The Use of Iconography in Do the Right Thing

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The film Do the Right Thing, written, directed and produced by Spike Lee, centers on a single day of the lives of ethnically diverse people who live and work in a lower class neighborhood in Brooklyn New York. Though, this normal day takes place on one of the hottest days of the summer. The movie centers on how social class, race and the ethical decisions that the characters make have a direct impact on the way people relate to each other. It starts with the film’s characters waking up to start their day and climaxes with a neighborhood riot after police officers excessively detain and kill a young black man named Radio Raheem for fighting Sal, an Italian American Restaurant owner. The film, though released in 1989, with its social commentary on the effect that race has on police brutality is just as relevant today as when it was published 26 years ago.

Though the movie ultimately shows how dangerous it is to react to others based on race, ironically, Lee portrays characters stereotypically in the film through their language and aesthetics. Spike Lee indulges in stereotypes by using iconography to represent the different racial groups in the movie. He does this in various ways such as having Italian American characters wear crosses and tank top shirts. He also does this in his depiction of Radio Raheem wearing an African medallion necklace while carrying a large boom box playing loud rap music. Even tertiary characters such as a group of Puerto Rican friends are shown listening to salsa while speaking Spanish and drinking beer on the stoop of their building (Valdez).  Lee also points out that his characters know that their diverse ethnicities can lead to a power struggle by having them openly insult each other through ethnic slurs in both a funny and serious fashion. Lee also shows this when his black activist character Buggin’ Out tells Mookie, who is a black man employed by a white man, to “Stay Black” implying that Mookie should never strive to be a Tom or a sell-out.

The first scene begins with a record being played that brings in the sound of conga drums while the camera fades to the next scene where we find a group of Puerto Rican men who fit a perceived ethnic Puerto Rican image while the salsa music of Ruben Blades is heard loud. Spike Lee opening the scene with the heavy use of iconography imposes stereotypes by choice of the men’s clothes, language, and facial appearance. The man in the middle speaks in Spanish, referring to his beautiful land Puerto Rico, whereas his friend differs with its beauty by calling it a nightmare. The scene is useful in depicting that this corner of the majority black neighborhood is very diverse from the rest. While the two friends begin to claim the camera pans away to expose that the loud salsa music comes from an old boom box. The camera shifts to the right and starts from the bottom, moving up stopping at the massive new stereo being held by two large African American hands wearing gold knuckle jewelry, displaying Lee’s use of fetishization by concentrating on half of the body and not the face. As the camera pauses, the viewer can read the words Super, and PRO stereo and Raheem’s music is heard much more clearly, showing signs of economic surplus. The jewelry and the stereo’s extreme noise and size signify economic power and prominence. The camera pans up to Raheem’s stern face, and the African medallion is hanging around his neck once again shows iconography. While the camera focuses on Raheem, the sound of the Puerto Ricans shouting that their salsa music is being drowned out is heard. The camera rotates, to the right again and passes green bushes that symbolize a tropical climate as the salsa music starts to be heard yet.

The man in the center recognizes that Radio Raheem is issuing a challenge of power by standing next to them deafening loud rap music that many black youths identify with. This challenge of power has both racial and economic symbolism because it essentially sees not only whose stereo plays louder music, but also whose culture is the more dominating one. When the Puerto Rican man walks over to his boom box, which has a Puerto Rican flag sticker on it, it is clear that his stereo is not as new and when he turns up the volume louder the viewer realizes it’s not as loud either. Raheem then turns up multiple knobs and drowns out the salsa yet again; allowing the Puerto Rican man know that in this power struggle he has just lost. He responds by turning down his music again and saying “You Got it Bro” to which Raheem reacts by smiling and pumping his fist in the air. This two-minute, scene, although entertaining, in reality, represents the whole movie in the way the different races want to feel acknowledged, influential and respected by the other races in the film. In this scene, Raheem proves he is more powerful, and it is a predecessor to the many fights that he faces throughout the film.

The second selected scene begins minutes after the police have killed radio Raheem because of their reaction to a street fight between Radio Raheem and Sal. This scene signifies how distrust turns to outrage, as the characters shout the names of other victims of police violence. At this point, the viewer begins to get that this may not have been a freak accident and in fact, that has repeatedly been happening in this neighborhood. The residents of this lower class neighborhood are now all aware that it is the norm for them to be ill-treated by police. The older man saying “They didn’t have to kill the boy,” points out that Radio, though large and intimidating, was still a relatively young man.

“Killer of the sheep.”

Killer of Sheep, by Charles Burnett, is a film about the cruel realities of growing up and living in the most underprivileged neighborhoods in the inner city of Los Angeles. Visually, this movie parallels the lives of the children in the area with the major character, Stan’s, life and work at a slaughterhouse to express the idea that growing up in this faceless environment makes its inhabitant's anonymous beings also.

Killer of Sheep opens with a scene in which a boy is being reprimanded by his father for not defending his brother in a fight. Taking on the appearance of both neorealism and cinema or a documentary-style of filming, Burnett juxtaposed natural light and deep shadows with his use of 16mm, black and white film (Spencer). The strange pairing of animal butchering and the main character’s life is accomplished with the use of strategic placement of music throughout the film. A goal of Burnett was to encapsulate the records of his past, to preserve them for others as his mother did for him

In conclusion, “Do the Right Thing” Director Spike Lee chose to create a film that is able to both entertain and emotionally reverberate with an audience by pointing out that when those in power do not properly address racial and social disparities, they can eventually lead to acts of extreme violence by those who feel incapable. The film is convincing in its approach that a melting pot of different beliefs and races doesn’t mean that everyone will live happily ever after. Lee knew that to make a film about social issues he needed to embrace the stereotypes to disapprove them. At one point in the movie, the police officers are driving through the neighborhood and say “What a waste” while they are driving by. The people outside at the moment were not committing any actions of violence, but in a brief instant, it shows that the officers whose job it is to protect the community do not respect the residents they serve and also indicates at what is to come later in the movie. The Killer of Sheep, on the other hand, is in many ways a film about the apparently never-ending plight of this neighborhood’s residents and Burnett’s use of cinematography and editing. The scene with the sheep in the abattoir paralleled with the three boys on the bike centers the audience’s attention on the underlying message in Burnett’s film: that occasionally the most dangerous feature of inner-city poverty is the typical environment’s effect on the neighborhood’s youth.

Works Cited

 Valdez, W. Do the Right Thing Analysis, 2016.

Spencer, S. “Killer of Sheep,” 2009.

August 01, 2023




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