Do The Right Thing: Personhood Through Property

Attached here is a presentation I’ve made, which traces the use of ‘property as conflict’ in Do the Right Thing in an attempt to understand the circumstances of conflict itself, and the ways in which social conflict is worked out through property, to construct the meaning of both.

I’d love to hear if anyone could find any other examples of “conflicts of property” in the film, or if you agree/disagree with my analysis!

The Gaze on HBCUs

“Gaze: This is a term that Foucault introduces in his 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic. The French word ‘le regard’ poses difficulties for translation into English as the translator Alan Sheridan notes. It can mean glance, gaze, look which do not have the abstract connotations that the word has in French. Foucault uses the word to refer to the fact that it is not just the object of knowledge which is constructed but also the knower. Clinical medicine at the end of the eighteenth century set much store on visibility – on looking and seeing and on visible symptoms”-michel-foucault.com


During our class discussions, we analyzed “the gaze” in School Daze, in regard to the portrayal of the female characters, and the audience’s relation with the film.

However, I want to advance this analysis by conveying how the entire film could also be an illustration of Spike Lee’s gaze on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Inspiration for School Daze: Spike Lee graduated from Morehouse College, one of the top HBCUs in the country, in the year 1979. While in Morehouse, Lee discovered his passion for film-making, during his sophomore year (link #1 below) and he was very keen to the social structure of the school. In an interview (link #2 below), Lee asserted that one of his main inspirations for making the film was to depict the atrocities of Greek Life. Lee explains that, in fact, after he finished Morehouse, “a brother died pledging Alpha Phi Alpha, he had a heart problem, he was pledging, and his big brothers made him do some strenuous work, and his heart gave out”.  He further states, “That is one of the reasons why I wanted to get into the whole fraternity, sorority thing. It always amazed me the amount of abuse and punishment that people would have to put up with just to belong to a group…to any organization….broken limbs….I mean they would fuck you up!”

The gaze in School Daze: 

The film reproduces Spike’s gaze through significant overemphasized forms that represent features of HBCUs. The first and most prominent example of this is the depiction of Greek Life (especially fraternities). Spike even mentioned that he strategically created the Gamma Phi Gamma in a way that could demonstrate all “the worst elements of the Kappas, Qs, Alphas…all of them…and show all the ills of the organizations”. Although Spike Lee never declared that fraternities were solely barbaric, it is evident from the horrendous pledging, the sexism, the disgusting infatuation of females, and the overall immorality of the G Phi Gs, that Spike “looks” at fraternities with judgement. This gaze, however, seems to be different for sororities. The judgement persists. But it’s different. I think that Spike “looks” at female sororities as maids, followers, or groupies (as Professors Drabinski coined it), but there also seems to be an element of surrender, in this group, that is similar to the males. Why else would Rachel’s friends be so against her joining a sorority?

The second most dramatized feature that represents Spike’s gaze on HBCUs is conflict: the conflict between the jigaboos and the wannabes, the conflict between Dap and Julian, the conflict between the administrators, the conflict between Tha Fellas and the individuals from the neighborhood, the conflict between Dap and Rachel, and the conflict between Jane and Julian. These conflicts illuminate the divisions that Spike sees in HBCUs, and (as wonderfully explained by lzl10 below) their overarching implication, in the film, is enhanced by the montage and the “wake up” ending; Spike is evidently appalled that the institution, which was built to uplift the race, defeats its own purpose by enhancing intra-racial tension.

However, this second gaze on HBCUs extends beyond the context of the film, because most of those intra-racial conflicts could be found in many other black-centered settings.

Link 1: Morehouse Interview

Link 2: Greek Life Interview


Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 11.46.05 AM


In this scene, Manray dances for the producers for the first time. To me, the cinematography is notable in that it explicitly highlights the “performance” theme of the film– Manray stands on the table like stage, surrounded by onlookers. Sloane is visibly uncomfortable while the other man is enjoying the performance, yet they are almost peripheral to Dunwitty, as Manray’s performance is physically directed towards him. The viewer actually cannot look at Manray without looking at Dunwitty’s head. Manray’s dance is not only a performance in that he is dancing for the three people in the room, but it is also in the very performance of the racist caricature that becomes the center of the rest of the film. In some sense, his performance becomes his identity. It’s also interesting to note the three screens (two TVs and one computer) facing Manray dancing, almost as if to capture or at least judge his performance as well. However, what also faces Manray are the pictures of great black performers in history. The black and white picture of Willie Mays actually stands out the most in the shot. This emphasizes notions of performance but also juxtaposes Manray’s performance with that of other black entertainers and emphasizing its strangeness and almost a sense of judgement/shame.

Lastly, Delacroix is not featured in this shot, yet he is known to be in the room during the performance. (He emerges when Manray stops dancing). This emphasizes Delacroix’s ‘behind the scenes’ role in the show, but his role as its creator, as he is presenting his creation to an audience (particularly for the approval of a white audience). We see later in the film, however, that Delacroix’s behind the scenes role is crucial to the success of the film; as stated by a female TV producer later, the show only works because Delacroix created it and he’s black (“so it can’t be racist”). With this reading, the fact that Sloane and the other black man are placed behind him (along with the pictures and statues), all facing Dunwitty, seems to purport that they authorize Manray’s performance as okay as they physically “stand behind” him.


Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 10.14.05 AM

One of the scenes that strike me the most is when Pierre Delacroix meets with his white boss, Thomas Dunwitty at the beginning of the film. Dunwitty claims to have an extensive knowledge and understanding of black culture because he “grew up around black people [his] whole life.” And further claims that he may use the N-word because his wife is black and he is the father of two biracial children. Delacroix is visibly uncomfortable with his vocalization of the term. This man claims to be nearly a member of the black community himself, yet fails to recognize or understand Delacroix, and in a sense the black community as a whole’s issues with the derogatory term. The film winks at itself when Dunwitty says, “I don’t give a goddamn what that prick Spike Lee says.”

This scene sets the stage for much of the film’s racial concern. We see the controversial appropriation of black culture through Dunwitty’s use of this word and his complete disregard for cultural sensitivity. He finds enjoyment in something that is not politically correct, much like how audiences will respond to Mantan: The New Minstrel Show, later in the film. In the mise en scene we see historical portraits of a black male and female hanging behind Delacroix’s head, while behind Dunwitty is a framed series of drawings depicting a cartoon-like white male head. Both are exemplar of either man. The images behind Delacroix are appropriate yet representative of black people, while the ones behind Dunwitty exaggerate his absurdity as a white man in this context and situation. Dunwitty claims to be so comfortable with black society, yet can’t fathom a black middle class family, but instead views the community in the antiquated sense of blacks as entertainment.