Spike Lee is very well known for his prominent messages about often ignored topics such as racial inequality and sexism. In many of his movies Lee sets up very obvious yet realistic scenarios that display these kinds of acts in his attempt to make viewers aware of their existence. If people are uninformed of the cruel happenings in society, then nothing will be done to change them. Often times, Spike used extreme stereotypes to make his points as clear, obvious, and upfront as possible. His use of stereotypes in films like School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Bamboozled especially emphasize how people from different races and groups have interacted with each other throughout history and how the same stereotypes that existed in the 80’s are still present in today’s society. The two main stereotypes that Lee implements into these films are of people of color and of women.
One of Spike Lee’s first films, released in 1988, was School Daze. This movie focused a lot on Greek Life in college, like sororities and fraternities. The majority of the students seen participating in Greek Life were either lighter skinned people of color or people who tended to ignore the fact that they were people of color at all. These students, in particular Dean Big Brother Almighty and his sexual interest Jane Toussaint, ignored their racial backgrounds and tried very hard to identify as something they were not. In School Daze Lee uses the “wannabes” and the “jigaboos” to show how lighter skinned and darker skinned women of color have acted differently towards each other and in their own personal lives. Jane and her sorority sisters, for example, were known to use chemicals and many styling products on their hair so that it would be less kinky and resemble the hair of a person who was not of color. The lighter skinned women in this movie felt they had more prestige because they were closer to looking “white” while still being able to identify as women of color. On the other hand, the darker skinned women of color in this film were very proud of their natural hair and darker skin and tried very hard to prove that having darker skin did not make them any less than people with lighter skin. The personalities of the characters in this movie are dramaticized very much. There is an entire musical scene in which the “wannabes” and the “jigaboos” have a dispute over who is better. This kind of thing does not happen in real life but Lee chooses to make this scene so blunt and obvious because it makes the racism stand out so much more. The kinds of hateful remarks that were being exchanged in this film between lighter and darker skinned people are still used today which is why viewers can still relate and understand what Lee is trying to create awareness about almost 30 years later. If he had not used such obvious and strong stereotypes, these messages would not be as clear.
As opposed to the feuds we see amongst people of color in Lee’s School Daze, his 1989 film Do the Right Thing focuses more on Italian-American stereotypes. Many times Italian-American characters like Pino are shown expressing complete racism and hatred towards people of color, regardless of the fact that he works in a neighborhood that is predominantly inhabited by people of color, meaning that is where most of his pizzeria business comes from. Similarly, his father and boss Sal, who owns Sal’s Pizzeria, does not show much appreciation for the colored community. He is not as stereotypically racist as his son because he has served many of his customers of color since they were children and has grown to accept them regardless of their skin color. However, something very stereotypical of this Italian-American is that he has a “Wall of Fame” full of admirable people, all of whom are also Italian-Americans. When a person of color confronts Sal about this issue, Sal says that he refuses to put up any pictures of anybody else. He is proud of his Italian-American heritage and wants only to admire the great people who also identify as Italian-American. It is this blatant disregard for his customers and this selfish Italian pride attitude that makes this message of racism so stereotypical and clear to the viewers. Had Sal been accepting of the proposal and actually put up pictures of people of color then the message that Lee was trying to get across would not be as clear.
Similar to Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s movie Jungle Fever, released in 1991, also focuses very much on Italian-American stereotypes. One of the main stereotypes is how close the main Italian-American family in this movie is. Angie, her two brothers, and her father sit down and eat together every night. All of these children live with the father until he finds out that Angie is in a relationship with a person of color. Because of the stereotype that Italian-Americans do not get along well with people of color, her father becomes infuriated when he learns about this news. He beats Angie, forcing her brothers to get involved and break things up, and he then kicks her out of the house. She is not welcomed back in until towards the end of the movie when Angie is leaves the interracial relationship. This kind of stereotype is shown to such an extreme extent in this film to show the deep racism that exists between Italian-Americans and people of color both during the time that this film was made and in present day society.
