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.