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Racial Issues In Spike Lees Films Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3878 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Racism refers to the intolerance or discrimination of a person or a group of people based on their skin color, language, religion, customs and/or beliefs. This paper attempts to understand the birth and causes of racism, racial profiling and racial stereotypes with the use of Spike Lee’s four films School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Mo’ Better Blues. Without an thought of why, and in what circumstances, racism arises, we will certainly be unable to successfully eradicate it neither will we be able to create a world without prejudice and enmity between groups of people and replace them with harmony and fairness.

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According to Fredrickson (pg.12) racism in America and around the globe is not an unusual phenomenon. It is obvious in the media, schools, churches and work places that racism is a dynamic entity in the human race. Racism, in the United States for the most part began in the eighteenth century when settlers of all nationalities came to work as slaves in America. During the height of the slavery era, slave drivers were very cruel particularly to the African slaves and often forced them to bear long, hard hours regularly in hazardous terrain, surrounded by disease and unfriendly habitants. Cultivating land and performing exhausting construction jobs without sophisticated machinery proved enormously hard work, particularly in the hot, humid climate of the South.

By the 1860’s rising pressure to be freed within the slave communities in the south caused Slave drivers to begin liberating them. Slaves of African descent, through strengthened family ties, deep religious dedication, education, and reduction in their labor force, forced their masters to finding a middle ground however they still retained their power. All the same, within their lives as captives they were able to fashion a life that allowed many of them to retain their human dignity and courage. When freedom came, they were ready to be free men contrary to their former masters who were not. After the release of these slaves, Blacks became accepted members of the American society but that difference between them and indigenous Americans still exists to date.

For centuries racism was the norm in America and Europe until abolitionist sought to change the status quo. Director Spike Lee can be considered as the modern day racism abolitionist. Spike Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee in 1957 Atlanta, Georgia (Star Pulse, par 2). His mother, succumbed to cancer in 1977 of cancer gave him the name “Spike” markedly alluding to his toughness. Shortly after Lee’s birth, his family moved around America but finally settled in Brooklyn, New York where he now hosts his production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. This anti-slavery activist began his film career in 1986 when he first directed She’s gotta have it. No stranger to controversy, Lee often takes a decisive look at race affairs, politics, crime and violence. His second1989 film Do the Right Thing studied all of the above and was chosen for an Academy Award in the Best Original Screenplay category. Successive pictures, including Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, summer of Sam and She Hates Me, continued to investigate societal and political issues. In 1997, 4 Little Girls, in particular was also nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Feature Documentary category (Star Pulse, par 3).

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, he directed and produced a TV documentary, When the Levees Broke: a Requiem in Four Acts; about the effect it had on New Orleans.Lee has also triumphed in successfully directing TV commercials, most notably with legendary basketball star Michael Jordan in the Nike Air campaign (Star Pulse, par 3). Other commercial successes include his work with Converse, Taco Bell and Ben & Jerry’s companies. Currently, Lee is alleged to be producing a sequel to his 2006 hit Inside Man which featured acclaimed actors Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, and Denzel Washington. He is also supposedly set on producing documentaries about the basketball giants Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. These documentaries are set to be released in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

The four films, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Mo’ Better Blues in particular are what caused uproar in the issue of racism. Do the right thing produced in 1989 is about a young man Mookie, played by Spike Lee himself, who lives in the hoods of Brooklyn with his younger sister Jade and works at a local pizzeria owned by an Italian named Sal. His sense heritage and staunch allegiance to the Italian culture causes Sal problems one day when another young man named Buggin out walks into the pizza shop one day and demands that Sal hangs up pictures of black legends such as Martin Luther king on his wall of fame since his shop is located in an African American neighborhood.

Sal retorts back to the young lad that he is entitled to hang up pictures of whomever he pleases. Buggin tries to protest about the issue but nobody seems to care apart from Raheem, who also has had problems with the Italian shop owner. Raheem and buggin later plan a heist to attack Sal and make him replace the pictures. They put the radio on high volume angering Sal and he in turn breaks Raheem’s radio with a baseball bat. Raheem clearly angry physically attacks Sal and a fight arises fuelled by mob of multiracials. Officers soon arrive at the scene but an unfortunate incident with an officer leads to Raheem’s demise.

