The double truth, Ruth: 'Do the Right Thing' and the culture of ambiguity.
As Du Bois describes it, this political condition, a consequence of pressures exterior to the black community, creates a corresponding interior dilemma for African-Americans who achieve authority in American culture despite its institutionalized racism. Which of two competing allegiances does one serve? One's loyalty to the black community, which would benefit profoundly from one's acquired expertise in engaging white America? Or one's duty to one's own future, ironically linked to the esteem of a majority culture violently inimical to the minority community of which one is a part?
In The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, composed some ten years after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, James Weldon Johnson likewise identifies "a sort of dual personality" which "every coloured man" has "in proportion to his intellectuality," a "dualism" which persists both "in the freemasonry of his own race" and "in the presence of white men" (2122). And like Du Bois, Johnson's hero feels a dichotomy at the core of his ambition: "Was it more a desire to help those I considered my people, or more a desire to distinguish myself . . .?" (147).
Du Bois calls this dilemma "the waste of double aims," a "seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals" (5) which can never be reconciled. The powerfully unitary pull of responsibility to community and responsibility to self, when configured as oppositional by a racist symbolic order, must inevitably become self-destructive. Thus, sublated in this polarized crisis of responsibility is an equivalently polarized crisis of identity.
Cornel West has argued that it is precisely this perceived crisis of identity, this "sense of double-consciousness," which led "anxiety-ridden, middle-class Black intellectuals" such as Du Bois and Johnson to construe the African-American cultural experience in terms of "simplistic binary oppositions" that forced black attempts at personal and political liberation to "remain inscribed within the very logic that dehumanized them" (72). The implication of West's critique is that the cultural logic of "double-consciousness," as it was promulgated by the intellectuals of the modern black diaspora and as it has been inherited by contemporary African-American culture, consigns that culture to an untenable role within the American capitalist symbolic order. It dooms the African-American subject to a literally "entrepreneurial" purgatory, eternally situated between the oppositional terms of a complex hierarchy of antinomies which by definition can never be resolved. This weft of irreconcilable binarisms is constituted by the ideologies and oppositional counter-ideologies which govern the subject's relation to the hegemonic socioeconomic order, to the strategies of resistance conceived to combat this order, to the strategies of survival necessary when this resistance is compromised, and to the subject's own evolving sense of identity, inextricable as it is from this intricate fabric of relations.
Do the Right Thing, produced in 1989, is director Spike Lee's attempt to explore the human particularity of this system of binarisms and the culturally entrepreneurial situation of the African-American subject within it. Lee's own background reflects this cultural positioning. He was the eldest child in an "uncomfortably middle-class" black family living in the then predominantly white Brooklyn neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Fort Greene, where most of his friends were Italian (Breskin 14, 151). He graduated from traditionally black Morehouse College in 1979, after which he entered NYU's film school as one of only two African-Americans in his class (Lee later was to enlist the other, director Ernest Dickerson, to handle the cinematography of Do the Right Thing). It is not surprising, then, that young African-American novelist Trey Ellis cites Lee as one of "today's cultural mulattoes," during whose public schooling "it wasn't unusual to be called 'oreo' and 'nigger' on the same day." According to Ellis, these young black people are able skillfully to navigate a multi-ethnic universe due to their education in "a multi-racial mix of cultures" - yet despite this unique ability they "feel misunderstood by both the black world and the white." They are a generation "torn between two worlds," and, depending upon which term of the social binomial they embrace, they either "desperately fantasize themselves the children of William F. Buckley" or "affect instead a 'superblackness' and try to dream themselves back to the ghetto. Either way they are letting other people define their identity" (234-36).
