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The Melting Pot that Got Too Hot: Wayne Wang's and Spike Lee's Portrayals of Race in New York City

by Michelle Robinson

This student project compares how directors Wayne Wang and Spike Lee use the City of New York as a setting as well as a collective characterization of its inhabitants. We will analyze how the two filmmakers address race relations amongst the New Yorkers in each film and how that represents Wang's and Lee's attitudes toward the City. Additional commentaries will be provided by students in the course “The Film Director as Public Intellectual” at UNC Chapel Hill (Spring 2014).

Bottled Tension in Do the Right Thing

by Ben Peltzer

Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing is a case study about the greater impact of increased racial tensions on the close-knit community of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Mookie (Spike Lee) and Pino (John Turturro) are constantly infuriated by the other’s inability to understand their racial identity, but this clip is Lee’s way of showing that the two are not the only members of the community who have a problem with members of another race. The montage is introduced through a scene in Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizza shop, where Pino works. Mookie confronts Pino about his casual use of racial slurs, and accuses him of trying to assume an African American identity that isn’t his. The two insult each other using celebrities associated with their race – “Fuck you, and fuck Frank Sinatra,” said Mookie, to which Pino replies, “fuck you too, and fuck Michael Jackson.” The racist rants provided by the characters in the clip are very different than the comments they say to each other’s face. Mookie and Pino are the first two characters to speak in the clip, but their words are more aimed at each other’s racial identity than at the specific individuals they are upset with. Though the use of a direct address to the audience is a tactic employed in Monty’s (Edward Norton) exasperated speech in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, this example shows the internal thoughts of multiple New Yorkers through racial tirades that do not have a specified recipient, rather than the racism that is projected by a single individual. These quick speeches from characters of multiple races and professions are less personal views of race than a list of stereotypes that all of the members of Bed-Stuy use to hurt others in the community. At the same time, these weaponized stereotypes differ from the ones used in 25th Hour as they work to build a sense of community, instead of an individual tearing down everyone that is different from him. The racist rants provided by the characters of Do the Right Thing are equal in that everyone is frustrated with someone else, and using stereotypes of every race is a way of putting all members of the community on an equal level. This clip from Do the Right Thing is almost the direct antithesis to the clip from Wayne Wang’s film Blue in the Face detailing the statistics of Brooklyn. While both clips feature multiple members of Brooklyn neighborhoods with diverse backgrounds sharing information about their borough of New York City, the characters in Do the Right Thing are all extremely upset with another member of the community, specifically targeting their rage at one race of people. The statements in Blue in the Face have no traces of personal opinion, except for the introductory monologue by Lou Reed’s character. The citizens of Brooklyn in Blue in the Face speak directly to Wang’s camera as a method of painting a larger image of the city through data-driven statistics, where Lee uses a similar tactic to show that these same communities are not as unified as they appear. These artistic approaches to portrayals of race and identity in New York City by Lee and Wang can ultimately be illustrated through their final scenes: while Blue in the Face ends with a community dance party in the streets, a singular image of the celebration of a diverse neighborhood, Do the Right Thing culminates in a violent riot fueled by racial tensions and the death of an innocent bystander. This clip is key to understanding the positions of race and identity in the riot scene in Do the Right Thing, as Lee works to summarize his position on the state of racial tensions in Brooklyn. “When I wrote the script ... New York City was a very polarized city, racially," said Lee in an interview with CNN, "I wanted to do a film that would try to show what was happening at the time” (Leopold). His approach to this issue was to portray both sides of a specific and tense escalation in Bed-Stuy between Mookie and Pino, and the effects this had on the larger community. This montage of racial tirades shows that the damages caused to Sal’s Famous Pizza weren’t just the result of a misunderstanding between two characters regarding their racial identities, but that tensions existed between all members of the neighborhood – they were just not expressed to each others faces until a specific incident provided the catalyst. In Do the Right Thing, the results of an overheated melting pot are death and destruction as the catharsis of building tensions between the diverse members of Brooklyn. Works Cited Leopold, Todd. "'Do the Right Thing' Still Has Something to Say." CNN.com. CNN, 20 July 2009.

