The production of commercial movies, their influence, and respective socio-psychological representations provide a rich ground upon which a variety of ideologies may be based. This is particularly significant in films that aim to mirror certain dynamics and relationships existing in a specific community, specially those that feature a diverse selection of racial, social, gender, economic, religious, and lifestyle differences. Life in urban communities is the best example of such a focus, which arguably coincides with Louis Wirth’s theory of urbanism being a single way of life.
While feature films necessitate a skewed approach to narration compared to documentaries and other reality-based formats, some manage to communicate a sufficient amount of truth depending on the theme chosen. Spike Lee’s iconic Do the Right Thing, a 1989 movie about racial conflict in a New York community inhabited by numerous ethnic groups, includes an environment of enough characters and social issues that aptly validates Wirth’s claim.
In the film, the established relationships of the major characters are primarily on an economic level, which when combined with the basis of ethnicity and its corresponding values confirm Wirth’s urbanism theory approached through population, social structure, and heterogeneity of inhabitants (Wirth 1964). II. Multi-Ethnicity in a Brooklyn Town: Urbanism Defined by Population The presence of immigrant families and other ethnic minorities is evident in most large American areas, and New York is at the top of the list.
Do the Right Thing exposes a typical Brooklyn community composed of Italian Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, and the largest segment represented by African Americans. While there are Caucasian Americans in the neighborhood, Lee indirectly refers to their presence as one of authority and power; the rest of the community is shown attempting to claim the lower ranks in classic social and class struggle.
Stereotypes abound in the film—blacks and Latinos are portrayed as laborers and troublemakers, Asians are shown to be quiet yet clueless small-business owners, and Italians are seen as elitist and clannish groups. With these roles coinciding with their respective cultures’ values and traditions, the film shows the relationships formed by way of economic and lifestyle needs. This goes according to Wirth’s explanation of superficiality of relationships, since they are confined to mere aspects that are of relevance to one’s life (Wirth 1964).
The Italian Sal, being a pizzeria owner, only relates to Mookie through an employer-employee context. The Korean store owner is wary of blacks, some of whom in turn detest him because they feel he symbolizes the lessening economic options available for them. In the end, the most significant example of community roles is played out when the white police officers readily assume that Radio Raheem started the fight, apparently because he is black. III. The African American Role: Density and Social Structure in Urbanism
Do the Right Thing, though representing the largest ethnic groups in a regular Brooklyn community, features the plight of African Americans to a great extent—because they compose the biggest group. Thus there is much competition for space (Wirth 1964), owing to some blacks’ resentment of other ethnic groups occupation of the economic “space” they feel they deserve. The characters of M. L. , Coconut Sid, and Sweet Dick Willie point out the number of jobless African Americans while Koreans are running the neighborhood store.
Buggin’ Out questions Sal’s refusal to put photos of black celebrities on his restaurant’s Wall of Fame. These dissatisfactions may be correlated with their actions of promoting communism and creating the final riot that marked the end of the film. IV. Racial Conflict: Heterogeneity as a Symbol of Urban Life Because of the pronounced diversity and economic conditions in the community depicted in the film, the various ethnic groups are forced to co-exist—albeit not always through peaceful means.
However, while there are those who negate the presence of other races, there are some who are able to transcend the lines of ethnicity. This attitude accounts for the degree of cosmopolitanism of an urbanite (Wirth 1964), and is apparent in the film’s characters of Mookie and Vito, who had formed a friendship regardless of the conflicts created by their respective ethnic groups. On the other hand, Sal, Buggin’ Out, and the Korean store owner all keep within the limits of their own values and subscribe to them until the ultimate event causes them to review their judgment.
V. Conclusion Wirth’s theory is validated by almost all the characters and events in the film, via the examples given on racial values, density of living, and social structure. The superficiality brought upon by the utilitarianism and efficiency that characterize urban life is all too evident in the foundation of Do the Right Thing, with almost each character attempting to exist in such a classic urban environment almost exclusively through their own specific principles and values.
Competition and exploitation are demonstrated as a result of urbanism, and maintain the independent existence of various social groups. The movie concluded with an act of violence, which is the outcome of differing beliefs; however, the film poses two choices regarding the validity of such an act, one that may not have even occurred without the presence of non-negotiable elements of urbanism.
Do The Right Thing. Dir. Spike Lee. 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, 1989. Wirth, Louis. Urbanism as a Way of Life. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1964.