Ellis's commentary confirms the persistent power of the ideology of "double-consciousness" and the ontological and ethical duplicity it promotes. In Souls, Du Bois anticipates this very duplicity - he calls it "the peculiar ethical paradox" which results from "the double life every American Negro must live" - and he identifies it as a socially generated psychological state which "tempts the mind to pretense or revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism" (202), the two extreme poles of a binaristic formula of resistance to oppression:
Thus we have two great and hardly reconcilable streams of thought and ethical strivings; the danger of one lies in anarchy, that of the other in hypocrisy. The one type of Negro stands almost ready to curse God and die, and the other is too often found a traitor to right and a coward before force; the one is wedded to ideals remote, whimsical, and perhaps impossible of realization; the other forgets that life is more than meat and the body more than raiment. (203)
In articulating the features of these "divergent ethical tendencies" (203), Du Bois prefigures not only the two dominant ideologies of resistance around which African-American political discourse of the second half of the twentieth century has been structured, but also the moral categories from which the adversarial terms of this culturally pervasive dyad derive their significance. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, two authors, two activists who advocated different strategies to achieve a shared end, have since their deaths - and to some degree because of their deaths - transcended the local, pragmatic potency of their respective narratives of African-American resistance. Each has achieved a kind of iconic stature; accordingly, each bears a concomitant freight of metonymic cultural implication. In the bilaterally configured semiotics of political discourse, the figure "King" has come to signify the ethics of reform: justice, integrationism, passive resistance, patience, forgiveness, constructive engagement, and an altruistic faith in democracy and in the basic goodness of the individuals who compose the dominant majority. By contrast, the figure "X" has come to signify the ethics of revolution: power, separatism, proactive resistance, decisiveness, responsibility, autonomy, and a realistic awareness of the systemic failures of democratic capitalism and the complicity, whether intentional or de facto, of the individuals who comprise America's capitalist society.
The film's use of the metonymic figures "King" and "X" as well as the ethically divergent meta-narratives of which they are the cultural signifiers suffuses its dramatic structure with the ideological tension generated by the trope of "double-consciousness." The vehicle by which Do the Right Thing represents the black community reminding itself, so to speak, of the presence of these figures is the ubiquitous Smiley, a young man with cerebral palsy who earns money selling photographs of African-American heroes to his Bed-Stuy neighbors. The film calls attention to one image in particular: the famous photograph of King and Malcolm shaking hands and smiling during their first and only meeting.
[Incomplete Text In Original Publication]
bell hooks gives us a way of fathoming the semiotic power of this image:
While King had focused on loving our enemies, Malcolm called us back to ourselves, acknowledging that taking care of blackness was our central responsibility. Even though King talked about the importance of black self-love, he talked more about loving our enemies. Ultimately, neither he nor Malcolm lived long enough to fully integrate the love ethic into a vision of political decolonization that would provide a blueprint for the eradication of black self-hatred. (Outlaw 245)
Smiley's image of King and Malcolm in apparent collaborative concord speciously presents itself as the objective documentation of just such an integration. As such, the image haunts, both with mockery and hope. It constitutes a simulacrum of a longed-for yet by definition impossible resolution of the culturally inscribed binarisms central to the African-American cultural mythos: the ideological antinomies "King" and "X," the complex dialectic of "love" and "hate" (of enemies, of self) with which hooks associates them, and the logic of "double-consciousness" of which these oppositionally situated terms are a culmination.
The immanence of these oppositional terms in the African-American cultural climate is suggested by the film in its foregrounding of their symbolic presence in the actual climate of the film's Bed-Stuy locale. On the one hand there is the weather itself - New York's hottest day of the year. As the racially charged pressures of life in Bed-Stuy mount, we feel the heat bringing them to a furious boil in a series of conflicts among various members of the multi-ethnic, but primarily black, community. The hate thrives in the heat; in a certain way, the hate becomes the heat, supplanting the cement and the sun as its own autotelic source and medium. The block's precarious race relations boil over in the infamous "racial slur montage" (Lee 43), a multi-ethnic round of "the dozens," which H. Rap Brown has described as a "mean game because what you try to do is totally destroy somebody else with words" (Gates 6872).