Bottled Tensions in Do the Right Thing

by Ben Peltzer

Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing is a case study about the greater impact of increased racial tensions on the close-knit community of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Mookie (Spike Lee) and Pino (John Turturro) are constantly infuriated by the other’s inability to understand their racial identity, but this clip is Lee’s way of showing that the two are not the only members of the community who have a problem with members of another race. The montage is introduced through a scene in Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizza shop, where Pino works. Mookie confronts Pino about his casual use of racial slurs, and accuses him of trying to assume an African American identity that isn’t his. The two insult each other using celebrities associated with their race – “Fuck you, and fuck Frank Sinatra,” said Mookie, to which Pino replies, “fuck you too, and fuck Michael Jackson.” The racist rants provided by the characters in the clip are very different than the comments Mookie and Pino say to each other’s face. Mookie and Pino are the first two characters to speak in the clip, but their words are more aimed at each other’s racial identity than at the specific individuals they are upset with. Though the use of a direct address to the audience is a tactic employed in Monty’s (Edward Norton) exasperated speech in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, this example shows the internal thoughts of multiple New Yorkers through racial tirades that do not have a specified recipient, rather than the racism that is projected by a single individual. These quick speeches from characters of multiple races and professions are less personal views of race than a list of stereotypes that all of the members of Bed-Stuy use to hurt others in the community. At the same time, these weaponized stereotypes differ from the ones used in 25th Hour as they work to build a sense of community, instead of an individual tearing down everyone that is different from him. The racist rants provided by the characters of Do the Right Thing are equal in that everyone is frustrated with someone else, and using stereotypes of every race is a way of putting all members of the community on an equal level. This clip from Do the Right Thing is almost the direct antithesis to the clip from Wayne Wang’s film Blue in the Face, detailing the statistics of Brooklyn. While both clips feature multiple members of Brooklyn neighborhoods with diverse backgrounds sharing information about their borough of New York City, the characters in Do the Right Thing are all extremely upset with another member of the community, specifically targeting their rage at one race of people. The statements in Blue in the Face have no traces of personal opinion, except for the introductory monologue by Lou Reed’s character. The citizens of Brooklyn in Blue in the Face speak directly to Wang’s camera as a method of painting a larger image of the city through data-driven statistics, where Lee uses a similar tactic to show that these same communities are not as unified as they appear. These artistic approaches to portrayals of race and identity in New York City by Lee and Wang can ultimately be illustrated through their final scenes: while Blue in the Face ends with a community dance party in the streets, a singular image of the celebration of a diverse neighborhood, Do the Right Thing culminates in a violent riot fueled by racial tensions and the death of an innocent bystander. This clip is key to understanding the positions of race and identity in the riot scene in Do the Right Thing, as Lee works to summarize his position on the state of racial tensions in Brooklyn. “When I wrote the script ... New York City was a very polarized city, racially," said Lee in an interview with CNN, "I wanted to do a film that would try to show what was happening at the time” (Leopold). His approach to this issue was to portray both sides of a specific and tense escalation in Bed-Stuy between Mookie and Pino, and the effects this had on the larger community. This montage of racial tirades shows that the damages caused to Sal’s Famous Pizza weren’t just the result of a misunderstanding between two characters regarding their racial identities, but that tensions existed between all members of the neighborhood - they were just not expressed to each others faces until a specific incident provided the catalyst. In Do the Right Thing, the results of an overheated melting pot are death and destruction as the catharsis of building tensions between the diverse members of Brooklyn. Works Cited Leopold, Todd. "'Do the Right Thing' Still Has Something to Say." CNN.com. CNN, 20 July 2009.

Do the Right Thing: Racial Tensions in New York City

In this clip from Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Mookie and Pino insult one another, leading to a montage in which citizens of Brooklyn reveal their "true" attitudes.

from Do the Right Thing (1989)
Creator: Spike Lee
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Posted by Michelle Robinson
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