Symbolism in Do the Right Thing’s Opening Scene

 

One of the most iconic scenes in Do the Right Thing is it’s opening credits. The three minute, forty-six second opening scene depicts the character Tina dancing aggressively as the credits roll. Her routine sets the stage for, as well as symbolizes many of the film’s themes. The dance is matched by the song “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy—a song written specifically for the film—and acts almost as an overture, nodding to the classic epics of old Hollywood.

The scene opens with a montage of Tina (Rosie Perez) silhouetted, posing and flexing, flashing all over the screen in front of a Brooklyn apartment building. The song kicks up and she begins to dance. We see she’s wearing a red and black dress and as she turns and faces the camera, her backdrop slowly fades to red, and we hear the first lyrics from the song: “1989! The number, another summer.” In the first twenty seconds of the film we know precisely where we’re at: Brooklyn, NY; summer 1989.

Color. More than anything this movie is about color, specifically the color of skin. The back drop Tina dances in front of and the color of her dress are both red. Red is often symbolic of blood, heat, anger, and frustration. In her next outfit we see Tina in a blue leotard and sporting a leather jacket. Blue is the cool color of serenity, it clashes with the red. Directly after, we meet Tina in her final ensemble and stage: black and white professional boxing attire and a pair of red gloves, with a backdrop of a street tagged up with graffiti and illuminated by white light.

When we see Tina in her boxing get-up—white trunks, black top, white robe, black sneakers, and finally, red gloves—she throws punch after punch. The black and the white outfit is symbolic of the two, ready to spar, dominate racial groups in the film and their rising tension. The gloves are representatives of blood. The blood that bonds each opposing force, the blood that gets shed when these groups clash, and the blood that they share, the blood that is the same between all human beings.

Watching the dance routine after having seen the film, the viewer can’t help but notice connections from the opening scene throughout the rest of the film. From the beginning to the end of the dance number Tina moves with vigor, with force, and every time the song proclaims “FIGHT THE POWER”, she throws a punch, walking the line between dance and shadowboxing. Her aggressive dancing is liberatory of the female body from a patriarchal society that demands those bodies be and act specific ways. This mirrors the film which pleads for the liberation of black folks from a culture of systemic racism.

Throughout Do the Right Thing boxing becomes more and more a predominant theme, to the point of allegory. And just like a real boxing match, we have a referee. Though he’s not featured in Tina’s dance, he is the first character we meet and contextualize in the film, directly following Tina’s moves. He is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) the DJ for Love Radio (“The last on your dial”). In the movie, whenever the tension is rising high it is our acting referee, Love Daddy, who tries to keep things civil.

There’s a duality in the film between dancing: an art formally recognized as graceful, and punching: violent brute force meeting violence head on. The dancing vs. the punching is akin to Radio Raheem’s tale of “Love and Hate”, which he so proudly wears in the form of knuckledusters. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) laces his fingers together and says, “The story of life is this. Static. One hand is always fightin’ the other hand.” He intuits that life is the tension, the yin and yang of love and hate, as one rises and the other conquers. Tina’s dance steps rise up, she gets caught up in the joy of her own movement, her excitement becomes rage and she throws blows.

The photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands appears throughout the film. One hand, one form of movement, are symbolic of the love MLK tries to radiate into the world and the other hand, also symbolic with the other hands movement, is the anger X refuses to repress. In the photo, both hands are static, in tension and together.