When thinking about the essayistic qualities of the fiction film, Spike Lee’s “Racial Slur Montage” in Do the Right Thing existed as both obvious and questionable example. Arguably the most recognizable moment of the film outside of the violence that erupts during the final confrontation in Sal’s Pizzeria, the montage continues to receive discussion of its purpose and meaning, as well as, being pointed to as an emblematic marker of Lee’s craft and style as filmmaker. If isolating and examining the montage could bear new, different fruit, then clearly thinking about essayistic qualities of the fiction film would merit further attention. My continued writing obviously suggests the answer is in the affirmative: in isolation the “Racial Slur Montage” as essay reveals a stark absence. White culture avoids the slurs and exists above the fray. Lee’s “essay” seems to articulate that minority groups participate in racial slurs at their own expense (an idea consistent when widened out to the full scope of the film as violence is redirected towards Sal’s Pizzeria and not the white police officers that depart after they murder Radio Raheem on the streets of the neighborhood and are left absent from the violence).
Lost in the rush to cite the craft of the front facing camera or engage in a discussion of the shifting camera angles as the montage moves to Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mister Senor Love Daddy’s, contribution (Bogle 322, Vest 48-9), the potential for the tragic to bend towards comedic in the flurry of slurs (King 154), or way the montage points to all too readily handy epithets thrown about that mark a deep set prejudice in the neighborhood and America (Davis 37) is exactly what Mister Senor Love Daddy, means when he pronounces to all of them, “Yo! Hold up! Time out! Time out! Y’all take a chill. Ya need to cool that shit out…and that’s the truth, Ruth” (Lee 188). Certainly, the above elements exist in the montage. However, the montage is not simply a presentation of “doing the dozens,” nor is it a full depiction of the racial tensions apparent in the neighborhood. There is a clear absence. Slurs directed towards the white culture (if we stay exclusively in the scope of the montage/”essay,” by Officer Long and by the white officers who murder Radio Raheem in the larger scope) are absent. By doing so, Lee’s “essay” points to one of the significant difficulties with the neighborhood and America: in the absence of a real dialogue and the ability to cool the shit out, the anger and violence is turned inward and the white power structure benefiting from the inward turn remains untouched.
The montage opens with Mookie, played by Lee, attacking Italians, then Pino, played by John Turturro, attacking blacks, then Stevie, a Latino played by Luis Ramos, attacking Asians, then Officer Long, a white cop played by Rick Aiello attacking Latinos, and concludes with Sonny, a Korean played by Steve Park, attacking Jews. Watching in isolation makes plain that Sonny’s choice of racial stereotypes does not belong to Officer Long. Mookie and Pino serve as an obvious pairing of direct attack against each other’s race that is a continuation of the prior scene (and perhaps why many see this as doing the dozens). It builds the expectation that after Stevie assaults Asians that Sonny will appear to skewer Latinos with racial slurs; however, Officer Long appears on screen to launch the attack on the Latinos. The absence is created in the moment that Sunny, far from attacking whites generally, adopts a stance that adopts an anti-Semitic line: “It’s cheap, I got a good price for you, Mayor Koch, ‘How I’m doing,” chocolate-egg-cream-drinking, bagel and lox, B’nai B’rith asshole” (Lee 187). The anti-Semitic stance is misplaced, creates the absence, and white power evades critique in the absence.
This absence couldn’t be clearer than in Donald Bogle’s depiction of the montage: “And at one point, facing the camera, a chorus of street characters, one ethnic group after another—Italians, Hispanics, Koreans, and African-Americans—recites a series of ethnic slurs and grievances” (322). In Bogle’s account of the montage, Officer Long is excluded from the list. My intent is not a critique of Bogle’s scholarship; Bogle is unintentionally correct in that none of the series “of ethnic slurs and grievances” belong to Officer Long. The essayistic quality of the montage emerges at the point that it no longer functions as simply a “series of slurs and grievances,” but rather a series of slurs and grievances directed at minorities on the margins of white power attacking each other but leaving the white folks untouched and unmentioned even as they appear inside the sequence. Love Daddy emerges then at the end in an attempt to “cool that shit out.” The “shit” is attacking each other and missing the target.
Even when listed correctly, analysis of the montage can miss the mark: “The neighborhood’s civil society is impaired because it lacks any sense of civil discourse. Even friends swear at each other and refer to one another as “nigger” and in one of the film’s signature set pieces (described in the script as the “racial slur montage”) some of the film’s characters do “the dozens”—a ritual of “trash talking” that is an element from African American oral tradition—by insulting different ethnic groups; the African American Mookie insults Italians; the Italian Pino Insults blacks, the Puerto Rican Stevie insults Koreans, the white police officer insults Puerto Ricans; and the Korean grocery-store owner insults Ed Koch (and by extension New York Jews)” (Patell 224). Patell’s list is accurate and precise, as it is by extension New York Jews and not by extension white folk. Though Koch was, in fact, the mayor of New York City in 1989 (replaced by David Dinkins in the fall election), this at best symbolizes the failure of a minority, in this case Jewish folk, to influence the white power structure that perpetuates racism (perhaps in the same way that Italians and Koreans feed and perhaps feed off the rest of the neighborhood in the film). Patell’s accuracy does not allow him to see either this symbolization or the fundamental absence in the “essay.”
Furthermore, this is not the dozens and does not indicate that “The block’s precarious race relations boil over in the infamous “racial slur montage” (Lee 43), a multi-ethnic round of “the dozens,” which H. Rap Brown has described as a “mean game because what you try to do is totally destroy somebody else with words” (McKelly 217-8). Certainly there is an attempt to put down, but there is no creativity in these slurs. It is not ribbing. It lacks a comeback. There is no one-upmanship. There is no creativity. It is merely recycled racial slurs that circulate as everyday language within the community and the everyday language leaves the white power structure absent from critique.
Ultimately, examining Lee’s “Racial Slur Montage” for its essayistic qualities reveals a productive absence: the absence of white racial slurs. This itself, is perhaps nothing new in that racial slurs work only in their ability to degrade an other and terms like “gringo”, “cracker”, and “honky” have never exerted the same pull as slurs generated about other races precisely because of existing power relations. However, in a short but significant space, Lee is able to make this argument and suggest that the continued participation in deploying such slurs against other minority groups redirects a verbal violence in the wrong direction. Lee’s essayistic “truth” becomes the insistence that participation in these slurs leaves white culture unmarked, absent, and exerting power and we need to “cool that shit out.”
• Bogle, David. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. 3rd ed. New York: Continuum, 2000.
• Davis, Zeinabu Irene. “Black Independent or Hollywood Iconoclast?” What is the Right Thing? A Critical Symposium on Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Spec. issue of Cineaste. 17.4 (1990): 32-39.
• King, Geoff. American Independent Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2005.
• Lee, Spike and Lisa Jones. Do The Right Thing. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
• McKelly, James C. “The Double Truth, Ruth: Do the Right Thing and the Culture of Ambiguity.” African American Review. Summer 1998: 215-227.
• Patell, Cyrus R. K., “Emergent Ethnic Literatures.” The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York. Eds. Cryus R.K. Patell and Bryan Waterman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.
• Vest, Jason. Spike Lee: Finding the Story and Forcing the Issue (Modern Filmmakers). Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2014.