The climatological antithesis of this atmosphere of anathema finds its expression on the radio. If hate, in the form of heat, is in the air, love, in the form of cool, is on the air. Mister Senor Love Daddy, the DJ who from his storefront studio at aptly named WE-LOVE Radio, monitors the street scene like a benevolent demiurge and counters the climate of hate in which his neighborhood audience is simmering with the sounds of his "Cool Out corner":
Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Up ya wake! Up ya wake! Up ya wake! . . . Here I am. Am I here? Y'know it. It ya know. This is Mister Senor Love Daddy, doing the nasty to ya ears, ya ears to the nasty. I'se play only da platters dat matter da matters dey platter and That's the truth, Ruth. (Lee 1)
Senor Love Daddy's monologues, which are interspersed throughout the film as the temperature - sociological as well as meteorological - continues to rise, are far more sophisticated than the match of malicious dozens he interrupts. Their lexical and syntactical duplicity serves as a rhetorical representation of the culturally inscribed logic of "two-ness" in which Senor Love Daddy himself, even as he attempts through his art to alleviate its tensions, functions ironically as a definitive term.
The character Radio Raheem embodies singly the moral dualism "love/hate" which the heat and Senor Love Daddy mutually delineate. Radio Raheem is a one-man public-address system whose perceived social role is as a broadcaster of the music that Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy has called "Black America's CNN." Radio Raheem blasts a single song - Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," commissioned by Lee expressly for the film - from his gargantuan boom-box as he moves from place to place in the neighborhood. In a cinematic echo of the psychopathic preacher from Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, Radio Raheem sports two gold "brass-knuckle" rings: The right-hand ring spells "LOVE," the left-hand ring "HATE." He explains the significance of the words he wears in this way:
Let me tell you the story of Right-Hand-Left-Hand - the tale of Good and Evil . . . . The story of Life is this: STATIC! One hand is always fighting the other. Left Hand Hate is kicking much ass and it looks like Right Hand Love is finished. Hold up. Stop the presses! The Right Hand is coming back! Yes, it's Love. Love has won. Left Hand Hate KO'ed by Love.
The moral cosmology Radio Raheem here narrates is very compelling. In it, "good" is not only identifiable and absolute, but ultimately more powerful than "evil," which, correspondingly, is equally pure and clear. The faith and lucidity of this formulation are potent. Yet the film complicates Radio Raheem's vision with its depictions of his role in the confrontation at Sal's Famous Pizzeria and his murder at the hands of the police. It is not clear that Radio Raheem is purely "good"; according to Lee's highly editorial notes for the conflict with Sal, "Radio Raheem, like the large majority of Black youth, is the victim of materialism and a misplaced sense of values" (78). This critique, ironized as it is by Lee's highly visible and controversial promotion of various product lines (including his own) which vigorously target the young-African-American-male demographic, nonetheless identifies a salient feature of Raheem's characterization. And it is tragically obvious during the murder scene that "evil," at least in this particular match, is far stronger than Radio Raheem's "story of Life" implies.
Ultimately, the Weltanschauung with which Radio Raheem defines his sense of identity - so decisively, in fact, that he adopts its very signifiers "LOVE" and "HATE" as salient features of his self-expressive style - terminally relegates both society and the individual subject to the "STATIC" resulting from irreconcilable moral antinomies locked in interminable conflict. The "fight" in Radio Raheem's broadcast battle-cry appropriately reflects the moral polarity within which he perceives his own life, the life of his community, and the life of culture at large, to be situated.
If Radio Raheem embodies the logic of "two-ness" regarding African-American culture's exterior political conflict with white hegemony, it is through Da Mayor and Mother Sister that Do the Right Thing characterizes the corresponding relations which take place within black culture itself. In the film's narrative Da Mayor is exactly what his name would imply: a shambling yet dignified exponent of democratic capitalism's urban order. This role is particularly evident during two episodes involving his contact with ten-year-old Eddie Lovell, one of the neighborhood children. In the following conversation, we hear Da Mayor attempting to instruct Eddie in a street version of the subtleties of exchange value and wage negotiation:
"What makes Sammy run?"
