Analysis: Do the Right Thing

pSpike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a film that relies heavily on dialogue to convey it’s messages and themes, and this is apparent when characters speak directly to the audience by breaking the fourth wall. However, what’s even more important than the information that the audience hears in the film is the information that the audience sees; the aspects that are only shown on screen and not explicitly spelled out by any character are the most revealing parts of the film. Through visual methods of storytelling such as props, camera angles, set direction, wardrobe choices, etc., Spike Lee actually says far more by showing instead of telling. Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive, is very similar in the way that the art of strong visuals tell the audience the most about a certain character or situation. While these films may seem very different upon first viewing (and every viewing after as they are very different films) they both have a great use of visuals to convey messages instead of using dialogue to tell the entire story.

One great example of this in Do the Right Thing deals with the character of Smiley, a stuttering and possibly mentally handicapped black man living in Bed-Stuy who walks around the streets talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, while trying to sell pictures of them shaking hands. The character has very few lines, and he stutters heavily which makes him hard to understand, but his character just might have the most to say out of everyone else- especially when he is juxtaposed with another character in the film, one who also does not say much at all himself: Radio Raheem. In the film, Radio Raheem is one of the most well-known and important people; he walks around, towering above and demanding respect from everybody. If somebody challenges him, he’ll let his extremely loud radio drown him or her into submission. And what is playing on his radio? “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. This is a very subversive, angry, and anarchist song about fighting authorities and being tough- with a main message of inciting violence. Radio Raheem lets this song do all of the talking for him; he is somebody who hates oppression and wants freedom from those who try to hold him down (this is apparent when he first goes into Sal’s Famous in the film). Even though Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mister Señor Love Daddy, tells the audience that Radio Raheem is important, so much more description and information about him can be learned from the cinematography when the viewer first encounters him. Radio Raheem walks up to a group of people as the camera is shooting him from a low angle, and at a tilted angle, or the “Power Shot” and the “Canted Angle,” respectively. The Power Shot is used to make the audience feel smaller than the character, and in turn, making the character seem more powerful than the audience and the other characters surrounding him/her. The Canted Angle, in this case, is used to tell the audience that Radio Raheem upsets the balance of the world, he tilts the Earth when he passes, and this isn’t necessarily always a good thing (which is apparent at the end).

Smiley contrasts Radio Raheem in almost every way, both visually and in dialogue. Throughout the film, Smiley is almost always in the background; he never gets a Power Shot, and he’s never shown in a Dutch Angle. He’s very level headed, as the film tells us through cinematography, and his ideals are more peaceful and soft-spoken. The character stutters, and what that tells us is that his notions that he preaches may not be popular or clear to those who are listening to him. Furthermore, the aspect of him that says the most is something that may go unnoticed: his headphones. Attention is brought to his headphones only once in the film, when Buggin’ Out asks him what he is listening to. “M-M-M-M-Malcolm,” he replies. Buggin’ Out immediately stops drawing attention to his headphones, and starts to ask him to help him boycott Sal’s. Buggin’ Out doesn’t ask a single other question about what he’s listening to, or about the pictures he is holding. If a comparison between Smiley and his headphones, and Radio Raheem and his radio, is drawn, then the meaning of his headphones becomes apparent. Radio Raheem is playing a popular song on the radio very loudly, demanding attention while Smiley is listening to Malcolm X on his headphones, where nobody else can hear it besides him. This (along with the stuttering) is meant to tell the viewer that Smiley is preaching a notion that is not easily heard or understood, that one really has to make an effort to understand both sides of a debate (in this case, racism) to be able to make a difference. The idea of putting differences behind yourself in order to get along with somebody who might not fully agree with you is the idea that Smiley is preaching by use of his pictures, but juxtaposing his headphones with Raheem’s radio allows for many more themes to be grasped.

Sticking with the prop of Smiley’s pictures allow the viewer to understand many other characters besides just Smiley. The characters that purchase Smiley’s pictures are ones who believe in the notion that he is trying to get across- one of peace and harmony that can look past disagreements to a peaceful future. Mookie is the only character in the film who buys one of these pictures, and because of this, the audience is shown that he is the smartest, kindest, and fairest character who will stay neutral in the film. However, one other character in the film attempts to buy one of these pictures, but is refused a sale: Sal. Sal is a character who wants everything to stay calm and peaceful, but like Malcolm X, will use violence if a situation calls for it- which is not a notion that Smiley wants to fully support. One could argue that Mookie also believes in the use of violence when necessary as he throws the garbage can through Sal’s window at the end, but the reason that Mookie destroys the window is much different than the reason that Sal destroys Raheem’s radio. Both of these instances can be considered acts of “violence,” but Sal uses this violence to assert dominance and “harm” Radio Raheem, whereas Mookie uses this violence to try to prevent violence coming to Sal instead of using it to incite violence against somebody. (Note: this is a debatable idea that was discussed in class with no real right or wrong answer, but I’m going to go ahead and use this argument as it fits my essay perfectly).

