Black Masculinity in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing

Black masculinity, a preconceived notion that suggests that Black men are “inherently inferior, aggressive, and violent,” is one of the reasons why racial injustices persist in the United States today (Ferber).  In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee highlights the racial tensions that exist in America during the 1980s. These racial tensions, however, continue to plague present-day America. The movie is set in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, a primarily African-American neighborhood. In the film, Spike Lee creates the character Radio Raheem, a man who is meant to act as an all-encompassing representation of Black masculinity. Physically, Radio Raheem appears to be the stereotypical Black male, as described by Spike Lee. He is large and menacing-looking, but he does not engage in violence without a justifiable reason. When a seemingly justified reason arises for Radio Raheem to act violently, it is met by his demise. Unfortunately, the unjustified “steadfast images of Black man naturalize and reinforce […] the message that Black men are naturally aggressive [and] violent,” which is why the White policemen in the movie feel the need to control him, ultimately killing him in the process (Ferber). In Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem is used as a way to demonstrate that Black masculinity and the fear fostered by this idea will continue to promote racial injustice and prevent integration between the Black and White races.

The early stereotypical ideas that surround Black individuals are used to vindicate policing and punishment in America. During slavery, Black men were objectified. White owners treated and viewed Black men as “beasts who had to be controlled and tamed to be put into service” (Ferber). The comparisons made between African-Americans and animals completely dehumanized the Black race as a whole, which caused them to be viewed as “savages.” As a result, White owners felt the need to “domesticate” their slave and severely punish and abuse them. Despite the changes that occurred post-slavery, which led to slaves being recognized as people, this did not put an end to the view that African-Americans are aggressive and violent. These early ideas surrounding African Americans took a new form, known as Black masculinity. The image generated by Black masculinity leads to distress within the White population, causing concern when considering “taming and controlling Black males” (Ferber). It is this fear and generalization surrounding the Black race that promotes the divide. Today, many White policemen who associate Black males with Black masculinity are quick to exert their power and dominance over a Black male involved in a situation necessitating police intervention. Often times, they use their belief in Black masculinity to justify their unnecessarily violent actions against Black men before developing a greater understanding of the situation. If White policemen continue to react irrationally towards Black individuals, the Black race will continue to distrust the White race, promoting this endless cycle of hatred and violence.

Radio Raheem is one of the only characters that truly embodies Black masculinity in Do the Right Thing. In this film, most of the characters appear small in relation to Radio Raheem. Before Radio Raheem appears in the scene, his presence is known. The sound of his blasting boom box precedes his entry before his “physical stature fills the camera lens” (Johnson). Spike Lee uses a boom box to signal Radio Raheem’s entry as a way to accentuate Radio Raheem’s dominant and intimidating appearance, the same way that stereotypical Black males are viewed. Spike Lee carefully chooses to use medium close-up shots when filming Radio Raheem so that he towers over the other characters, particularly White characters like Sal. This shot choice is designed to place on emphasis on what Radio Raheem has to say, especially when he argues a need for pictures of Black individuals on the walls in Sal’s pizzeria. During this scene, Radio Raheem continuously manipulates his tone of voice in order to appear aggressive and deliver his words with authority.

Although Radio Raheem appears to be a stereotypical Black male in Do the Right Thing, the destruction of Radio Raheem’s boom box is an important example of how White individuals use their belief in Black masculinity to validate their actions. The climax of the movie begins when Radio Raheem and Buggin Out arrive at Sal’s pizzeria to assert themselves as they ask Sal to put pictures of Black individuals on the wall. Once the two men begin arguing with Sal, he feels a need to exert his dominance over the “threatening and violent Black men,” even though they do not come across as violent. In his attempt to control these Black individuals and catch their attention, he destroys Radio Raheem’s boom box.  Radio Raheem is angered because of Sal’s refusal to display pictures of Black individuals on the wall, but he does not initially engage in violence. However, the destruction of Radio Raheem’s boom box infuriates Radio Raheem and prompts him to act aggressively towards Sal, fully embracing this social construction of Black masculinity. If Sal had treated Radio Raheem as an equal and talked to him in a civil manner, he could have calmly communicated his reasoning for the lack of pictures of Black individuals on his wall, preventing the violence all together.  Spike Lee chooses an alternative ending in which Radio Raheem and Buggin Out fail at their attempt to promote equality. Sal’s refusal to cooperate with the two men reinforces the idea that persists in society today; “Black men are […responsible] for their own failure to succeed, and they must be controlled for their own good” (Ferber).