"My name is Eddie."
"What makes Sammy run?"
"I said my name is Eddie Lovell."
"Relax, Eddie, I want you to go to the corner store. How much will it cost me?"
"How would I know how much it's gonna cost if I don't know what I'm buying?"
"Eddie, you're too smart for your own britches. Listen to me. How much do you want to go to the store for Da Mayor?"
"You got a deal."
It is not clear by his response that the somewhat mystified boy has understood the rudimentary lesson in the economics of survival which Da Mayor has attempted to teach. Later, this lesson takes symbolic form when Da Mayor leaps in front of a speeding car to push Eddie out of harm's way. In addition, after the police murder Radio Raheem and what Lee describes as "an angry mob of Black folks" turns toward "a defenseless Sal, Vito and Pino" (81), Da Mayor attempts to restore civil order - the very order of which the police have acted as brutal enforcers - by deflecting blame from the three white men as individuals: "Good people, let's all go home. . . . If we don't stop this now, we'll all regret it. Sal and his two boys had nothing to do with what the police did." Da Mayor exhibits a sense of integrity, a sense of "right," as the film's title designates it, which seems to transcend the politics of race.
The film identifies the opposite pole of this binarism in its critique of Da Mayor's role in the economic order. The terms of this critique invoke the culturally intramural issues around which the black community's self-critical political discourse revolves. Da Mayor picks up the change he needs to support his alcoholism by sweeping the sidewalk in front of Sal's, gratefully accepting his subordinate place in the economy given to him by virtue of the patronizing generosity of a paternalistic employer. This good-naturedly marginal participation is further ironized when we learn that his alcoholism is a result of the failure of American capitalism to grant him a materially adequate position in the first place: He began drinking as a younger man to kill the "pain" of daily facing the hunger of his five children and his own inability to provide for them. Ahmad, one of the teenagers of the neighborhood, is unsympathetic:
I wouldn't stand in the doorway listening to my five children go hungry. I'd be out getting a job, doing something, anything, to put food in their mouth. And you're right, I don't want to know your pain. You're the one who put yourself in this situation. . . . This man don't get no respect. I respect those who respect themselves.
Ahmad's response is significant in that it refuses to acknowledge past injustice as a cause for current condition. It is a version of what an angry young Lee himself said in 1986 about the assumption of responsibility: "We're all tired about white-man this, white-man that. Fuck dat! It's on us" (Breskin 185).
The film places Mother Sister in direct opposition to Da Mayor as a symbol of inflamed resistance to the notions of labor, property, and authority central to the capitalist project. The reason for her persistent scorn for Da Mayor is that he reminds her of her ex-husband, who "lost all my property, all my money in his scheme to build a black business empire." For Mother Sister, African-American participation in free enterprise has spelled financial ruin. Whereas Da Mayor counsels Mookie to "always try to do the right thing" - a conception of "good" akin to Radio Raheem's in its obliviousness to the moral coercion effected by a racist capitalism - Mother Sister warns Mookie, "Don't work too hard today, we can't have you dropping off in this heat" - an enunciation of defiant self-interest over involvement in the work ethic which Da Mayor advocates. And during the riot at Sal's, Mother Sister is screaming in the street, encouraging the crowd to "Burn it down! Burn it down!" even as Da Mayor attempts to quell the outrage.
The Da Mayor/Mother Sister dualism embodies the self-critical interrogation which hooks feels is the first step in facing "the self-hatred, low self-esteem, or internalized white supremacist thinking" which a colonizing culture inflicts upon the colonized (Outlaw 248). As the film makes the case, neither of the extreme positions regarding "white Americanism" which Da Mayor and Mother Sister represent results in any productive outcome or community empowerment. For all his stalwart belief in free-enterprise democracy, Da Mayor is destitute and powerless. And for all her righteous antagonism against the faith in American capitalism espoused by Da Mayor, Mother Sister ends up anguished in the street, wailing, "No! No! No!" at not only the horror of Radio Raheem's death but the ultimately self-destructive terror of the ensuing riot which she herself helped to inflame.
