Spike’s Woman Problem

Looking back at Do the Right Thing's infamous ice scene and Spike Lee's love-hate relationship with his female characters.


Cinematically speaking, it’s one of those “oh, that scene” moments: suffocating heat, an ice cube tray, Rosie Perez’s naked, heaving breasts. An exceedingly tight close-up of Rosie Perez’s naked, heaving breasts. And you’ve got Spike Lee—clearly enjoying his auteur/actor privileges—rubbing an ice cube over said breasts, paying crooning homage to “the right nipple” and “the left nipple.”

Like all “Spike Lee Joints,” the ice cube scene between Tina and Mookie from Do the Right Thing was beautifully shot, a carefully choreographed dance of light and shadow, sexuality and humor. But was it erotica, or exploitation? Or both? Were you bothered by Tina’s bared breasts? Or by her bared teeth as she berates Mookie in a shrieking crescendo of abuse?

Spike Lee has long had an interesting relationship with the women who inhabit his films. It is, of course, the artist’s prerogative to play the provocateur. Fair enough. But when it comes to his female characters, it’s as though Lee can’t decide whether to worship them or punish them. Case in point, Do the Right Thing, now celebrating its 20th anniversary: On the one hand, you have the saints: Mother Sister (Mookie’s mother figure) and Jade (Mookie’s sister). And on the other hand, you have the sinner: the cruelly castrating Tina (Mookie’s baby mama).

Call it Spike Lee’s woman problem. From Do The Right Thing to School Daze to Jungle Fever to He Got Game to She Hate Me and virtually every other fiction film Lee has written and directed, his female characters have never been afforded the complexity of the men in his films. (He admitted in an interview for an authorized biography in 2005 that he’s allowed “unreconstructed male chauvinism” to play a big role in his films.)

It all began with She’s Gotta Have It. Which is too bad. If you were grown and black back in ’86, when She’s Gotta Have It made its critically acclaimed debut, it was hard not to be enamored of all things Spike. Here was a film that created a space for black independent filmmakers, a film that was smart and funny and featured black folks who were smart and funny, too. (And, it should be noted, smart, funny black folks who weren’t named Eddie Murphy.)