to look in the mirror.

The setting for Do The Right Thing takes place in a predominately black neighborhood in what appears to be Brooklyn, New York in a twenty-four hour period. The first scene begins with the radio announcer, Señior Love Daddy, telling every to wake-up for this “hotter than hell” day. Spike chose to place his story on the hottest day of the year to give his characters an edge. Each one interacts with each other, but the heat makes everyone a little edgier just waiting for the spark to ignite their anger.

What is this anger? Through out the movie there are characters who are angry, but either do nothing about their anger, or don’t know how to positively direct their anger. You have the character Buggin’ Out played by the underrated Giancarlo Esposito, who seems to be made at anyone who is not black. He is like a bowling pot of water that is ready to overflow. His main problem with Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American who owns a pizza parlor in the neighbor hood, because Sal doesn’t have any pictures of black people in the store. Sal tells him the store is his place and he’ll put whose ever picture he choose. Spike Lee is great here because he tricks the audience. If your reaction is in agreement with Sal, then you might want to look at yourself in the mirror. Spike Lee presents the situation, but later in the movie, he presents its background. Three middle-aged black men, sit outside with a brick wall painted red behind them. They are like the neighborhood philosophers, each spouting his two cents with, each being equally cruel and critical to the others commentary. They discuss the only two businesses in the neighborhood are owned by either a Korean immigrant or an Italian-American. But there are no black-owned places in the neighborhood. Why? Well, because there was a lot of racism towards black people trying to start their own businesses then. Whether or not that is still prevalent today I can’t say for sure.

The title of the movie, Do The Right Thing is a strong rhetorical devise used by Spike Lee. Da Mayor, played by the late-great actor Ossie Davis, tells Mookie, played by Spike Lee, to do the right thing. No one ever says what the right thing in the movie is. Lee tells his audience to do the right thing, but he never tells them what it is. Instead, he creates the situation in the movies forcing his audience to come to their own conclusion on what the right thing is. Some might argue that Lee’s rhetoric is obvious and easy to identify, but how obvious is it when it makes you react without you knowing he intended you to react. The reaction, Spike concludes, is a mirror to the person’s personal convictions on race. He wants the audience to figure out for themselves what the right thing to do is. Spike presents three arguments of what the right thing could be, but again, never tells us in the movie what he thinks it should be. The first argument is the movie itself. Spike asks each person to put themselves in the shoes of each of these characters. He asks, “What would you do?” The next two arguments are alluded to throughout the film, but are not finally presented until the film ends. One is a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. who advocates nonviolence as a means to bring racial harmony. The second quote is that by Malcolm X who advocates to be violent if necessary in order to gain equality. Some might wonder why Spike chose to end with Malcolm X’s quote instead of King’s quote. It seems that Spike might agree more with Malcolm, which is obvious later on when Spike makes “Malcolm X,” probably one of the greatest bio-epics ever made.

Nearly every scene in the movie is a race issue begging for a reaction. Spike Lee, however is smart enough to leave his final confrontation at the end of his movie. After his audience has come to know each character giving his audience ample time to form their own opinion of each character. Mookie, the main character, is not a role model. He works, but takes every pizza delivery he has to do as an excuse for a ninety-minute excursion. The character Mookie is a good person, but he’s far from perfect. In fact nearly all of the characters are far from perfect. Da Mayor is nice to everybody and even saves a boy’s life in the movie, but he’s also an alcoholic. Sal, is sympathetic and shakes his head at his older son who doesn’t hide that he’s racist, but he doesn’t hesitate to use racial slurs himself if rightly provoked. Buggin’ Out, is someone who no one takes seriously. Every time Buggin’ Out tries to get someone to join his boycott of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, they joke him and respond that they grew-up on Sal’s pizza. It’s not until that Buggin’ Out finally gets an advocate, the larger than life Radio Raheem, that Buggin’ Out becomes dangerous and violent. Each character is imperfect and sympathetic in their way.


The movie evokes emotion and it would be ludicrous to not say so. Spike uses emotion to stir his audience reaction, to make them think, and to place the mirror in front of themselves. “He didn’t draw lines or take sides but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others,” (Roger Ebert). Though Ebert might think he didn’t take any sides, it’s more definite after the movie In countless interviews Spike has noted the different reactions of people who have approached him about this movie. One is the “white reaction,” the other is the “black reaction.” But, though Spike Lee chooses race to color both reactions he is in fact exposing some of his own racial anxiety. Rather, it is better that he use the informed reaction, and the misinformed reaction. The informed reactors understand racism and might have experienced it. The misinformed don’t understand it, might be racist, or were raised ignorant of what racism creates.

Spike’s does a very clever trick at the end of the movie. At the end of the day, in the movie, Buggin’ Out confronts Sal about the pictures with Radio Raheem at his side. An argument breaks, where Sal starts spitting out racial slurs, his racist son suddenly tries to break the tension. Sal finally loses it when he takes his bat and uses it to smash Radio Raheem’s much prized boombox. Radio Raheem loses it and attacks Sal. The fight spills over into the streets where everyone in the neighborhood joins in as an onlooker. Then the police arrive, they pull Radio Raheem from Sal try to subdue him. The only problem is, the one police officer doesn’t know when to let up and ends up killing Radio Raheem.

After Radio Raheem is dead, Sal gets up, stares at the neighborhood’s strong reaction and says, “You do what you got to do.” At this everyone ignites in a fever pitch. The camera pans over to Mookie, the pizza delivery boy for Sal, who grabs a trash can and throws through one of Sal’s Pizzeria window. Then everyone riots the place, setting it on fire. Sal’s Pizzeria burns to the ground. Sal is seen the next morning sitting in front of his restaurant, the only thing he knows. He sits with this rejection. It seems Sal loved his restaurant more than anything else in the world.

The entire set of events I just described for you was done so purposely to help better explain what Spike Lee does here. He takes this scene cleverly his audience will fill empathetic for somebody. Some have emerged feeling empathetic for Sal, who lost his prized pizzeria. Some have emerged feeling sympathetic for Radio Raheem who dies in this scene. Who ever a person feels sorrier for, is a mirror of where they stand with their own issues of race. Spike has noted that mostly racist people feel more sympathy for Sal than for Radio Raheem. It’s a very clever trick, but it’s meant to place the mirror and forces certain members of his audience to reexamine themselves.



Originally published at www.jordanaubryrobison.com on August 11, 2014.

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