In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, five characters of different races turn directly to the camera and angrily vociferate a long list of racial slurs about other ethnicities that, in the end, leaves the viewer wondering what hit them. One hears time old slanders and massive generalizations, combined with new sounding stereotypes that everybody seems to understand. What underlying commentary about race relations in America today did Spike Lee have by including this upsetting, disturbing scene in the film?
Continuing in that direction, why, despite the fact the stereotypes are often exceedingly untrue, do we still hold onto them? In this paper I will examine these questions through a historical and psychological background, showing that despite all efforts to be accepting and outreaching to people of other races, people still harbor a slew racist language that, under extreme conditions, can be unleashed as self-defense.
Where do stereotypes even begin? For this question, African American history will serve as a good example. During the slave period performances, there was a distinction between how slaves would act when in public than how they behaved behind closed doors, out of view from the master. Public performances were always in the spirit of happiness, full of instrument playing, dancing, singing, skits and smiles. Private performances, however, expressed intellectual ideas rather than one feeling of joy. For example, slaves were consistently telling stories or fables with their body movements, as they were not allowed to use their native language, that taught younger audiences virtues and rules to live by. These were stories passed down over generations and portrayed strong African cultural beliefs, such as kunto – the belief in a connection between spiritual worlds, and nommo – or the belief that one’s actions can dictate what will happen to them in the future (Pre-Colonial African Popular Theater, David Kerr, 1995). The minstrel period, starting in the mid eighteenth century, evolved out of whites observing plantation period performances and taking them only at face value.
The concept of African American double consciousness was totally overlooked by them. This is the collision between their freethinking and acting African culture, and their American identity that tells them they are not even human beings (W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk; Of Our Spiritual Strivings, 1903). Thus in public, they performed as though they were as happy as can be, but they did it for the reason that if they performed anything else, their lives would be taken away. Northern born whites and immigrants did not understand the concept of subversion or self-preservation, not realizing that a smiling “Yessuh, masta” could subtextually mean, “Go to hell, boss.”
This phenomenon of two-ness can best be seen in Do The Right Thing in the character of Mookie. The only black employee of the only white-owned business in the area, he is put in the middle of the two races mediating the opposing demands of a white-owned workplace and a black clientele. From Buggin Out, he hears, “Stay black”, “Don’t work too hard today” from Mother Sister, from Jade, “Take care of your responsibilities”, “Be a man” from Tina, from Sal, “You’re fuckin’ up”, and from Da Mayor, “Always try to do the right thing.” It is as if he is walking the line between two sides, and each thinks he is loyal to them. He tries to balance the demands from his neighbors of being black with the need to earn money to survive. Exclaiming “HATE!” before smashing the garbage can through the window, it seemed as if he was giving up his role in the business in favor of blackness, but his return to the burnt down pizzeria the next morning just reaffirmed his previous situation. At no point in the movie it seems possible for one to be both a financial success in the neighborhood while still being black.
The Northern whites put on blackface makeup, accentuating lips and noses, and bastardized public slave period performances. T Daddy Rice, creator of the Ethiopian Operas, toured the country with his minstrel show. His most famous character was Jim Crow, a lazy, singing, dancing fool who later became a stock personality in all minstrel shows. Louis Hallum played the role of a slave in Padlock, which opened in New York in 1769. He used to go onstage drunk, but people thought he was brilliant because as far as they were concerned, that was an “accurate portrayal” of blacks (The Black Performer and the Performance of Blackness, Harry Elam Jr., 2001). The black identity in America became that of a drunken clown, and there was nobody to contest it, since almost all were in slavery.
Spike Lee seems to directly combat this stereotype with the use of the character, Da Mayor. Despite the fact the he is known as the neighborhood drunkard and most people are affectionate to him, Da Mayor exhibits a sense of integrity or rights, which seems to transcend the politics of race. An example of his moral compass can be seen in his two interactions with the boy, Eddie Lovell. In their first exchange, Da Mayor attempts to teach Eddie about the fundamentals of wage negotiation. Though it seems as if the boy didn’t understand the lesson on survival economics, it really sinks in when Da Mayor leaps in front of a speeding car to push Eddie out of harm’s way. Also, though Da Mayor is an alcoholic he picks up the change he needs to support his problem by sweeping the sidewalk in front of Sal’s, showing that even though he might not spend his money in best possible way he does understand responsibility and work ethic. In addition, after the police murder Radio Raheem and the angry mob begins to turn on Sal, Pino, and Vito, Da Mayor attempts to restore civil order by deflecting blame from the three white men as individuals: “Good people, let’s all go home. . . . If we don’t stop this now, we’ll all regret it. Sal and his two boys had nothing to do with what the police did.” Spike Lee seems to use Da Mayor to show the presence of ethics in African American culture.
But, I still haven’t explained why these gross stereotypes of African American were in fact created. During the minstrel period, there was a large influx of immigrants who didn’t meet the standards of the majority Anglo-Saxon Protestants who saw the country as their own. Seeking an identity of their own, immigrant minstrels used stereotypes to comfort themselves. One basic function of a stereotype is the psychodynamic orientation, which states that stereotypes can be used in an ego-defensive way. That is, as a defense mechanism, one may degrade another who is in competition for similar resources, or to build self-esteem by downward comparison. In other words, the Northerners who observed slaves and took on their mannerisms made immigrants feel better about themselves. They did this to show them that there are people in the United States who have it worse off than they do, the slaves. Stereotypes about members of other groups can make people feel better about themselves and less threatened by others.
Even though in this time period we know that all blacks aren’t the lazy, dancing, drunken fools portrayed by the likes of Louis Hallum and Thomas Rice, there still remain sentiments of these racist ideas. That is precisely what Spike Lee is trying to tell us. The film provokes an audience to discussion, and serves as a wake-up call to anybody who thought that racial issues were settled after the Civil Rights Movement. Racism and prejudice is so deeply rooted in our thoughts and perceptions, that the only place to start cutting it out of our lives is to start at the most fundamental building block of our lives: education. People need to be exposed to real diversity and learn what is like to live in other peoples’ shoes, only then can we ever shed out previously held beliefs and prejudices. Thought processes need to be revamped everywhere. Successfulness and blackness really don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
On New York’s hottest day of the year as the racially charged pressures of life in Bedford-Stuyvesant mount, we feel the heat bringing them to a boil in a series of conflicts among various members of the multi-ethnic, but primarily black, community. The hate thrives in the heat. The block’s race relations boil over the first time in the infamous racial slur montage. Staged like a boxing round, each race thrusts forth the most vehement, disgusting slurs imaginable, using words as hooks, jabs, and uppercuts in an attempt to destroy each other race’s dignity. Mr. Senor Love Daddy’s call for peace after the quick cutting slurs, perfectly sums up Lee’s point that racial injustice is most definitely still out there, but we need to advance past it. “Yo! Hold up! Time out! Time out! Y’all take a chill. Ya need to cool that shit out… and that’s the double truth, Ruth.”