In reading the excerpt on Do the Right Thing, directed by and starring one of the most prominent directors in modern film, Spike Lee, one thing I feel is understated in the text is the importance of the character Smiley. Specifically, Bordwell and Thompson discuss the surprisingly large ensemble of characters, however, they argue “only eight of them provide the main causal action: Mookie, Tina, Sal, Sal’s son Pino, Mother Sister, Da Mayor, Buggin’Out, and Radio Raheem.” It is important to note that while an eight-character central cast is certainly not the average amount, most screenwriter manuals recommend a maximum of 8 characters, something that B&T believe suggest that the movie may not depart from tradition in that sense. When watching the movie, you move through the street with these characters in a familiar way, even if it is your first time seeing any of the main eight. This can be largely attributed to the dynamic camera movements and intimate angles in almost every scene, pulling you in and forcing you to take in the character as a whole.
However, while the characters listed are certainly apart of the main narrative progression, I would argue that this undermines the significance of the character Smiley, a man with an apparent stutter who tries to sell photographs of MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, two revolutionaries who embraced two different modes of organizing (a theme that I will touch on in a moment) during the Civil Rights Movement.
In the reading, B&T identify two story lines in the story that gradually interlock, “One involves the community’s relations to Sal and his sons; the other deals with Mookie’s personal life.” In this case, it may seem as though Smiley doesn’t provide a lot of narrative push in the story, but doesn’t he? Take, for instance, the scene where Pino tries to convince his father to sell the pizzeria. As Smiley begins to playfully knock on the door (following Pino’s racist diatribe about Bed-Stuy), Pino erupts in anger and begins cursing and yelling back and forth at Smiley and another, unknown man across the street. Smiley serves as an agitator to Pino, a type of agitation that will take the form of physical violence in the riot/boycott of Sal’s. Is this not a direct interaction with the story line of Sal’s relationship with the community? Going further, following the death of Radio Raheem, the physical riot in Sal’s turns incendiary because of Smiley. He is the one who strikes the match which causes the store to burn down. While he is not a character with long strings of dialogue, his presence in the movie is absolutely central to the general development of the story.
Looking at Smiley through an interpretive lens reveals a similar sentiment. Smiley sells pictures of Malcolm X and MLK Jr, both of whom are quoted at the end of the movie. Malcolm X, a representation of the physical action that is required for revolution and MLK Jr, a symbol of peaceful protest, are put side-to-side, juxtaposed and compared. While both might assume competing theories of activism, Smiley seemingly bridges both ideologies together and tells the audience at the beginning that both are dead and they must carry on their work. It seems that Smiley plays an equally large role in bridging the themes of the movie together as well, centering both Civil Rights Leaders in the broader narrative.
Maybe I am a Smiley apologetic or just reaching at straws, but I believe that Bordwell and Thompson’s argument that Smiley and some other characters “are more peripheral, mainly reacting to the action set in motion by these characters’ conflicts and goals” is an unfair understatement of what his character actually provides to the story. I’m curious to hear if anyone feels the same way or disagrees.