The black community is angered by the death of one of their brothers and gangs begin contemplating wiping out Sal and his two sons. Mookie cleverly draws attention from the angry mob by breaking the pizzerias window. Sal and his family make a quick escape while the crowd begins moving further looking for more shops owned by people of other races. They attempt to destroy a Korean mans shop but he pleadingly cries “I no white! I black! You, me, same! We same!” causing the mob to spare his shop. Firefighters arrive and begin spraying Sal’s building as the crowd is held back by riot patrol. Amid all the chaos Smiley strolls back into the flaming pizzeria and hangs up portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. on what’s left of the Wall of Fame. It concludes with various quotes from various black leaders imploring people to remain peaceful and only fight back in self defense.

This film investigates the racial disagreements that surround populations, everyday in America and in other multi racial regions. This was the picture that put Lee on the household map. Never before, not even with the classic Malcolm X, has Lee courted controversy so assertively. The film tackles racism head-on, with the kind of level headed and steady manner that is seldom seen in many motion pictures. Lee does not strive for political correctness, nor does he lecture. He establishes a group of characters, creates a situation, and then lets events unfold by themselves. His approach is unbiased, and those who accuse the film of being harsh have not bothered to spend time taking into account what Lee wants to convey. Lee may be the kind of director who provokes enormous reactions, but such an ignorant response to Do the Right Thing does a disfavor to both the director and his film.

One of Lee’s great successes with this picture is that he manages to present every entity, regardless of race, gender, or age, with three-dimensionality and a measure of consideration. No one depicted as saintly or wicked neither is any individual held responsible or acquitted for the actions which transpire. Every character is shown to have both good and bad traits, and we are brought to light what makes them tick, even if we do not agree with them. This is an extraordinary piece excellence for any film, more than ever for one that deals with racial issues. It would be straightforward enough to turn Sal and his sons into the main antagonists, but then Do the Right Thing would have just been another stereotypically biased film, and not the confrontational work of genius it is.

School Daze 1987 is centrally based around Mission College which is a traditionally all black university. Dap (Spike Lee), a student, is annoyed because the university admin keeps investing in South Africa, land of racism and the apartheid. He attempts to stimulate his companions by hosting meetings within the university grounds much to the Dean’s discontentment. Dap’s main opposition is Julian, leader of the Greek alliance whose uses his “wanna-be” frat boys to goad Dap and his politically aware friends on any occasion.

Meanwhile, multi racial cousin to Dap and “wanna-be” Greek, tries to bear Julian and his tests to prove that he can be dependable. Dap is also experiencing trouble with his girlfriend Rachel who all of a sudden wishes to be part of the “Jigaboos”, a society made up of black students, opposed to the lighter-skinned “Wannabes”. The film ends Dap’s squabble with Julian during a parade and he is called in by the Dean and asked to discontinue his political action immediately. Roger Ebert has called School Daze the “most discussed” and “most important” film of 1989. It’s difficult to have a difference of opinion with him on either report. No film produced that year took as many odds. And, notwithstanding the weightiness of the subject matter, School daze includes more than few moment of comic relief.

There are those who have criticized Lee for a jumbled perception but his purpose with this film is to highlight the problem, not present a solution. If the answer is known, there would be no need to ask the question. School daze does what all long-term, huge movies of essence must; cry out with a loud voice that demands to be heard. As a creation, School Daze is superior to most. While the instructions could be better produced, they’re nice and enticing, and seem to give somewhat full credits so you have some history and prior information to ponder. The props are admirable, and one has no problem experiencing the effect and no embarrassment in presenting them to an audience.

Mo’ better blues is the story of a fantastic trumpeter named Bleek Gilliam played by Denzel Washington who leads a quintet at a famous local club with a showy saxophonist named Shadow Henderson played by Wesley Snipes. Though Snipes takes a little too much of the limelight, all appears fine in Bleek’s life. Problems soon arise when Shadow is forced to make decisions concerning both his best friend Giant (Spike Lee), and his affairs with two different women. Giant, his manager and buddy, is obsessed with gambling and is often violently attacked by thugs looking for pay back. Bleek is the only band member who still wishes for Giants services as manager. Shadow’s female problems concern trying to choose between two girlfriends who both love him: a schoolteacher and a singer.

