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The Spike Lee Enigma

Challenge and Incorporation in Media Culture

Bill Yousman

The Spike Lee Enigma is an exploration of ideology and political economy in the films and career of one of America's most controversial filmmakers. Since the 1980s Spike Lee has created numerous films that are socially challenging, some would even say radical, while simultaneously maintaining a collaborative relationship with mainstream Hollywood and the global advertising industry. Lee, thus, seemingly represents an enigma – operating on the margins of both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic cultural production.
This book incorporates multiple perspectives, ranging from media effects theories, critical cultural studies, and the political economy of media, to semiotics and ideological, auteurist, and feminist approaches to film theory and analysis. Early chapters provide a clear explanation of these theoretical and methodological approaches while later chapters explore several of Lee’s films in great depth. In a social environment where popular culture has supplanted education and religion as a primary force of socialization and enculturation, this book demonstrates why a popular filmmaker such as Spike Lee must be taken seriously, while introducing readers to ways of viewing, reading, and listening that will allow them to achieve a new understanding of the mediated texts they encounter on a daily basis.
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Chapter 5: The Undecidability of Doing the Right Thing

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Spike Lee’s third commercial feature, Do the Right Thing (1989), is considered by many to be his masterpiece. In fact, it could be argued that Lee’s reputation as a filmmaker has, over the years, suffered because he created his most enduring work so early in his career. Do the Right Thing is Lee’s most controversial and most important work, a film that is still challenging and provocative, a film that warrants continued discussion, debate, and analysis (Finnegan, 2011; Guerrero, 2001; Patterson, 1992; Reid, 1997; Sklar, 1990). Guerrero has noted “Do the Right Thing came to spark more media attention and critical debate than any other film in the history of black American film-making…” (2001, p. 17). Journalists claimed that Do the Right Thing was prophetic in its anticipation of the post-Rodney King civil disturbances of 1992 (MacCambridge, 1992). Television programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show and Nightline featured entire episodes on the significance of this film (Guerrero, 2001). Lee’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award and the film garnered the Best Director and Best Picture Awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. This film was also the first commercial production by Lee that directly confronted issues of white racism. At the time of its release Lee called the film his most political work up to that point. Do the Right Thing’s unflinching representation of racial violence generated a considerable amount ← 89 | 90 →of attention from the popular press. During the five months subsequent to the film’s release over...

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