The dramatic structure of Do the Right Thing situates Mookie, the film's protagonist played by Lee himself, in the midst of this architecture of polarities constructed around the cultural logic of "two-ness." Correspondingly, in the social and economic commerce of the neighborhood, Mookie is placed in a similarly entrepreneurial role as the only black employee of the only white-owned business in the area. Even his job itself - pizza delivery - depends upon his ability to mediate the incompatible rhetorical demands of a white-owned workplace and a black clientele. So positioned, Mookie is a Bed-Stuy avatar of Henry Louis Gates's homo rhetoricus Africanus, who is able "to move freely between two discursive universes," traversing "the boundary between the white linguistic realm and the black" (75). The Brooklyn Dodgers jersey Mookie wears on his way to work in the morning - Jackie Robinson's #42 - suggests, as Nelson George puts it, that "he's a man watched closely by interested parties on both sides of the racial divide. Both sides think he's loyal to them - that's how he survives" (80).
In Mookie's world, Sal, the eponymous owner of the pizzeria, represents the "discursive universe" of American capitalism. He is an embodiment of the white patriarchy to which Mookie must be accountable if he is to be granted a continuing position, trifling as it may seem, in the dominant economic order. As such, Sal functions symbolically as the sole arbiter of the private sector's social responsibility. Yet Sal is never presented as a caricature of dehumanizing capitalist rapacity. In fact, as a result of his dedication to keeping the business in Bed-Stuy despite pressures from several quarters, this Italian-American, neighborhood-scale entrepreneur is, like his African-American, neighborhood-scale employee, consistently put in a socially entrepreneurial role. He mediates the constant tension between his two sons, the affable Vito, who is Mookie's friend and seems comfortable with the neighborhood, and the overtly racist Pino, who, violently disturbed by his brother's friendship with Mookie, compares Bed-Stuy to a "Planet of the Apes" and thinks the family "should stay in our own neighborhood, in Bensonhurst. And the niggers should stay in theirs."
Sal also attempts to mediate Pino's racist frustration, an unintended legacy of the culture within which Sal himself has raised him - Pino reports that "my friends laugh at me all the time, laugh right in my face, tell me, 'Go feed the Moolies' " - and the resolute pride, however proprietary, with which Sal views the role of the family business:
Why you got so much anger in you? . . . I never had no trouble with these people. I sat in this window, I watched the little kids get old. And I seen the old people get older. . . . I mean for Christ sakes, Pino, they grew up on my food. On my food. . . . Sal's Famous is here to stay. I'm sorry. I'm your father and I love you - I'm sorry, but that's the way it is.
Sal here gives voice to one of the ideological tropes through which racist, consumption-driven "white Americanism" constructs its own moral self-justification: the specious conflation of the owner's self-serving economic interest in the subject-as-consumer with a paternalistic emotional interest in the subject-as-child.
Do the Right Thing identifies this well-meaning yet ultimately self-deceptive paternalism in Sal's relationships with Mookie's sister Jade, and with Mookie himself. The film's narrative associates Jade more strongly than any character other than Da Mayor with African-American acceptance of the values of American free-enterprise. "Is this another of your patented two-hour lunches?" she asks Mookie. "Sal pays you. You should work." She is also very critical of what she perceives to be Mookie's failures as a father and husband. In yet another of the growing number of imperatives Mookie receives from a growing number of the denizens of Bed-Stuy, Jade ridicules Mookie's dependence upon her for housing and warns her brother to "take care of your responsibilities." And when the would-be activist Buggin Out asks her if she will support the boycott against Sal's which he is attempting to organize, Jade chastises him, suggesting that he "direct [his] energies in a more useful way" by promoting "something positive in the community."
