Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 2 Viewing

Jeffrey Kirby–Analysis of Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee’s Subversion of the Fade-out Kiss

 In the final scene of Do the Right Thing there is a standoff between the two main characters. Mookie, come to claim his salary for the week, approaches Sal with head in hands out front of his burnt down pizzeria—the lesser of two major casualties in the films riotous climax. This scene is remarkable for a number of reasons but I would like to focus on the matter of reconciliation. As James Baldwin states in The Devil Find’s Work: “…the obligatory, fade-out kiss, in the classic American film, did not really speak of love, and, still less, of sex: it spoke of reconciliation, of all things now becoming possible. It was a device desperately needed among a people for whom so much had to be made possible.” In the end of Do the Right Thing the possibilities have run short, a black man has been murdered by the police, the community is in turmoil and mourning, Mookie wants his money, and the outlook for Sal is rather bleak. Ultimately this scene expresses the sense of loss, not only in the possibilities between the two men involved but a loss of the potential expansion of consciousness the film hints at before breaking all hope of any tangible reconciliation.  

                Mookie approaches Sal with certain defiance. Mookie is fed up. Remarkably, he has played the role of mediator in between racial tension throughout the film up until this point. This role is not only backed by his actions within the script: playing it cool to calm down Buggin Out or in his patience and understanding when dealing with the racism of Pino; but is also a part of his established identity: he is the father to the child of his Puerto Rican lover, Tina, and he works at an Italian owned pizzeria. This social flexibility and crossing over racial boundaries makes the symbolism of the Jackie Robinson jersey he wears in the first half of the film particularly poignant. But most importantly, above all: Mookie is black—as we are reminded when he crosses the street(away from where he was standing next to Sal and his sons) back onto the side of the black folks before retrieving a garbage can to throw through the pizzerias window and incite a riot. This climactic course of action taken by Mookie, along with other building tensions, is partially in response to being let down by Sal. Ironically, for the film’s second act, Mookie has changed out of his Jackie Robinson jersey and is now wearing the team jersey of Sal’s pizzeria. But in the end the boundary, and whose side is whose, has been reset. There is no doubt a feeling of betrayal felt by Mookie toward Sal, be it due to Sal’s “over-friendliness” with Jade, his boiling over and yelling nigger, or his failure to show sympathy for Radio Raheem. So, when Mookie approaches Sal to get what he is owed, he does it defiantly and proudly as a black man.

                On the other side, Sal is a man broken. His sense of identity has burned to the ground. And not unlike Mookie, his sense of identity was rooted in his particular ethnicity, but he made his life serving food to black people. He made a place for himself within the community, which, before the riot, would seem to mark a progression towards breaking racial boundaries. However, it is the brutal truth of the film to remind the world that racial boundaries and relations are not so simple. Also, we cannot forget that in the heat of the moment Sal did show his very human flaw to express racism.

                It is the building potential of these two characters, and the earnestness both in the writing of the characters, and the actors who portray them throughout their trajectory through the film that make their final meeting so powerful. There are two pieces in particular that I would like to highlight about the final scene. First, is the absurdity in the throwing of the money back and forth at each other. The movement and gesturing in and of itself, the violent tossing of a material object that has little to no weight and bounces off a chest or shoulder with no marked effect, is ridiculous. However, money is important, and both Mookie and Sal subsist off of it. Spike Lee no doubt is playing off this absurdity of contrivance. The essence or unique and true character of a thing being completely subverted by its invented or imagined representation within a particular system. How does one reconcile the differences between two alienated parties when the lines of separation are so well defined? So well defined is the separation or difference that this becomes the standard of definition for the thing itself. You have a black and white man who have become defined by their color.

More importantly, I want to speak to the part in the meeting right after the exchange of money. I think here, the emotion and performance by Danny Aiello is important to the emotion of the situation. In his asking Mookie what is he going to do? And, is he sick? There is a feeble attempt, a grasping of sorts to reach into and through the redefined barriers the tension has caused. It is an attempt to reclaim the identity that the two share, that being their humanity. This hope is quickly dispelled by the defiance of Mookie. For it one is reminded that he is black, he has stayed black as Buggin Out pleaded him to do. As a black man his defiance is necessary, and I would argue that as a black man he did do the right thing in his defiance in the face of Sal’s racism. But this doesn’t reduce the absurdity and distance that has been recreated between the two characters. The damage has been done. There can be no reconciliation. The possibilities “desperately needed among a people for whom so much had to be made possible,”  are tragically swept aside for the linearity of difference.

