In Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, the writer, producer, and director, employs several rhetorical strategies to articulate the primary message in the film, which is that we need to ‘do something’ about race relations in America. The film highlights how American society navigates racial, class and economic issues. Spike Lee uses racial stereotypes to highlight the diversity and point out the differences, rather than unity, of the community. The Italian-Americans wear white tank tops with crosses around their neck, Radio Raheem wears an African necklace and plays a boom box and the Asian-Americans can’t speak English. All of these racial stereotypes are used as rhetorical strategies to cement their role in the societal hierarchy. I’m reminded of what Benson (2003) states regarding film portraying cultural attitudes and anxiety through cinematic technique and narrative style. Benson states that many films, “subordinate personal values to public interests” (135), which we see play out in Do the Right Thing. Each of the characters must contemplate their reactions to the racial challenges they are experiencing. Do they do what is “right” for them or what is “right” for society? Mookie, in particular, has this struggle, as he works for the “white man” and he has to decide, does he stay silent so he can continue to get his paycheck or does he speak out on behalf of his brethren?
In the scene in which Radio Raheem is showing his “Love” and “Hate” rings to Mookie, he speaks directly to the camera. He says, “let me tell you the story of right hand, left hand (Lee, Do the Right Thing). He then goes on to demonstrate that the left hand is fighting (hate), but the right hand (love) ultimately comes back and wins. In this analogy, he is telling the viewer that love will overcome hate. By having Radio Raheem speak directly into the camera, Lee is sending a direct message to the viewer.
Radio Raheem then walks into Sal’s pizzeria and, again, looks directly at the camera while asking for two slices of pizza. When Sal responds, the camera swings to Radio Raheem’s point of view. The point of view changes several times as the argument gets heated, which is Lee’s way of helping the viewer experience the emotions of both characters (races), literally putting the viewer in their shoes. Throughout the movie, we see the untraditional use of characters speaking directly to the camera, which is Lee’s way of halting the narrative and forcing viewers to face the message in the film. Lee does not want to be subtle about his message on racism.
Lee also uses music as a rhetorical strategy. Radio Raheem holds a boom box playing “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. Spike Lee commissioned “Fight the Power” specifically for the movie Do the Right Thing. The hip hop song communicates the theme of the struggles black youth were experiencing in America. Spike Lee wanted to use “Fight the Power” as the anthem for the movie, using it as a rhetorical device to articulate the racial tension in America. Public Enemy was the first commercially successful hip hop group to use political messaging in their music. Lee wanted to employ music as a rhetorical device to speak directly to his viewers in a medium that was popular with youth, who hold the ‘power’ to change the future. Below is a snippet of lyrics from the song that demonstrate the powerful rhetoric:
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check (Public Enemy 1989)
Lee also uses metaphor has a rhetorical method. In the beginning of the film, we see the camera pan over stacks of newspapers, all of which call attention to the intense heat wave cloaking the city. I believe that Lee is using heat as a metaphor for oppression. The oppression is thick and palatable. Going full circle from the beginning, the ending scene has DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy reminding the neighborhood that it’s going to be another hot day. This demonstrates that even after the death of Radio Raheem, the vandalism of Sal’s pizzeria and the riots in the street, nothing has materially changed. There isn’t growth or an awakening. The individuals are still living under a blanket of oppression. Lee is communicating that if society wants to lift this oppression, they must “do the right thing”.
Benson, Thomas. “Looking for the Public in the Popular: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Rhetoric of Collective Memory.” The Terministic Screen: Rhetorical Perspectives on Film, University Press, 2003, pp. 129–145.
Lee, Spike, director. Do the Right Thing. Universal, 1989.
Public Enemy. “Fight the Power.” Fear of a Black Planet, Motown, 1989.