The film makes it clear that Sal feels a sincere emotional connection with Jade. He treats her like a flower which, cultivated in his own garlic-laced garden by his own flour-dusted hands, has blossomed into a rare beauty despite a climate inhospitable to the nourishment his business offers. He seats her and cleans her table personally, insisting that she allow him to make her "something special," and he exaggerates the quality of Mookie's job performance in order that she not be disappointed. Sal's aestheticized objectification of Jade is exactly appropriate; she deserves his worship as the most powerfully evocative figure of the emotional legitimacy of his mercantile presence in the neighborhood - a legitimacy of which Sal must have his human tokens, or else risk the realization that his significance in the community has been more a function of economy than humanity.
Mookie is such a token as well. If Jade represents Sal's objectified projection of the human improvement wrought by his benevolent colonial presence among a race not his own, Mookie represents an analogous projection of the colonialist miracle of unity and progress which Sal perceives that his dedicated labor has fathered. "I'm gonna rename the place," he says. "I'm gonna call it 'Sal and Sons Famous Pizzeria.'. . . And Mookie, there will always be a place for you here, because you've always been like a son to me." This paternal renaming, which masks itself as an unequivocally unifying gesture, actually expresses a simultaneous recognition and diminution, exposing the limit of Sal's paternalism. That limit, to which Sal himself seems blind, is delineated in the difference between being a son and being "like" a son. Mookie is re-signed by the colonial father - yet this re-signation dooms him to continue to labor under the sign of "Sal and Sons" despite the exclusion latent in the father's word.
In his dual role as proprietor and self-conceived father-figure, Sal is positioned between the competing ethical valences of an historically racist economic order: a sense of reciprocal commitment, however paternalistic, to the well-being of the individuals and the community as a whole that provide the commerce indispensable to free enterprise, and, conversely, a sense of independence, of "freedom" as configured by the tenets of classical liberalism, from any such commitment beyond the supplying of goods and services at a specified rate of exchange. As W. J. T. Mitchell has put it, Sal is caught between "his openness and hospitality to the public and his 'right' to reign as a despot in his 'own place'" ("Violence" 894).
This precarious bourgeois balancing act is disrupted only when Sal perceives a threat to two of the ideological constructions most central to American democratic capitalism: "property" and "freedom." The film accomplishes this disruption through the agency of Buggin Out. After Buggin Out confronts Sal with the absence of African-Americans on Sal's "Wall of Fame," Sal is quick to assert the absolute authority of ownership over whatever claims the community might raise: "You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place, you can do what you want to do. . . . But this is my pizzeria. American-Italians on the wall only." When Mookie resists being held responsible for Buggin Out's demands, telling Sal that "people are free to do whatever the hell they want to do," Sal angrily expresses his conception of "freedom" as it obtains in his corner of the private sector:" 'Free'! There's no 'free' here! I'm the boss. No freedom. . . . You want freedom? [He gestures to the counter] There, that's free. You take an order, and you take it out."
The boycott proposed by Buggin Out, whose name marks him as frantic and impulsive, is a bust in the neighborhood. The action founders because Buggin Our's critique is unfocused, and offers little more than simplistic rhetoric in addressing a very complex issue (Breskin 172, 164). Although it is misdirected, however, as an idea the boycott is strategically sound in that it calls for the suspension of the subject's status as consumer - the bedrock socioeconomic premise upon which the mercantilist tradition is built. This organized suspension is an assertion of the collective power of community within that tradition, in service of the proposition that "free" enterprise is not so free from responsibility to that community as its doctrine would imply. And despite the emotional commitment to community which Sal professes to be his primary motive, when Buggin Out and Radio Raheem throw their two-man boycott in Sal's face at the end of a long day, his repressed racism erupts in violence: He smashes Radio Raheem's box to bits, and calls him "nigger" in front of all of the young black people who have been his regulars.
