(Reader/Viewer) Smiley in ‘Do the Right Thing’

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.

3 thoughts on “(Reader/Viewer) Smiley in ‘Do the Right Thing’

  1. Hello Logan! I agree with you. I am a Smiley apologist, too! I love how your analysis highlights Smiley’s impact, particularly in significant scenes such as his agitating role during Pino’s confrontation and his pivotal involvement in the store’s burning. It shows how in this film there is no character that is insignificant and that everyone has a role, which I really like. Your argument for Smiley’s centrality to the storyline is compelling. I now understand the symbolism of Smiley and the pictures he sells, and the power that Smiley serves as a bridge between the ideologies of Malcolm X and MLK Jr. This nuanced representation unifies disparate themes within the film. Your well-reasoned perspective challenges the notion that Smiley is peripheral, affirming his substantial contribution to the thematic depth and narrative cohesion of “Do the Right Thing.”

  2. I appreciate the insight into Smiley’s role and see what he brings to the discussion on character dynamics in the film. I felt he represented another conflict within the movie that is a biproduct of the main conflict of racial issues. This conflict I felt he embodied was the differing viewpoints on how to handle the racial issues within the neighborhood. Some people, including Da Mayor, Sal, and initially Mookie, wanted to handle issues similar to how MLK wanted to, through love and community building. On the other hand, Others, including Buggin Out and Radio Raheem had a more Malcolm X view on how to handle the racial issues that businesses were bringing to the neighborhood. Smiley knew from Mookie what it means to build community and show everyone some love, but he also learned from Pino and others that violence can be an easy way to get what you want.

  3. Hi Logan –
    This was a very insightful post and it helped me realized something that I did not notice while I was watching the film. Smiley was definitely a very symbolic character. From the very start when he was selling MLK and Malcolm X pictures, to the end of the movie where he hung out the picture on the Pizzeria after the fire, Smiley served an important role of showing us what was unspoken. I think it’s very important that he had a speech impediment but he pushed the plot forward (like what you said in the post). I think in some ways, Smiley represents the “elephant in the room” in our society. We don’t talk about a lot of things but it’s always there. And because we don’t talk about it, it ends catastrophically – like when he lights the match and sets fire to the Pizzeria. Noticing this made me appreciate this film even more with its nuanced storytelling so thank you for this very thoughtful reflection.

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