The assumed overly violent and hyper-masculine qualities of the Black race are what prompt the White policemen to exercise so much control over Raheem that they ultimately control his destiny, death. This scene is comprised of multiple shots that have been fragmented together to demonstrate the fighting leading up to Radio Raheem’s death and the characters’ reactions after the murder of Radio Raheem. As the fight between the White and Black race ensues, Sal and his sons against Buggin Out and Radio Raheem respectively, the policemen associate danger with the Black males in this scene. In order to diffuse the situation, the policemen are first to grab Buggin Out and Radio Raheem and handcuff them. The policemen fear “aggressive Black men” and assume that they are the cause of the issue, without first speaking to anyone to develop a greater understanding of the problem at hand. As Radio Raheem struggles to break free of a policeman’s grasp, the policeman places Raheem in a chokehold, killing him. In this scene, the “Black male body brings together the dominant institutions of (White) masculine power and authority” to do one thing, “to protect (White) Americans from harm” (Gray). Authority figures did not even consider that Sal or his sons might have been the cause for the violence because White individuals are rarely viewed as the perpetrators of a crime. Had the policemen properly evaluated the situation and separated all of the individuals in the fight, they might have been able to recognize those at fault during this scene. However, Spike Lee decides to have the scene end in Radio Raheem’s death in order to demonstrate how White policemen continue to be blinded by the idea of Black masculinity, causing them to do anything they can to prevent these “scary and aggressive Black men” from getting out of hand, even if that means inflicting death upon them. The racial injustice revealed in this scene did not only result in the death of an innocent Black male, but it also gave Black individuals within the community a reason to view White individuals, particularly White policemen, with scorn and disdain, furthering the divide between the Black and White races.

Critics claim that Spike Lee teaches his audience to do the wrong thing by teaching viewers that White policemen and white individuals are “the enemy.” That, however, is not the goal. Spike Lee is trying to bring police brutality towards Black individuals to light. Although the death of Radio Raheem is fictional, this death directly parallels the death of Eric Garner, a 6-foot-tall, large Black male who was killed after a White policeman put him in a chokehold. Eric Garner was approached by policemen for selling untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island. Although Eric Garner was wrong for participating in this illegal activity, this was not justification for his death. The videos taken during Garner’s death capture the encounter between Garner and the police, in which Officer Pantaleo presses Garner’s head to the pavement as Garner says his last words, “I can’t breathe” (Baker et al.). Although Eric Garner did not provoke or act aggressively toward the police officer, the underlying fear of the “inferior race” drove the officer to kill Garner while he had the chance. Was Spike Lee wrong when he decided to let Radio Raheem be killed by White policeman in his movie? No. The microcosms represented in Do the Right Thing was Lee’s vision of an authentic portrayal of the racial violence in New York, even though these views may be contested (Johnson). Both the death of Radio Raheem and Eric Garner capture the attention of the unwarranted racism that exists in law enforcement, causing the lives of many Black individuals to be ended early because of the fear perpetuated by Black stereotypes.

The Black Lives Matter Movement is a peaceful protest movement whose goal is to actively recognize the pervasive role of racism and reshape these views to promote equality and racial justice throughout America (Johnson). After the death of Eric Garner and other black individuals who experienced gratuitous deaths, the Black Lives Matter Movement strove to bring attention to the problems that exist between race and law enforcement, beginning an attempt to put an end to the institutionalized racism that exists in the United States. In Do the Right Thing, Buggin Out and Radio Raheem are representative of those who participate in this movement. Due to their awareness of the racist individuals that work at Sal’s pizzeria, they attempt to gain a following and peacefully boycott this business. Their peaceful boycott was not very long-lived, but they did succeed in informing the community that their race is marginalized by the workers at Sal’s. Their recognition of the inequalities their race faces and their desire to put an end to this racial injustice peacefully is one of the ways this movie tries to promote integration in the same way the Black Lives Matter Movement tries to promote integration in America.

