Since the American Civil War, the American population were deeply segregated along racial lines, which invariably, led to the advent of the civil rights movement, of the mid-20th century. This period was especially difficult for African Americans seeking the American dream and being constrained to their economic class and their racial classification. Films developed in the decades that followed this fight for equality express the lives that some African Americans endured at the time. Despite some differences between Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, the two films offer a critique at the different elements that affect life of a black man in 20th century America. The films Do the Right Thing and Killer of Sheep explore black culture in America by analyzing how African Americans during the 70s and 80s were connected with music and the destructive implications that racial segregation had on their lives.
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing examines the influence of a growing African American community on the other ethnic groups and the consequent interactions that take place. To do this, Lee uses Sal’s restaurant as an example of another minority group in America competing for space with everyone else. The conflict in this film is racism and racial prejudice. It explores how African American adolescent youth in the late 20th century would relate not only to their sense of self but also to their environment. Mookie’s confrontation with Pino concerning race, is undoubtedly an argument that has taken place in many places across America, and as such, the film depicts the deep racial divide that haunts the U.S. In this argument, Mookie asserts that Pino has no footing in his disdain for African Americans, since some of his favorite celebrities were black. The impact of music is felt in Do the Right Thing as it is in Killer of Sheep. The musical celebrities to which Mookie refers to in his argument with Pino are a testament to the transcendent power of music and its transformative nature. Mookie leverages the power of music to show Pino that African Americans are no different to Caucasians or any other racial category (Hinson). The character Radio Raheem in the film Do the Right Thing, would play loudly Public Enemy on his boombox wherever he would be. The dedication with which Radio Raheem to the message being propagated by Public Enemy was astounding as he was always with his radio even as he, Buggin’ Out, and Smiley embarks to confront Sal concerning his wall of fame. Despite Sal’s continued request for him to turn down the music, he does not, and this, in turn, results in the physical confrontation that sees him lose his life at the hands of the police. In this instance, music is shown to be used as a weapon by Radio Raheem, instead of acting as a medium of communication.
In Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, music is again seen to be an intrinsic part of African American life in America. The film does not shy away from asserting that black men and women in the U.S. have and continue to be strangers in a strange land. For instance, Stan, due to the nature of his work terminating the lives of sheep, has become desensitized from his family (Dargis). Due to this disconnect that exists between his personal life and his work life, Stan feels isolated from the world, and especially his wife, who, unlike him, is young and more vibrant. The film shows that it is only through music, that Stan and his wife are able to make some semblance of a real connection. It is evident that she would prefer a younger and more sensitive man that is her husband Stan, and yet she tries to make herself more presentable for him at the end of his long day. However, music is one of the few things that Stan still responds to as evidenced when he dances wearily with his wife.
America in the mid to late 20th century was plagued by a racial divide, which, in turn, spurred the production of a film that depicted the effects of this divide. Many African Americans have had limited access to employment and business opportunities as well as access to home loans, which, in turn, has greatly dilapidated black neighborhoods. Resultant from this repression was the push for African American communities to take back their businesses, which in Do the Right Thing becomes a problem for Sal. Being an Italian American, he has set up shop in an increasingly black community, which sets him in the crosshairs of Buggin Out, Smiley and Radio Raheem. Raheem, who always plays Public Enemy loudly, even against others wishes, is Spike Lee’s depiction of the possible use of music as media weapon. In contrast, the depiction of music in Killers of the Sheep is portrayed a bridge by which Stan, emotionally indifferent to his family because of his work is able to connect with his wife if only for a few moments. In these films, music acts as a tool for good in the liberation of the Black culture as well as a destructive weapon if it is mishandled through the influence of anger and intolerance of other’s cultural, social and economic relevance.
Dargis, Manohla. “Killer of Sheep – Movies.” New York Times, 30 Mar. 2007, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/30/movies/30kill.html.
Hinson, Hal. “‘Do the Right Thing’.” Washington Post, 30 June 1989, https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/do-the-right-thing/2017/06/27/5754b810-5b6a-11e7-a9f6-7c3296387341_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f97293301e42.