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Discuss how Spike Lee approaches genre

Module: Hollywood and Beyond
Module Coordinator: Dr David Garland
Academic Year 2 (2021/2022)

Spike Lee as a director was interesting to learn about. I was previously aware of his work, but had only recently seen BlacKkKlansman. His style is unique and is evident in his recent advertisement campaign for Nike.

This essay will discuss how Spike Lee approaches genre, using examples from two of his films: Do the Right Thing (1989) and BlacKkKlansman (2018). Lee was nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for Do the Right Thing (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1990) and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2019). Both films are comedy dramas, with BlacKkKlansman also taking on a biographical role. Lee deploys various techniques associated with comedy to tell the story and are far from subtle and drive home strong statements on race and equality. Just as you’re laughing at a comedic scene and he has your attention, Lee will move onto a serious discussion or statement about race and equality.

Do the Right Thing follows Mookie (Spike Lee), an African American living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. He delivers pizzas for Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian American whose pizza is a staple food within the community. His sons Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro) help run the pizza joint. A local radio station run by Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) is housed in the building across the street, with Señor Love Daddy acting as a fly on the wall for much of what happens in the street. When Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) enlists Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) to participate in a boycott of Sal’s famous pizzeria because there is no representation of African Americans on the “wall of fame”, tensions break and result in the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the (white) police, and the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria.

Whilst there is tension between the African Americans and Italian Americans, there is also tension created by the Korean business owners who have opened a grocery store across the street from the pizzeria. ML (Paul Benjamin) expresses to Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison) and Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) “I bet you they haven’t been off the boat a year before they open up their own place” and that the fact that they already have a business “occupying a building that has been boarded up for as long as I care to remember” must mean either the Koreans are “geniuses” or the locals are “just plain dumb” – with Coconut Sid expressing that it must be “because they are black”. This represents American capitalism, whilst also posing a question as to why the local African Americans aren’t running their own business. For Mookie, it is Sal who “represents the ‘discursive universe’ of American capitalism. He is an embodiment of the white patriarchy to which Mookie must be accountable if he is to be granted a continuing position, trifling as it may seem, in the dominant economic order.” (McKelly, 2008, p.66). Here Lee is posing the question of why African Americans don’t own more businesses in a discussion which starts and ends comically.

Many of the scenes which deal with race are preluded by comedic scenes, designed to catch an audience off guard and grab their attention. One such scene is where Pino opens up to his father and expresses his resentment of where he works. He feels that they should move the business to an Italian American neighbourhood, but Sal does not want to do this, expressing that there are “too many pizzerias already there” and “what am I going to do, that’s all I know, I’ve been here twenty-five years, where am I going?”. Pino explains how he feels like he is in Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968) and that his friends make fun of him for serving black people. Sal argues “do your friends put money in your pocket, Pino? Food on your table. Do they pay your rent, your roof over your head?” and “If they were your friends, they wouldn’t laugh at you”. Here Sal is attempting to mitigate his son’s bias and trying to get him to see the bigger picture. The scene which sets this discussion between Sal and Pino up comes after Señor Love Daddy’s eighty-second-long monologue listing the names of prominent black music artists and at the end includes a comical joke about a character’s ears. They are of stark contrast to each other: A scene designed to slow the pace of the film down and get the audience laughing is immediately followed by a discussion about race.

Another example is a critical scene in the film. It is out of place but perfectly represents the racial tensions in the community. Mookie calls Pino’s aggressive comments out, asking him who his favourite basketball player, movie star and rock star is and pointing out that they are all black people. Mookie is attempting to have a serious conversation, and Pino is trying to justify his comments by saying that these people, to him, are not black, but as soon as Mookie asks if he wishes he was black, Pino raises his defences and mocks African American history. The scene is quickly and suddenly followed by an out-of-place tirade of racial insults with Señor Love Daddy closing the scene with “you need to cool that shit out and that’s the double truth, Ruth!”. This scene sends an extratextual message to an audience, telling them that they need to all get along.

Lee uses the concept of “two-ness” in Do the Right Thing in the characters of Radio Raheem and Buggin Out, and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee). Radio Raheem shows his “LOVE” and “HATE” brass knuckle rings to Mookie, with a fourth wall break – he tells a story of how love conquers hate directly to the camera. However, it appears Radio Raheem goes against these values in his part in the boycott and destruction of Sal’s pizzeria. “Radio Raheem, like the large majority of Black youth, is the victim of materialism and a misplaced sense of values.” (Lee, 1988, as cited in McKelly, 2008, p. 63). Da Mayor and Mother Sister have been unable to get along throughout the film, however after the destruction of the pizzeria, they appear to put aside their differences, showing that their disagreements were unimportant.

