Thus far I have been focusing on Spike Lee's dialectics on the level of form. Just as striking are the constant clashes and contradictions he sets up on the level of content—clashes between characters and conflicts within individual characters—all of which bring the viewer to a heightened understanding of the racial tensions that explode into violence at the end of the film. The central clash of opposites in the film is between Mookie and Sal, which culminates in Mookie's instigation of the destruction of the pizzeria. Lee depicts the reasons for conflict between the two men with such nuanced complexity that Mookie's act of violence against Sal seems simultaneously justified and a betrayal of Sal.
Throughout the film there is an edgy tension between the two men (as there is between almost everyone in the film on this hottest day of the summer), but until the last moments of the film, Mookie acts as a keeper of the peace, a protector of Sal's Pizzeria, not an instigator of violence against it. Lee makes it clear that aside from Mookie's official job of delivering pizzas he functions as a go-between for Sal, smoothing over (or trying to smooth over) moments of racial tension that daily flare up between Sal and his customers. Mookie, for example, banishes his friend Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) from Sal's Pizzeria for one week after Buggin' Out enrages Sal by insisting that Sal include pictures of African Americans on his Wall of Fame, which Sal has devoted exclusively to pictures of Italian-American celebrities. Mookie is also protective toward Sal's sympathetic younger son Vito (Richard Edson), advising him on how to deal with his nasty older brother. As a result, when Mookie suddenly turns against his employers we sit up and take notice. If a chronic com-plainer like Buggin' Out had set off the violence, the act would not make nearly as strong an impression. It is the clash between who we expect to start the riot and who actually starts it that forces us to think.
This is not to say that Lee depicts Mookie's relation to his white employers as conflict-free. Lee, always dialectical, sets Vito's affability against the openly racist hostility of Pino, Vito's older brother. Pino ( John
Turturro) calls Mookie a "nigger" and refers to his father's pizza parlor, with its mostly black customers, as the "Planet of the Apes." Pino warns Vito that no black man can be trusted: "The first time you turn your back, boom, a knife right here." Mookie, moreover, chafes against the drastic limitations of his position in Sal's Famous Pizzeria. He is stuck in a menial, minimum-wage, delivery-boy job with no future. He expresses his resentment by coming into work late and taking too much time delivering pizzas. He goes home to take a shower on his way back from a delivery and later, after delivering a pizza to his girlfriend and mother of his child, he has a leisurely early evening tryst with her. Mookie, moreover, refuses to do chores such as sweeping the floor for Sal even when he has nothing else to do, claiming he is just paid to deliver pizzas.
Sal's tolerance of Mookie's "attitude" combines with Danny Aiello's sympathetic portrayal to make Sal, for the most part, an appealing character. He obviously "gets" the reasons behind Mookie's disaffected laziness and is willing to ignore his lapses. Sal, in fact, is far more tolerant of Mookie's questionable work ethic than Mookie's own sister, who berates him for his "patented two-hour lunches" and insists, "Sal pays you, you should work." In contrast to Pino, who openly attacks Mookie's behavior, Sal seems genuinely affectionate toward Mookie, an affection which makes us feel that the attack on Sal's Pizzeria at the end of the film causes Mookie inner conflict. Moments before he makes his decision to act, we see him holding his head in pain.
