Thursday, June 08, 2006

Movie Discussion Club Post #6: -Do The Right Thing-

NOTE: For an explanation of what I'm doing here, and what I'd like you all to do, please read this.

I haven't seen this one all the way through since I first saw it in January of 1990. It's damn good. Maybe a litle better than I thought it was originally, which is saying something.

It's deep and rich enough that I won't be able to do well with it in 12 minutes. The good news is that there's so much of it that, if the NBPTS post deals with racial themes or even identity themes, I'll be able to pick out a slice from Sal's Pizzeria and serve it up.

Anyhow, this will be a little broad and vague.


When Mookie throws the trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria at the climax of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, it culminates a struggle he has quietly, internally considered throughout the movie. As tempers boil over on a hot, muggy New York evening, Mookie has decided that, in the reality of racial relations in 1980s New York City, he needs to side with his African-American friends over his White friends. In the process, he speaks for the movie, saying that the greats from race relations of our past would not tolerate the situation in 1980s and would fight back.

Other than the customers at Sal's Pizzeria, Mookie is the only character in the movie who has regular, sometimes positive contact with White people. He doesn't get along with the openly racist older brother Pino, but is close with Vito, Sal's younger brother, and gets along with Sal well enough that he has held his job for a while. But in Brooklyn of 1988, it's a difficult role to play. Lee symbolizes this by having Mookie wear a Jackie Robinson jersey for the first half of the movie. Like Robinson, Mookie is trying to get along in a White, often racist workplace. For the second half of the movie, Mookie changes into a Sal's Pizzeria softball jersey, symbolizing that he is playing for the white team.

This symbolism makes Mookie's choice to throw the trash can all the more surprising. Mookie doesn't appear enraged when he throws it: he appears to have made a reasoned decision. Mostly, his mind changes when he has a discussion with his sister Jade. Sal flirts with Jade when she's in the restaurant, and Mookie wants her to stop coming to the restaurant because of this. He has this discussion with her in front of graffiti which reads "Tawanna told the truth," a reference to a victim of an ugly alleged interracial rape at the time, putting the viewer in the mind of Mookie's fears.

The ironically-named Smiley is critical to the meaning of the film. Smiley is a sad, stuttering wanderer, who pops into the picture periodically selling pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. When he is turned away by an angry Vito, shouting angry racist points at him, he switches from saying "M-M-M-Malcolm" and "M-M-M-Martin" to saying "F-F-F..." and cussing at Vito. Since Smiley represents what X and King would think of the situation, it's not surprising to find him at the center of the riots. When he places the photo of King and X on the wall of the burning building, it provides a stunning visual climax to the film. The camera shows Smiley with a burning halo-like flame behind his head, and, for the first time in the film, actually smiling, as though X and King provide their sanction for th rioting. It appears that, according to Lee, in the eyes of our past civil rights leaders, to fight back is to "do the right thing."


Ick. What do you see?

LATER TONIGHT: The last installment of the series. -Star Wars.-


tommyspoon said...

I disagree with your interpretation of Smiley. To me, Smiley operates sorta kinda like Cassandra: a prophet whom nobody can understand. If I remember the film accurately (and I may not), the picture that is slapped on the wall shows Malcom and Martin shaking hands, which was before Malcolm openly espoused violence. Smiley may be a warning of sorts: if you turn your back upon Malcolm and Martin then chaos is what you will inherit.

TeacherRefPoet said...


I'm fine with your interpretation, but not with your history. Malcolm didn't stray FROM non-violence, but TO it after his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964.

The famous photo was taken in 1964...I'm fairly certain after his pilgrimage. So your point still holds. Still, I had to research the photo to know when it was taken, so I don't think that can be a key part of its symbolism to most viewers.

Alison said...

"I don't think that can be a key part of its symbolism to most viewers."

Well the first thing you need to answer is "who is this movie for?"

It is quite possible that much of Spike Lee's target audience (say, for instance, young politically- aware African Americans) would have recognized the photo. Maybe not, but it's worth considering. You cannot deal at all with symbolism in a work until you figure out its audience. Otherwise you are dealing in some sort of area of "universal symbols," which are a dodgy notion at best.