Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing is an explicit narrative about race relations and racial tensions within the modern American city. But these themes are also communicated simultaneously on a deeper symbolic level, which accentuates the concept of race at the root of the film, while also opening up further horizons and nuances to the story. Five symbols – the radio show, the pizza parlor, the heatwave, the Korean convenience store and the boycott – all add further layers onto the story, demonstrating the complexity of racial relations in Lee’s film, leaving the viewer with no easy answers, but only further questions.
The radio speaker that appears throughout the film works also as a narration for the events that take place, framing the film. But also, there is an even religious element to the radio, as though it represents some transcendent God-like objective view on the events that take place during the film. For example, Radio Raheem states “Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate: It was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: These five fingers go right to the soul.” (Lee) Here, the godlike presence of the radio frames how Lee approaches race relations: it is characterized by love, and hate, it is a foundational story, and the choice is ultimately our own. One can continue with racism or depart from it: the answer lies in the individual, echoing the title fo the film itself.
The heatwave in which the film takes place, in contrast, shows the oppressive conditions of the inner city. It evokes tempers that are about to explode, and animosities that will turn to violence. Thus, the character ML states, “Well, gentlemen, the way I see it, if this hot weather continues, it’s going to melt the polar caps and the whole wide world.” (Lee) The heat symbolizes the increasing hatred in the film, that threatens to destroy the community.
The pizza parlor is the site of this threat to communal existence. It symbolizes both a place where racial difference can be forgotten. Thus, Sal, the Italian-American owner also employs African-Americans. Despite the tensions that arise around the pizza parlor, Sal notes that “I never had no trouble with these people. I sat in this window…I mean for Christ’s sake Pino, they grew up on my food. My food. And I’m very proud of that.” (Lee) The ideal setting of the pizza parlor is like an Eden within Brooklyn, where no racial tensions and ambiguities emerges.
The boycott of the pizza parlor, however, is the exact opposite. It signifies what happens when the idyllic communal life, without racial prejudice, breaks down. Thus, the character Buggin’ Out states “Yo, Sal, we’re gonna boycott your fat pasta ass.” (Lee) In response to what the African-American community views as Sal and his family’s racist behavior, they protest the very community gathering point that had once been a common safe space for all. Lee therefore shows the decline in race relations through the boycott, a breakdown of a functioning and harmonious way of life.
But Lee also complicates matters throughout, not too quick to blame either side, he rather incriminates both sides of the racial conflict, instead admonishing them to “do the right thing.” This is arguably symbolized by the Koreans in the film, who own a business and carry on with their life, seemingly isolated from the troubles of the white and black community. As ML comments on the success of the Koreans, “Either dem Koreans are geniuses or we Blacks are dumb.” (Lee) There is a point here where the Koreans are able to focus on more important matters in live, on improving themselves and their status, instead of being embroiled in senseless racial conflict as the Italian-Americans and African-Americans within the film.
Thus, through these symbols Lee not only describes racial tensions and conflict, but also offers some thoughts on their meaning. Multicultural communities can dissolve quickly into hate and violence. But, in one sense, this is our own decision. The former utopia of the pizza parlor turns into a site of violence and hate. As the radio narrator says, we must choose: we must do the right thing. Lee tells us through his symbols, that we essentially know what is right, but sometimes this is the hardest thing to do.
- Lee, Spike. Do the Right Thing (1989): Quotes. Retrieved October 21, 2018 at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097216/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu