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.