A big white Cadillac with three Italian Americans in it pulls up to the curb on a summer morn in the heart of Bed Stuy. Thus begins Spike Lee’s third feature film, 1989’s Do The Right Thing. The three, a father and his two sons, get out, and stand before a shuttered store. They are Sal, Nino and Pino. They then proceed to open their pizza parlor, Sal’s Famous, for another day of business.
The subliminal message? Let’s see. Three Italians in a big white car in a foreign neighborhood named Sal, Nino and Pino? Columbus coming to the “New World” in his three ships, the Nina, the Pina and the Santa Maria. Spike Lee plays their delivery man. He wears a Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson t-shirt. Why? Because like Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in baseball when he played with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Spike Lee’s the only Black on the white team that runs the pizza parlor.
In the middle of the film a young white man on a bike, who has just moved into the neighborhood, runs over a Black youth’s sneakers and that leads to a raucous, but funny, confrontation. The young, Irish looking, white biker wears a Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird t-shirt. And so the scene means what? The white biker represents the process of gentrification, that is, the return of wealthy whites to the inner city. He wears a Larry Bird t-shirt because, just as Larry Bird integrated the Black sport of basketball, he is integrating a Black neighborhood. (Note “Celtics” is also the name of a white ethnic group centered in Ireland.) His running over a Black man’s Air Jordans echoes the rivalry between Jordan and Byrd. By the way, Larry Byrd’s number, as clearly displayed in white digits on the green t-shirt, is 33. What does that number symbolize? Christ. Christ died in his 33rd year. And wasn’t Larry Byrd seen as the “Great White Hope” saving the sport of basketball for the white fan?
Spike Lee’s real life sister, Joie Lee, plays his sister in the film. At one point she walks into the pizza parlor in a fluffy white dress and a pink, wide brim, flimsy cotton hat like wealthy white ladies in the South used to wear. Sal fawns all over her as he delivers her order and stops to chat with her. She blushes at his flirting. Spike soon hustles her out the back and cautions her sternly, claiming that Sal’s intentions are not good ones. She brushes off his concerns, but he vehemently insists. As the scene ends, the camera pulls back and on the wall we see a bit of graffiti. It says, “Tawana Told The Truth,” a reference to the Tawana Brawley rape case. The 15 year old’s charges of being raped by police officials caused an uproar, but like the current rape case against the head of the IMF, the charges were eventually thrown out by the courts.
Early in the film, the same youth, whose Air Jordans were soiled, gets into a bitter, vengeful argument with Sal over all the pictures of Italian American athletes and entertainers on his walls, and the absence of any Black celebrities. This eventually leads to a blazing, climactic confrontation at the end of the picture. Note, however, the young Black actor who plays the part with searing, righteous passion is none other than Giancarlo Esposito, whose father was Italian. Spike Lee’s inside joke?
The film marked the debut of both Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez who plays Spike Lee’s girlfriend. As the credits role, at the outset, she does a wild and wicked dance against an angry red background to the exploding rhythms of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power: Fight the Powers That Be! She wears red boxing gloves with white shorts and a Black top. Her top is black and her bottom is white to symbolize Blacks fighting, and overcoming, white power.
Similarly, throughout the film, the son that likes Blacks wears black, while the son that hates Blacks wears white. The father, Sal, who is ambivalent, suitably wears black and white. These are just some of the many subliminal messages in Spike Lee’s biggest hit, Do The Right Thing. Can you recall any others?
( by Dr. Arthur Lewin, author of Africa Is Not A Country: It’s A Continent, www.AfricaUnlimited.com )