Mo’ better blues is not at all contentious and, as far as the story is concerned is somewhat a conventional Hollywood movie. With this film, Lee has created a film revolving around the world of jazz, centering on one gifted artist who is passionate about his music, but minus the shadowy clichés of despair and drug abuse that so often infuse movies with this kind of subject matter. Strangely, however, in removing those clichés Lee has embraced numerous others, capped by an uncanny domestic ending that seems to forget all that has gone before. Still, the presentations are unmatched, the music is magnificent and Lee’s direction as always is tasteful and occasionally striking. His competence, sense of adlibbing and sardonic humor give wealth to the film and there are several particular scenes that are wonderfully realized. There’s no matching Lee’s talent.

Lastly Jungle Fever is a love story based around a man and woman of two different races. In this film, lee scrutinizes the ramifications of an interracial affair upon two very divergent communities. Wesley Snipes acts as Flipper, a contentedly married and well to do architect who employs (Annabella Sciorra) Angie, an office temporary worker. When she begins working in Flipper’s office the attraction is mutual and they soon initiate a physical relationship. Their relationship causes an angry outburst on both sides of the culture aspect. Flipper’s family consists of his father Doctor Purify, a former preacher; his mother Lucinda, his violent, erratic brother Gator and his wife Drew whom he loves, despite his affair with the office temp. Angie’s family is a typical Italian-American family unit which cherishes traditional values. She’s engaged to Paulie, who works in a deli owned by his father Lou. When the two sides discover Flipper and Angie’s affair, their shock leads to reproach and racial hostility.

The affair that looms between Flipper and Angie never quite comes across as the sort of infatuation that would ever advance beyond a seasonal fling, but Lee keeps it authentic by never exploring the relationship further than what it is. They have nothing beyond curiosity and mutual attraction.  Snipes gives a good show bearing in mind he is miscast.  The acting does trespass into hammy territory in certain instances, particularly in showcasing Flipper’s religious parents, and the Italian bunch of hooligans at the local liquor store.

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Jungle Fever also suffer from an pointless plot rotating around Gator, who is frequently coming around to beg money from his poor mother(Ruby Dee) and his intolerant brother Flipper.  All in all, Jungle Fever is a bumpy movie, because the strong points greatly overshadow the weaker elements.  The story is not entirely about explicit racism toward another cultural group as much as it is about cruel boundaries set by each ethnic group towards its very own in keeping them from mixing with the “wrong” crowd.  Although discrimination is considered a thing of the past, it is still active and well in the value systems of many.

The above spike film for the most part relate to racial issues within and without the particular races mentioned. In School Daze we see a young man troubled by the twisted unusual racial vices that guide his learning institution, in do the right thing we see an intensely captivating racial story revolving around the black and Italian community. In Mo’ better blues, the story is not entirely based on the racial factor but it does have a few scenes pertaining to racial profiling. The last but not least film, Jungle Fever as mentioned is not entirely about racism in that society but is produced from a diverse cultural standpoint. The films are mostly intra-racial, particularly Jungle Fever and Mo’ better blues.

Mo better blues illustrates discrimination within the African American race by showing how a successful artist within the black community can become lost and caught up in the ugly world of fame and how other blacks react to it. The film Jungle fever also shows the wrong ideologies that different cultures have and how they prevent their very own from integrating and assimilating into other racial groups. The other two films mostly dwell on the inter-racial type of racism. In the American society, there are indefinitely additional immigrants than the mass Caucasian community and the races are becoming diverse. According to the grapevine, there are three distinctive races, these include: Caucasian, Black, Indian and the characteristics are made through natural traits that are personalized to environmental reasons over time, and also as a product of resettlement.

The most exposed form of racism exists among races, but the most dreadful type exists within the races. This intra-racism has been concealed because it tends to minimize the impact of inter-racism, which faults mostly the Caucasian populace. It is essential to note that racism is not inborn; rather, it is acquired conduct which supposedly serves to preserve a race. I definitely do not accept as true that racism is a one-way street. For example, it is completely likely for a black person to have racist thoughts, attitudes and actions towards a white, Asian or Hispanic person. When one makes conclusions concerning a specific person, based on their skin color, language, religion or customs, that makes them racists (Spriggs.par 4).

All liberation activities were not made feasible without the sustenance of the popular race, Caucasian. Fredrickson (pg, 92) argues that a good number of movements for civil rights and fairness involved the assistance of a number of inter-racial affiliations with a familiar goal. Legendary Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s dream would not have become a reality exclusive of the support of a number of unspecified Caucasians. Same with the abolitionist movement of slavery, it would not have manifested without the support of some Caucasians. In Caribbean records, it is taught that African slaves were victims of tribal conflict and were sold by Africans, in substitute for various artifacts to the Americans. This is a truth that has been covered up and it averts healing and reconciliation between races.