Bamboozled is the most extreme stereotype of the entire African race out of all of Spike Lee’s films because of its completely satirical plot focused on the shaming of people of color. In this movie, a person of color, named Pierre, is trying to make a piece of cinematography that is blatantly racist to expose the idea of racism in society to its viewers – much like Spike Lee does in all of his films. Characters of color apply “blackface” to make themselves even darker and draw on huge red lips. They act out stereotypical slave like skits and often get scolded by the caucasian master. Despite how obvious these stereotypes should be, Pierre’s boss who is not of color along viewers of the show with do not seem to pick up on this satirical piece. They find the racism actually funny which defeats the purpose of its existence. It is this moment in which viewers of Bamboozled realize how much racism there is in society for something so clearly stereotypical and blunt to be found amusing.
Another stereotype seen throughout many of Spike Lee’s films is based on the relationship between men and women. Often times the female characters in his movies are portrayed as less than their male counterparts. In School Daze Jane Toussaint spends much of her time trying to please her sexual partner, Julian (Dean Big Brother Almighty). Additionally Rachel feels as though she is being used by her boyfriend Dap just that so he can say he is in a relationship with a dark skinned woman of color to help his movement. In both of these cases the females are very stereotypical in that Spike Lee makes them extremely submissive and seeming less worthy than the males. Lee purposely makes these characters like this to show that, along with racism, sexism and the demeaning of women is another big issue that needed to be addressed in the 80s and still needs to be addressed today.
In Do the Right Thing the female characters tend to stay back in there homes and do not get to interact with males very often. Spike Lee creates characters such as Mother Sister, for example, who is seen almost exclusively sitting in her house at the windowsill or on the stairs leading up to her house. She never really escapes that setting, creating a sort of invisible boundary between her as a woman and the rest of the world. Lee also briefly incorporates Tina, Mookie’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, who is also only seen isolated in her home as she struggles to raise their child. These women being so confined throughout the movie makes it seem like the only right place for a woman is in the home, which is very much a strong stereotype of the female gender. Once again, Spike Lee makes this very straightforward point to help his message about sexism be more obvious for viewers.
Jungle Fever presents, perhaps, the most obvious case of sexism in Spike Lee’s movies. Female character Angie Tucci is told that her place as a woman in her household is solely to cook and to clean. This was once the duty of her mother, according to her father and brothers, but since she has passed away it is now Angie’s job. She is told that these are her duties simply because she is the only female and for no other reasons. Her brothers and father rarely help her and they seem to think nothing of her being required to do these things as they demonstrate little to no appreciation for her hard work. This stereotype becomes personal to viewers because the woman here is being directly mistreated by close family members. Because of the scenario that Lee sets up, viewers are able to visualize what their own families and households would be like if this kind of racism occurred in their own lives. This is a very straightforward and effective way for Spike Lee to use stereotypes about women to get this message across to his audiences.
A more subtle, yet still stereotypical, example of sexism towards women can be seen in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. Throughout this film, one of the only females to be encountered is Pierre’s assistant, Sloan. Despite the fact that she is one of the main characters in this film, nobody ever listens to what she has to say, making it seem like women are simply not to be heard. She constantly has opinions that she wants to share but feels as though it is not her place to speak up. Another way in which she is treated poorly because of her sex is when others assume that she got her job because she had sexual relations with Pierre, rather than because she earned it. She is seen as a sexual object who could never possibly amount to the position she is currently in based solely off of her own skills and experience. Both being unable to speak and being treated as a sexualized object are two stereotypes that women still face today, which Spike Lee was able to bring awareness to through this film.
The women of color in all four of these movies talk about how the lighter skinned women of color as well as women not of color are the girls “stealing” the men that they believe belong to them. Many of the darker women of color in Lee’s movies feel they are the only ones who deserve to date the men of color and this leads to a hatred towards the lighter skinned women in the movies. In terms of the relationships between African-Americans and Italian-Americans, they are often times full of hatred and racism. When people from each race form relations with each other, there are always people talking about how wrong or disgusting that is. When Mookie, a person of color, forms a relationship with Sal’s son Vito many people find this odd and wrong. The same thing happens when Italian-American Angie forms a relationship with Flipper, a person of color. The common trend or stereotypes amongst female characters in all four movies seem to be that they are to stay in their homes, that they are not to speak or to be heard, and that they are sexual objects. All of these stereotypical racist responses towards interracial relationships along with all of these sexist ideas towards women are what carry Spike Lee’s messages throughout all of his films. He purposely makes everything explicitly obvious and extreme to make the viewers instantly aware of the messages that need to be heard about racism and about sexism in all of his movies.