Critical race theory (CRT) states that race is not biologically natural, but is instead a socially constructed idea that functions to maintain the interests of the white population who constructed the idea. In the film, Do the Right Thing, produced and directed by Spike Lee, the film investigates power dynamics in the context of race and contains many underlying tones of racism which are prevalent throughout the film. The film showcases such themes through literary devices such as tone through music, characterization, and symbolism.
The opening scene of the film begins with actress Rosie Perez dancing to the Public Enemy song “Fight the Power.” Lee uses this song to set the tone of the film and helps set up the attitudes of the characters that will be present in the film. On closer inspection, one would learn that the song contains pro-black lyrics and has criticized a few popular white cultural heroes such as Elvis Presley calling him a “straight up racist that sucker was” (Public Enemy). These lyrics can be explained because many African Americans felt that Elvis stole traditional black musical elements in his songs. Thus, the music is embodying the attitudes of the black community in the film because it is presenting the strive to fight against the authority the many white police and members of the community have held over the black community. The police have long been criticized for the ways they handle black criminals in comparison to white criminals and their stereotypes of black people as being criminals. To this day, many white members of the community continue to exercise differential racialization. For example, in the past, whites have justified black slavery by considering them as non-human or unintelligent. Now, whites justify tying blacks to crime and police brutality by stereotyping blacks as poor drug abusers that are characteristically violent. Other races have also been subjected to white-imposed racial ideas, however. An example that can be drawn from the film is when one of the nicer characters in the movie, Da Mayor, buys beer at a store owned by a Korean couple. He buys into the stereotypes that have been constructed against Asians as he says, “This ain’t Korea, or China, or wherever you come from.” The idea that all grocery stores are owned by Asians is also prominent in the film, which further reinforces the model minority myth – that Asians are somehow these super-geniuses who can succeed in life (owning a store), while other minorities (blacks & Latinos) have an inherent problem that makes them less successful than Asians. It can be seen as strange that minorities buy into the idea of the model minority myth even though the concept was constructed by whites as a means of justifying their low view of African Americans. This power dynamic between the black and white people is something that has built racial tension and is shown by the violence which results at the end of the movie.
At one point of the film, there was a scene where the character, Buggin’ Out notes that Sal’s “Wall-of-Fame” in the pizzeria only consisted of Italian-Americans. Buggin’ Out then immediately stereotypes Sal and believes he is a racist against blacks. He then makes it a mission to rally a boycott against the pizzeria. However, most members of the community disregarded his boycott for there was a sense of interest convergence. Other black members of the community had felt that Sal’s food was a staple and it was something they grew up on, and Sal benefitted from this relationship because it allowed his pizzeria to stay. Sal’s character in the film seems to be not racist. In fact, Sal seemed to view his black worker, Mookie as a son and was in love with Mookie’s sister. However, there are points in the film where Sal performs several anti-black actions. For example, Sal often refers to his customers as “these people,” which suggests that he is distancing himself away from them and regards his customers to be unimportant or on a lower level than him. Sal has also used derogatory language toward blacks such as “jungle music” and “niggers.” Overall, however, Sal had not done anything to warrant for heavy backlash from the black community other than the end scene where he destroys Radio Raheem’s radio.
When the police arrive, the police accidentally murders Radio Raheem by choking him to death. It is in this scene the idea of intersectionality from the critical race theory can be seen. After the murder, the black community retaliates by destroying Sal’s pizzeria as they no longer felt like it belonged in their neighborhood despite their acceptance just mere hours ago. This shows that the behavior of the police has been reflected onto Sal despite the fact he seemed to like black people, just because Sal was white like the policemen. Meaning that because Sal was white too, the community decided collectively that he was a symbol of white power and authority and was a racist against blacks when in reality, he could have been one of the few whites of that time who supported blacks. It is also important to note that toward the end, Sal was not directly involved in the murder and was in fact choked by Radio Raheem first. However, the community disregards that fact and chooses to relate Sal to racism because he is a white minority in their community. The scene of Radio Raheem’s murder goes to show that when one member of a race performs badly, it paints a bad picture for everyone else in that racial group.
There are a number of objects in the film that serve to illustrate existing racism. One notable object is the use of radio and music. It has already been established that Radio Raheem represents a threatening and violent nature with the song “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy constantly blaring through the streets on his radio. In contrast with the violence, Samuel L. Jackson who plays Mr. Señor Love Daddy, is the host of the “We Love” radio station who embraces and delivers black urban culture to the community. In contrast with the opening dance scene of the movie and Radio Raheem’s radio, the “We Love” radio station is peaceful and accepting. This contrast of the two styles of radio embodies the film’s theme of constant fighting between peace and conflict. Another notable symbol in the film is the trash can Mookie throws at the end of the film toward Sal’s pizzeria. Some may view it as an act of self-preservation – that Mookie only throws the trash can so the community does not think he is taking the side of Sal’s. However, it can also be viewed that Mookie is angered by the death of Radio Raheem. All in all, the act of Mookie throwing the trash can poses the question, why did he throw the trash can? If the viewers question such an act, then the viewers may in fact actually be questioning whether the value of ‘white-owned’ property is more valuable than the life of a black man. Therefore the trashcan may be representing the act of fighting against white authority and white economic prowess.
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