Peaceful and violent methods for achieving racial justice appear to be ineffective in the film. At the end of the movie, Radio Raheem is killed when he peacefully tries to gain acknowledgement for Black individuals in Sal’s Pizzeria. Additionally, the destructive action towards Sal’s pizzeria, in response to Radio Raheem’s murder, only entices other Black members of the community to join in the violence. In both examples, the Black individuals are viewed as “fucking n******,” and fail to gain respect from the White individuals in the film. Spike Lee incorporates quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at the end of the film to offer an explanation for the two contrasting methods of action. Martin Luther King Jr., a proponent for peaceful protest, argues that “violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. […] It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert” (Johnson). Although Martin Luther King Jr. is justified in his rationalization for nonviolence, peaceful protests are only effective when the receiving party is willing to work with the protestors to collectively find a solution. Unfortunately, the ideas and fears perpetuated by Black masculinity influence many individuals, and prevent them from effectively listening to what Black individuals have to say.  If Black individuals are instantly disregarded, imprisoned, or killed for conveying their ideas like Buggin Out and Radio Raheem were, will the United States ever achieve racial justice? No. In this case, the Black individuals will lose to the White individuals who are deemed as “superior,” and Black Americans will continue to be marginalized.

Contrastingly, Malcolm X’s more radical approach towards achieving racial justice is unsuccessful as well. Even though Malcolm X suggests that violence can be used as means for “self-defense,” he fails to realize that Black individuals participating in violence aids in promoting the idea of Black masculinity. If already-biased White individuals see Blacks partaking in vandalism or actions of violence towards Whites, who initiated physical or verbal abuse, many will not seek to understand the reason behind these Black individuals’ motivations. Black individuals will continue to be viewed as the “aggressive” and “dominant” despite their valid reasons for their actions. In Do the Right Thing, Black members of the community actively sought vengeance after the murder of Radio Raheem. By destroying the White-owned pizzeria in support of Radio Raheem, they brought attention to the injustice of his death, but his death did not act as an impetus for change. The violence brought upon by the Black individuals only succeeded in supporting the idea that Blacks are “violent” and “need to be controlled,” ideas associated with Black masculinity. Violence did not bring together the two races as the Black individuals may have hoped, but rather increased racial tensions between the groups.

In Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, a film director of great ingenuity, effectively portrays the inequalities faced by those who are marginalized. By creating characters that embody the characteristics associated with Black masculinity, like Radio Raheem, Lee brings awareness of how some people view Black individuals today. His inclusion of the opposing ideas offered by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are used to demonstrate that there needs to be an alternative way to promote racial justice in society. Peaceful protest and violence seem to only be effective temporarily, if at all. Spike Lee argues that there will be greater racial integration between Whites and Blacks when people are entirely devoid of the ideas perpetuated by ideas of Black masculinity. How can entire population effectively remain uninfluenced by fears and ideas perpetuated by stereotypes? Spike Lee does not offer any answers; yet, he does know that until individuals evaluate others based on their character and situation rather than the color of their skin, there will continue to be these feelings of distrust and contempt between Blacks and Whites.


Works Cited

Baker, Al, et al. “Beyond the Chokehold: The Path to Eric Garner’s Death.” The New York Times, 13 Jun. 2015, Accessed 23 April 2018.

Ferber, Abby. “The Construction of Black Masculinity.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, vol.31, no. 1, 2007, pp. 11-24, Accessed 23 April 2018.

Gray, Herman. “Black Masculinity and Visual Culture.” Callaloo, vol. 18, no. 2, 1995, pp. 401-405,  Accessed 23 April 2018.

Johnson, Brian. “Baltimore 2015, Black Lives Matter and the Presience of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.” Filmint, Accessed 23 April 2018.