But while Lee depicts Sal's affection for and sympathetic treatment of Mookie, he also portrays him as exploitative and latently racist. Not only does Sal pay Mookie low wages, he never acknowledges the important role Mookie plays as a mediator between Sal and the African-American customers he relies upon in order to make a living. (In this light, Mookie's instigation of the violence against the pizzeria can also be read as Mookie's sending Sal a message: if it were not for me this would have happened a long time ago.) Lee depicts Sal's affection toward his black clientele when Sal says that he is proud to have nurtured a generation of black children with his pizza. But almost in the same breath he refers to his customers as "dese people," hence as racial others. Sal's underlying racism explodes into the open when he screams racial epithets at Radio Raheem for playing his music in his restaurant (he calls it "jungle music") and then goes on to destroy the boom box, an action that can be read as a symbolic murder. Prophetically, one of Sal's early lines in Do the Right Thing is "I'm gonna kill somebody today." Nevertheless, for all his shortcomings, Lee's depiction of Sal is a far cry from the one-sided villains of propagandists: political melodrama. Sal is constructed with a mixture of conflicting traits. He is affectionate and exploitative, tolerant and racist, a nurturer and a (symbolic) murderer.18
The issue that indirectly triggers the race riot at the end of Do the Right Thing is Sal's refusal to bow to a demand by the political activist Buggin' Out that he put up pictures of African Americans on his Wall of Fame. But Sal's refusal to give in (which unleashes the violence) is not presented by Lee as an egregious example of Sal's racist intolerance, nor does he treat Buggin' Out's request as necessarily justified. They both have their reasons for their stances and both are, to some extent, valid. Sal tells Buggin' Out that if he wants "brothers up on the Wall of Fame, you open up your own business, then you can do what you wanna do. My pizzeria— Italian Americans up on the wall." Through the conversation of the "Corner Men," the three men who sit around all day drinking beer and discussing life, Lee criticizes African Americans for not starting businesses in their own neighborhoods. One of them deplores the fact that a Korean man and woman who have been in the country for less than a year have started their own business (a fruit and vegetable store) in the neighborhood in a building that had previously been boarded up. "Either dem Koreans are geniuses," he comments, "or we Blacks are dumb."
Yet Lee has Buggin' Out counter Sal's argument with a good argument of his own. "You own this," he acknowledges, "but rarely do I see any Italian Americans eating in here. All I've ever seen is black folks. So since we spend much money here, we do have some say." As in so much of Do the Right Thing, there is not a right or a wrong position, just two conflicting ways of seeing an issue. Sal as owner of the pizzeria has the right to decorate it as he pleases. African Americans who spend money in Sal's restaurant have a right to demand the respect of representation.
By placing the two stances side by side, Lee opens up a dialogue between them and makes us think more deeply about the issues involved. The fact that Sal is so irritated at Buggin' Out for demanding that Sal put "brothers on the wall," to the point that he threateningly takes out his baseball bat (his sons restrain him), suggests that the demand has struck a nerve. Why, we wonder, does this request make him so angry? Why couldn't he oblige his customers by hanging pictures of African-American celebrities alongside Italian Americans on his Wall of Fame? Sal's refusal to include African Americans on his wall perhaps reflects his need to maintain the boundaries of his white identity, almost as if mixing whites and blacks on his wall would be for him a form of symbolic miscegenation. Pino, the openly racist son, admits to feeling humiliated in front of his friends because he works all day among black people, as if something bad might rub off on him. Sal's adamant refusal to accede to Buggin' Out's request hints that Pino's father may well have his boundary issues too.
But Lee puts Buggin' Out's demands under scrutiny as well. We are also made to wonder why it is so important to Buggin' Out that Sal does not have pictures of African Americans on his wall. Most of the people in the neighborhood do not seem to mind and no one except for Radio Raheem and Smiley takes Buggin' Out's proposed boycott of Sal's seriously. In fact, the most sympathetic characters in the film strenuously oppose it. When Buggin' Out tries to enlist Mookie's sister Jade in his campaign to boycott Sal's, for example, she chides him by saying "You can really direct your energies in a more useful way." Jade's comment suggests that Buggin' Out is an injustice collector, a man who homes in on small slights (he also overreacts when a white man accidentally steps on his new white Air Jordans) rather than working for causes in the community in which he can effect real changes.
Although Buggin' Out's demand is not treated as a serious issue worth fighting for by most of the characters in the film, it nevertheless triggers the violence that occurs at the end. Buggin' Out, who has earlier in the day been banished from the pizzeria, returns to renew his demands, now backed up by the intimidating physical strength of Radio Raheem and the moral support of Smiley (Roger Smith), a man with a severe speech impediment who peddles a photograph of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X standing together in friendship and accord. The combination of the late hour (it is the end of a very long day), the intense heat which has not let up, even at night, and Sal's being confronted simultaneously by Buggin' Out's demand and Radio Raheem's blaring music creates a kind of critical mass. Sal explodes in anger. When Buggin' Out keeps repeating his demands and Radio Raheem refuses to turn off his radio, Sal reaches for his bat and before anyone can stop him "kills" the radio, after which Radio Raheem tries to kill him in turn. The white police then come and kill Radio Raheem and Mookie instigates the race riot, which, as Spike Lee has stated, he intends audiences to interpret as a fully justified protest against Radio Raheem's death at the hands of the white police.
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