In his essay Errantry and Exile, Edouard Glissant states: “…the will to identity, which is, after all, nothing other than the search for a freedom within particular surroundings” In Do the Right Thingthe will to identity, and its potential for freedom, has lost to the tyranny of racism. It doesn’t matter if the differences are imagined or contrived. The consequences of the situation are very real for the characters involved. The particular surroundings which Mookie and Sal find themselves, in the end, have been violently reduced to the totalitarianism of black versus white.

Do the Right Thing Analyzed by a White dude named Scott Weedall

The movie 42 represents a genre of civil rights movies that I find to be annoying and tedious. 42 is about Jackie Robinson and his experience of being the first black baseball player in what at the time was a white dominated league. And while his struggle in real life is certainly admirable the way his story is portrayed in the film is heavily lathered in schmaltz. The film presents a cast of black characters who act so saintly that even the late Martin Luther King would shed a tear. They are star dazzlingly talented but unable to play in white league because of some nebulously defined racism. Some white people say that blacks and whites don’t mix, then Harrison Ford says something to the effect of, “I don’t care what color there skin is, if they can play baseball then they can be on my team.” So Jackie Robinson is allowed to play for the Dodgers, some other white people get angry, someone throws a brick through a window, Jackie’s wife says she believes in him, Jackie hits a home run, Racism in baseball is solved; hooray. Movies like 42, as well as Remember the Titans, The Blind Side (all directed by white men) and many other films treat racism as a historical issue that is easily reconcilable and overcome. These films typically have a benevolent white character like Harrison Ford who allows white people to watch the movie and pretend like they are not racist. Do the Right Thing does not provide such a luxury to its viewers.

The world portrayed in Do the Right Thing does not resolve the issue of racism at the end of the film. Instead it creates a world of racial complexity, where people on all sides of the racial divide are subject to their own prejudices. There is steady stream of comments and a low but constant flow of aggression which is more akin to my own experience of racism and what I see in the world around me. A tactic used by the film to illustrate these racial divides is language. The Puerto Ricans, the Koreans, the Italians and the Black people all have their own vernacular they use to communicate amongst themselves. Yet the language fails when communicating to people outside of their group.

A scene that highlights this is towards the beginning of the movie in the pizza shop. The Italian family is opening and Mookie has just gotten hassled by Pino for being late. Da Mayor enters looking for work; Pino says something in Italian which Sal responds to in English by saying, “Take it easy.” It is interesting to note that Spike Lee has chosen not to use any subtitles in his film, so most viewers would be put in the position of Mookie or Da Mayor, aware that something derogatory was said about them yet being unable to defend themselves against it. Even when the subtitles are turned on in the DVD’s option menu it only says, “Speaking Italian.” Sal’s response to Pino helps ease the tension in Da Mayor’s face.  Sal gives him a broom and dollar to sweep the sidewalk. Da Mayor is happy to do a job which everybody else seems to angry or indignant to demean themselves with.

After Da Mayor exits the building Pino continues to give his father grief over what he callously refers to as charity. He lumps Mookie in with Da Mayor (presumably because they’re both black) and calls them a “Azu Peppe.” Or at least that’s what’s I think he said, I don’t speak Italian so I’m not sure what a Azu Peppe is, and I couldn’t find any translations online. Mookie attempts to counter this by assertively asking him what an Azu Peppe is, but Pino does not yield and maintains the privacy of the Italian’s language.

In the following pizza scene where Bug gets evicted from the Pizzeria Mookie then talks to Bug outside where the Italians are unable to hear them. They both mutually agree that the Italians are full of it and form an understanding with each other. It’s important to note that the itallians are not privy to this conversation and can only look through the window. Mookie returns inside. The Itallians are unsure of what transpired between the two black characters which is when Pino accuses Mookie of having “brother talk.” Mookie neither confirms nor denies this, instead choosing to maintain the respective privacy of his own in group.  Language is used in the film to portray different racial group’s inability to communicate with each other, separated by each of their respective cultural biases and vernacular.

Other aspects of the pizza parlor are designed to make it feel obtuse or unwelcoming. The colors in the pizzeria are dull and muted, all the photographs on the wall are black and white and wall paper and molding are brownish.  Also no music plays, only the muted sounds of the kitchen can be heard as well as the faint preaching of Smiley. At one point in this scene he can be heard saying, “pizza, hate.”