At the end of the film, Lee reinforces the idea of two-ness or dualism by scrolling quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. “The most controversial imagery, however, came during the closing quotations when excerpts from the speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were displayed as a choice of two paths to take (dualism).” (Stephens, 2009, p. 12). This sent a strong enough message so that Lee was accused of inciting violence. (Alter, 2020).

BlacKkKlansman follows the biographical story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as they work undercover to expose criminal acts within a Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Ron is the first African American police officer in Colorado Springs and is subject to racial prejudice daily, but after he is transferred to the intelligence division and calls the local leader of the Ku Klux Klan asking for more information, he realises Flip must take his position as Ron Stallworth to meet them in person. Lee uses similar techniques in BlacKkKlansman as he does in Do the Right Thing, such as using comedic scenes to get an audience laughing and immediately cutting to a new scene which contains a serious discussion or statement about race. He returns to the concept of “two-ness”, directly referring to it this time whereas it was more alluded to in Do the Right Thing. Once again at the end of a film, a powerful message is displayed, designed to continue the discussion about racial prejudice in present day America.

During one of the many telephone calls Ron takes with David Duke (Topher Grace), David says how he can always tell when he is talking to a white man. “Take you for example Ron. I can tell that you’re a pure Aryan white man from the way you pronounce certain words.” Lee previously discussed this conception in an interview in 1991: “There’s something very sick where if you speak well and you speak articulately, that’s looked at as being negative and speaking white. I remember when I was growing up, people used to tell me ‘You sound white.’” (Lee, 1991, as quoted in Mitchell, 2002, p.56). This scene is played for comedy with Ron’s colleague spitting his drink out with laughter, but immediately moves onto a very serious scene with Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) in which he arms Flip (as Ron) telling him how “the war is gunna come to us”. This scene is also ended with comedy and immediately moves onto a further serious scene with Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) asking Felix if he “ever has any second thoughts” about “killing them”. These scenes mark a critical point in the film in which the Ku Klux Klan appear to be escalating their white supremacist terrorism. Once again, Lee is using comedy to set up a serious discussion about race and equality.

Lee returns to the concept of two-ness in BlacKkKlansman in a discussion between Patrice (Laura Harrier) and Ron. They are discussing various famous black people whilst relevant images of these people are superimposed onto the screen, but the conversation quickly moves onto how Patrice doesn’t think the institutional racism can be changed from within the institution. She argues with “what did Du Bois say about double consciousness, two-ness, being an American and a negro, two warring ideals inside on dark body.”

After Flip’s (as Ron) initiation ceremony to the Ku Klux Klan, the Klansmen watch Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915). This scene is cross-cut “with a meeting of Black Power college students transfixed by the descriptions of a lynching recounted by Jerome Turner…” (Hastie, 2018, p. 82). A fourth wall break occurs at the end of this scene with the students and Turner holding canvas images of the atrocities he had been describing.

The final images shown are of the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, 2017. This included footage of a car ploughing through a peaceful protest. One protester died, Lee dedicated the film to their memory. In an interview, he said “From the beginning, we wanted to find things in this period piece that would connect stuff so it was not just a history piece – that what you see in this film is really about the world we live in today”. (Lee, 2018, as quoted in Bugbee, 2018, p. 26). Lee also includes footage of then President Donald Trump hesitating to condemn the acts of the attacker, sending a clear message of his disapproval of the Presidency.

We have seen that Spike Lee approaches genre by telling the history of African Americans whilst sparking serious discussions and sending critical statements about race and equality. Lee uses the concept of two-ness to give a somewhat binary explanation to how some of his characters behave, but once you look further into the meaning behind them it is clear the characters may be confused, as with Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. Lee expands on these characters and sends strong political messages and statements about race and equality at moments where the audience least expect it, but also when he has their complete attention, as for the message to cause a greater impact on the audience.


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  • Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (2019, February 24). The 91st Academy Awards | 2019. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
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  • Bugbee, T. (2018). It Happened Here. Film Comment, 54(4), 24–29.
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