A research nonprofit called Open Syllabus collected more than 15 million class syllabi from colleges around the world and discovered that 4.5 million assigned the same group of filmmakers between 2015-2021. Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese were a few names mentioned among the top 10 directors most assigned in college classes.
Spike Lee was the only African American listed. He was the seventh most assigned director listed with his projects appearing on 1,086 syllabi on subjects not limited to film studies. This might not seem like a large number but, out of the top five films that made the same list, his 1989 movie Do the Right Thing (DTRT) ranked second. For a $6 million budget movie that was written in two weeks, the film has had an outsized influence.
Lee’s career and art do more than warrant inclusion in collegiate curriculums. Because his films have encouraged audiences to critically reflect and analyze race relations, bigotry, police brutality, and racially-motivated hate crimes, they should be mandatory coursework for college students.
DTRT’s importance has been observed by more than simply professors. The movie has been designated by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Former President Barack Obama praised Lee during the film’s 25th anniversary in 2014 by saying in a recorded message how, “Do the Right Thing still holds up a mirror to our society…and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.” A year later it made more history when it became the first movie in New York City to receive its own street name. Do the Right Thing Way, located on the same block it was filmed, is between Lexington Avenue and Quincy Street.
Within recent years, several colleges and universities — all public universities in California, the University of Pittsburgh, Bowling Green State University, the University of Washington and Emory University for example — have added ethnic studies and anti-racism courses to general education requirements not just as a way to have a more inclusive curriculum, but because the lessons are necessary for other lessons to take hold. Empathy and understanding are fostered through these types of courses, which have the potential to reduce one’s individual prejudice.
Mandating DTRT would accomplish the same. Studying the movie can introduce antiracist pedagogy that addresses more inclusive teaching strategies to identify, reject, and undo racism in curriculum. Antiracist pedagogy is informed by Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic theory more than four decades old that explains how race is a social construct that is embedded in legal systems and policies. Within the last couple years, antiracist pedagogy has come into the forefront due to arguments stemming from opposition about teaching CRT, most notably in grades K-12. States such as Oklahoma, Idaho, and Arizona have banned CRT from being taught in classrooms—not higher ed—for fear of making all White people feel like oppressors.
While Lee based DTRT on the 1983 murder of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, a 25-year-old was arrested for writing graffiti on a subway who died in police custody through strangulation, its relevance to recent instances of brutality and murder — Eric Garner or George Floyd — makes Lee seem not only talented but prescient.
It’s not as if Lee isn’t taken seriously in the academy. In addition to his label from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as “a champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers,” he earned an MFA from New York University’s (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts and first began teaching himself as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University in 1992. A year later he joined NYU’s grad school, where he eventually became the artistic director and earned tenure, in 2014, as a professor.
Focusing on one creator’s work in higher education wouldn’t be new. Oxford College of Emory University offered a new course in August to freshmen called In the Language of Folk and Kin: The Legacy of Folklore, the Griot and Community in the Artistic Praxis of Tyler Perry. There was no complaining or controversy over the inclusion of this course. Emory welcomed and embraced this given Perry served as the May commencement speaker at the university, and he was bestowed with an honorary doctorate on the same day.
Teaching about race through any medium has proven controversial. But with DTRT already on so many syllabi, schools are already well on their way to integrating the film and its lessons into their curricula. Mandating it would assure that all students learn from it and it would send a message of institutional priorities.
And mandating it isn’t that much of a stretch since it’s already so prevalent. It’s definitely the right thing to do.