By contrast most of the other scenes have warm and bright colors and are accompanied by a vibrant soundtrack. This is intended to reinforce the theme of the Sal’s Pizzeria representing white oppression, by making it so at odds with all the other scenes in the movie.

There is never a reconciliation between these divides, even at the ends when Mookie and Sal are confronting each other after the Pizzeria was destroyed. Mookie has no empathy for Sal, saying that insurance will pay for everything, and also harboring feelings of resentment towards the white people he had to work for. Sal feels disappointed and betrayed by Mookie, he sees himself as providing a service to people in the community and a job for Mookie who he considers ungrateful. Both sides have reasons for feeling the way they do and neither are completely wrong. The film does not make an effort to solve this issue for us.

It’s comforting to pat ourselves on the back for being supposedly progressive and accepting of other cultures. But the reality is that s Americans we are all entrenched in racism. It’s easy to point fingers at other people and chastise them for their attitudes and behaviors but it is much more difficult to look inward and accept the role you play in society. This is what makes Do the Right Thing such an important film.

Spike Lee’s joint, Do the Right Thing

 

Robert Glover

14 Janurary 2016

Eye of the Story

Close Viewing: Do the Right Thing

 

 

         Spike Lee’s joint, Do the Right Thing is set in the neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, New York on the hottest day of the year. Mookie (Spike Lee) delivers pizzas for Sal (Danny Aiello) of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a staple of the community as the local eatery—as Sal himself personally remarks on the fact that the community has “grown up on his food.” Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), one of Sal’s regulars and a friend of Mookie’s, notices that the restaurant is in a Black neighborhood, but does not showcase any Black celebrities on Sal’s Wall of Fame. Sal argues that, since it is an Italian-American restaurant, is why there are only portraits of Italian-Americans hanging on the wall. When everything is already hot enough, the heat seems to rise in the tension that builds as Buggin’ Out begins to rally the community to boycott Sal’s, because of the symbolic racism the Wall of Fame represents. Lee’s characters are well-rounded and likable, suspended by a script that is equal by its brutal honesty and empathic poignancy. The film gives time to the audience to delve deep within its characters, so when the final conflict of the film arises, each character acts plausibly.

         It is critical to mention that Spike Lee did not seem to write any of his characters as “the good guy” or “the bad guy” kind of roles, which allows viewers to see them as people, rather than preconceived notions of what past films and filmmakers have portrayed as good characters, and bad ones. In this sense, it permits audiences to question the racial tensions and representation as their own; a film of questioning one’s own community and its racism. And, as a viewer, one can feel the tension explode as it does, close to the end of the film, when Sal and Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) argument over music turns violent. Both end outside on the street—fighting—and a mob gathers, including the patrons that were inside the establishment prior to this explosion. The local police are called to the scene and, circumstantially, try to apprehend Radio Raheem—believing that he is deliberately assaulting Sal. Radio Raheem is killed by one of the policemen. The mob bursts in a furor of bleating pain; the entire block is in frenzy. No one is in control—except Mookie. He grabs a trash can and proceeds to chuck it through one of the front windows of Sal’s, causing the mob out front to storm the pizzeria and completely ransack the place, resulting in a fire. The building nearly burns to the ground. Is this because of Mookie? Why would he do such a thing to his place of work, much less, to Sal himself?

          Mookie, throughout the film, never comes off as a destructive character—yet, this final conflict seems to push him to violence. And, rather—instead of destruction—his action is one of preservation, and one that might actually save Sal’s business. Sal, earlier in the film, talked of renaming the place and even redecorating (perhaps to fit more Italian-Americans on the wall), right around the same time he tells Mookie that he’s always been like a son to him: Mookie’s one of the family. Their relationship, in particular, certainly exudes a necessary mutual respect, not only for business—but, one that seems to hold the community together, to remain wholesome. Mookie has a deep kind of love for Sal, and acknowledges that the pizzeria is, not only Sal’s pride, but his whole life. Life probably is not worth living for Sal without it. It is not incorrect to think that Mookie did deliberately throw the trash can through the window to, in a sense, get back at Sal for the racism that he experienced working there—yet, no matter what his intention was, he could actually be trying to save and preserve Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, more so for holding the community in place—in a place, literally—rather than it always being about “getting paid.”

 

But, I mean—it is all about gettin’ paid.

© 2022 Eye of the Story
The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

Log inUp ↑