The film Jungle Fever in particular has two essential scenes that illustrate characters talking about intra racialism. The War council scene is whereby Flipper’s wife and her friends, which seems to be ad-libbed as they discuss why black men seem to have a longing for light-skinned black women. This is in regard to the situation caused by Flipper and Angela who have a clandestine affair. Although Angie is not black, her and her friends still note the intra racial racism that is brought about by that aspect. The issue of skin tone and gender being subsets in racism is clearly illustrated in this movie. Racial prejudice does not affect men and women evenly and in the same way. Women time and again experience compounded or intersectional prejudice. There are various outlines of racism that can go unnoticed if gender is not considered. It is felt among communities or sectors within a racial faction, and works to further divide them. Case in point, the trafficking of girls and women is supposedly viewed as gender based violence. The actuality that particular groups of females are aimed at is not well thought out in spite of the fact that it is a blend of their gender, race and social standing that makes them susceptible to trafficking.

There are differences involving racial and gender inequity. As mentioned race is not a natural or inherent taxonomy. It is a mode of deducing differences between groups which generates and buttresses inequality amongst them. It is not merely an assortment of beliefs and attitudes but a tactic and a method of social and political control. In this way, racism is similar to patriarchy (Fredrickson.pg 155). Configured racism is there in migration laws and guidelines, legal justice structures as well as governance and health care facilities. This brand of racism means that lower class; financially challenged citizens are criminalized more than other races in America. For instance, less fortunate black people are more likely to be deprived of mortgages and loans as compared to elitist white people.

Despite various efforts to crush racism and racial profiling in America and around the globe, we are constantly swamped with detrimental and damaging images and thoughts (Spriggs.par2). When watching television and reading newspapers, it is evident racial minorities are at the epicenter of criminal activities and are sighted as the chief perpetrators of crime in America. In the same way, victims of criminal operations who are of a cultural minority are hardly ever report, as Caucasian victims dominate the highlight in media debates. As a regrettable consequence, a blemished representation of crime and the perpetrators has resulted which leads to the manifestation of negative ideas in the society.

As shown, racism and racial profiling in the media is of utmost concern. The crisis of racial profiling is to a great extent knotted with culture and social ideologies and the manifestation of these thoughts over time. The holistic view is for that reason a useful approach to this issue as it considerably highlights how the film media serves to create, endorse and call attention to certain attitudes, values, views and ideologies. While this theoretical approach is crucial in understanding racism as a whole, it has an array of restrictions that stop it from being useful and relevant to several racial circumstances.

Many have lamented that in all Spikes’ films, all the good people are black and all the bad ones are white. His thoughts on race were most apparent in his film School Daze. As mentioned, there were black students attending a predominantly black university in the South. There however existed two categories namely; lighter skinned “frat boys” and darker-skinned “Jigaboos”. The former were considered fake since they straightened their hair and behaved like whites. All the wannabes were morally poor and the Jigaboos were blameless. It is prejudiced when he applies racial profiling of any race to his protagonists and/or antagonists. It is evident that the unpleasant truth of racism against blacks is cemented in America’s history. White America can never take back the terrible yoke of captivity of Africa Americans that took place in the 19th century nor can it make up for the hundreds of years of bigotry since slavery was abolished, and dejectedly it is still rampant today.

With the detailed analysis of race and its various aspects discussed above, it is important to take note of Spike Lee’s comments as a director of many controversial films. His notable conflict with renowned producer Clint Eastwood provoked this retort: “He did two films about Iwo Jima back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films.” “Many veterans, African-Americans, who survived that war, are upset at Clint Eastwood. In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist; simple as that. I have a different version.” Their battle about race and prejudice has been an active part of discussion in America and it is interesting to see to highly acclaimed professionals in there are of expertise hold interestingly rich debates on race and its place in American history.


It is therefore unbiased to say that race is an active and fundamental entity in our society. It also has a variety of subsets and aspect that should not be ignored particularly because they are all part of the problem. . The relation between the stereotypical profile and public perception is mandatory. Fortunately there have been efforts to stamp it out through social forums and discussions but it is indefinite when it will be completely wiped out.


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