Upon its release, much was made of the explosive racial tensions in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), but little attention was paid to the symbols of divisiveness the film used as catalysts for its many moments of racial disharmony. Throughout the film, Lee utilizes a motif of symbolism in order to differentiate between sides in the various disagreements that the film takes as its narrative structure – ultimately, complex characters boil down to what they represent.
Consider, for example, Sal’s Pizza’s Italian Wall of Fame. Buggin’ Out feels that since black folks spend “much money” in Sal’s, there should be some black folks up on the Wall. Sal feels, perhaps correctly, that since it’s his place of business, he has the right to put whoever he chooses on the wall. However for Sal, it also seems a matter of racial identity – of expressing himself. His Italian heritage is the sole thing he has to cling to in this largely minority-inhabited community. While this disagreement will prove to boil over and eventually envelop the entire film, it is merely a cog in the wheel of racial disharmony.
Consider also, for example, the “Cornermen,” a trio of foreign black men who act as a sort of Greek chorus that has apparently immigrated to Bedford-Stuyvesant. The trio sits in lawn chairs, commenting how things seem to have escalated to the point they have for themselves and the neighborhood as a whole. It is easy to get lost in what the Cornermen say. However, it is also useful to consider their physical location: a sidewalk next to a giant blood red wall. The color red symbolizes passion, reflecting their impassioned positions on several issues that affect themselves and others, while the wall implies the figurative and literal corner they’ve backed themselves into. For instance, ML’s rant against the Korean grocery across the street and how quickly they created a successful business and Coconut Sid’s response (“It’s got to be because we are black”) are moments that reveal that even the Cornermen are not above the simplistic binary thinking that many in the neighborhood have succumbed to. This kind of symbolism is indicative of Lee’s desire to provide his audience with touchstones suggesting stereotypes and simplistic differences, all the while managing to complicate and subvert them throughout.
Another moment occurs between Buggin’ Out and Clifton, the white bicyclist who owns a brownstone on the block. When Clifton accidentally runs over Buggin’s brand new Air Jordan sneakers, Buggin’ starts a confrontation wherein his only recourse is to taunt Clifton that he has no place in his neighborhood and should “move back to Massachusetts” (since he’s wearing a Boston Celtics jersey). While the newly scuffed sneakers represent Buggin’s sense of self-respect, Clifton’s bicycle represents the way in which the white man, from his point of view, keeps him down – just like Sal’s wall. Furthermore, Clifton’s Celtics jersey, though he claims he was “born in Brooklyn,” would seem to paint him as “the Other,” an outsider who is a symptom of all that is wrong with the world – like a virus (the Celtics color is green, one of malady) that is infecting everything. To Buggin’, Clifton represents everything he is against.
These moments of racial disharmony are sidelined, however, when compared with the film’s key moments of disagreement which become powder kegs. The film establishes early on a key symbol which will reverberate throughout before the climactic clash that emanates from it. First, when Radio Raheem walks around the neighborhood carrying a large boom box blasting Public Enemy’s Fight the Power at deafening volume, he has a run in with Puerto Rican youths who get into a battle of musical taste which Radio wins (via volume prowess). Subsequently, Radio gets into an argument when he walks into Sal’s with his boom box blasting. Ultimately, it is seemingly this argument over his radio – how he expresses himself – and Buggin’ Out’s feeling of being kept down by the white man – Sal’s Italian Wall of Fame – which dovetail, resulting in the film’s violent conclusion.
However, Sal’s assertion that Radio’s rap is “jungle music” and his subsequent screaming that Buggin’ and Radio are “black cocksuckers” and “nigger motherfuckers” underlines a deeper issue. While the music is loud and abrasive, Sal’s disdain is not for the music itself but for what it represents – the black attitude of entitlement and victimization that Radio and Buggin’ have adopted, not unlike the Cornermen.
One is struck by yet one more scene of symbolism. At one juncture, Radio Raheem shows Mookie his gold knuckles which read “LOVE” and “HATE” (in homage to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter ). Lee’s suggestion seems to be that hatred of our divisive natures is easy, but that love is stronger. As Mister Senor Love Daddy says, “Are we gonna live together? Together, are we gonna live?”