After Sal and Raheem get into a fight, the police choke Raheem and kill him, and the audience is shown his body lying on the ground with one of his rings, “LOVE,” taking up a majority of the screen. Radio Raheem is a person who walked around preaching about violence, and what his ring tells us at the end is that love is what survives. The police killed Radio Raheem, and with that, his “HATE” ring is now out of view; Spike Lee is trying to tell the audience that love is what conquers all, and that if people could just accept each other’s differences, that everybody would all get along and be happier. This idea is shown again to the audience at the end of the film, when Smiley is standing in the burned-down Pizzeria. He walks up to the wall that originally had pictures of Italian-Americans on it, and he hangs up a picture of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The camera then shows him in a close-up, smiling, as if the viewer is inside of the picture looking back at him. The cinematography here is interesting because it is like the viewer is standing between Malcolm and Martin and sees Smiley, the only person left in the rubble. The only other obvious moment in the film in which a character is standing in the middle of the screen, looking directly into the camera is when they all scream racial slurs, stereotypes, and insults at each other. In contrast, Smiley not gets a close-up in the same way, but is just standing there smiley. He is the only person left in the restaurant, and this picture is the only thing in the restaurant untouched by flames to show the viewer that it is this ideal, one of love and friendship instead of violence, that can withstand the flame of hatred and survive. This shot complements the one of Raheem laying dead on the ground with his “LOVE” ring still on his hand, because they both have the same message of love conquering hate. The viewer may be able to understand most of the themes in the film by watching the film with the knowledge that Mookie is played by Spike Lee, who wrote and directed the film. Also understanding Spike Lee’s views on racism is important as notions, such as the ones outlined in this essay, may be studied and understood as well.

Drive has very little dialogue in the film, especially with Ryan Gosling’s unnamed protagonist who has almost no lines in the entire movie. Yet, the cinematography, wardrobe and props that this character is shown in tell the audience much more than dialogue could. Most of this is thanks to Gosling’s acting, but without saying many words, his facial expressions throughout the film allow the audience to know exactly what he is thinking and how he is responding to situations. Drive also used cuts between scenes to connect them, and to connect the characters in the scenes: for example, the driver and his crush will be in two separate places, yet the film will cut back and forth between them, showing their faces, which tells us that they are thinking about and missing each other. Similar to Radio Raheem’s radio, or Smiley’s pictures, Goslings’ jacket in the movie with a scorpion on the back represents his suit of armor. While a theme in the film is that Gosling’s “driver” is may not be a real “hero,” he likes to think that he is- a silent and strong type who works for the greater good and betterment of those he cares about. The moment in the film that finally reveals that driver might not be the hero he thinks he is, is when he is standing in the bloodied apartment room after fighting off the bad guys who were there to attack- yet, he finds that killing the bad guys does not make him a good guy. In this scene, he is wearing another jacket over his scorpion jacket; the audience knows that the scorpion is there, but since it cannot be seen, it’s almost as if the driver has become the scorpion, and it now the farthest point in the film from being the hero that he wants to be. The viewer can learn all of this simply be watching the film, if not listening to it or paying attention to what is said. Filmmakers are often geniuses when it comes to visual storytelling, and masters of that craft are much better at telling stories on screen than those who do not know how to lead a viewer’s eye on the screen.

Do the Right Thing is a film that places an emphasis on dialogue to get across many of it’s themes, but what’s even more important than listening to the words spoken is paying attention to what is shown on screen. Even a small prop like Smiley’s picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X tells the audience an incredible amount of information about Smiley and his beliefs, but the picture also tells us a lot about the people who buy the picture, or don’t. Cinematography is another great tool that this film uses to get messages across, such as how camera shots alone can tell the audience everything they need to know about Radio Raheem and Smiley. However, these characters are also given devices that allow them to listen to pre-recorded material which they try to preach to the rest of Bed-Stuy, although in different ways as their messages are very different from each other. Watching this film without any audio may be just of an enlightening experience as watching with sound because sometimes showing is telling, and if a picture can say a thousand words, just think of what all a movie can say.


Published by Blake Carson Schwarz

Indiana University graduate in Media and Creative Writing. I love to write my own stories as well as experience the work of others. On this site, I post reviews, essays, and other fun posts that I hope you have as much fun reading and I have writing. Please share any comments you have, I'd be happy to hear what you think! *Never a critic, always a fan*

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