In his subversive challenge, however immaturely executed, to the naturalized assumptions crucial to the determination of power relations in American culture, Buggin Out exposes as self-congratulatory self-deception the paternalistic concern for community foregrounded in the rhetoric of colonial capitalism. As the catalyst of this unmasking of racist "white Americanism," Buggin Out becomes the oppositional "discursive universe" in the dialectical social situation of Mookie as homo rhetoricus Africanus: If Do the Right Thing presents Sal as the authoritarian proponent of the racially hypocritical socioeconomic values of "white Americanism," it correspondingly presents Buggin Out as the self-appointed arbiter of "blackness," the essence of which, as he defines it, is compromised by African-American participation in a white racist economy. "Stay black," he warns his entrepreneurial friend.
As the locality which supports the welter of ideological binarisms that comprises Mookie's experience, Bedford-Stuyvesant in the course of the film takes on what Mikhail Bakhtin has described as a "polyphonic" quality. That is, by the time of the final conflict at Sal's, the neighborhood, seen as we have seen it, through Mookie's eyes, has become a medium for "the unification of highly heterogeneous and incompatible material" issuing from a "plurality of consciousness-centers not reduced to a single ideological common denominator" (Problems 17). Throughout the film, Mookie has weathered an onslaught of imperatives from these various "consciousness-centers" - each imprinted, as we have seen, by the culturally pervasive logic of "two-ness" - which signify for Mookie's benefit their particular ideological values. From Buggin Out, he hears, "Stay black"; from Mother Sister, "Don't work too hard today"; from Jade, "Take care of your responsibilities"; from his wife Tina, "Be a man"; from Sal, "You're fuckin' up"; and from Da Mayor, the clincher of this paradoxical parade of morally absolutist signification: "Always try to do the right thing."
In correspondence with the Bakhtinian model (Problems 17-65), all of these signifying voices retain their autonomy. They are placed in opposition, juxtaposed and counter-posed, combined contrapuntally in a "collaborative antagonism . . . a plurality of voices which do not fuse into a single consciousness, but rather exist on different registers and thus generate a dialogical dynamism" (Stare 262). Their contradictions are never presented as the various stages of some unified development. The film outlines no ideological evolution toward completion, telos, or dialectical resolution; as Lee has said, "Everybody has a point" (Glicksman 15). The only unification offered by Bed-Stuy is the unity of place: simultaneity, coexistence, and interaction.
Thus, as the film depicts it, Bed-Stuy becomes what Linda Hutcheon calls a "postmodernist paradox," an "assertion not of centralized sameness but of decentralized community" (18) which, in its insistence on a plurality of differences, uncovers the naturalized binary oppositions by means of which the cultural hegemony guarantees homogeneity and perpetuates the status quo of its ascendancy. A decentralized, pluralistic simulacrum of ethnicity, Do the Right Thing's Bed-Stuy "address[es] ethnic consciousness and its changing context directly, foregrounding it as a contradictory, paradoxical, and multivalent experience" (Sobchack 342-43). The film's insistence upon the polyphony of Bed-Stuy creates the neighborhood as a symbolic space in which a culture of ambivalence, paralyzed in the tension created by the discursive power of its polarized and polarizing meta-narratives, becomes a culture of ambiguity, which in its promotion of a heteroglossia of unmerged, unresolved, and hopelessly contradictory ideological voices potentiates finally an evasion of the logic of "two-ness."
The complex form this evasion takes is rooted in the analogous ambiguities of the film's protagonist. A walking synecdoche for his neighborhood's dialogic assimilation of a plurality of cultural signifiers, Mookie himself in the course of the film becomes what Bakhtin calls an "internally dialogic" character (Problems 32), containing, as it were, an entire "sociology of consciousnesses," a cacophony of autonomous, irreconcilable significations in conflict, each reflecting the persistence of "double-consciousness": Sal/Buggin Out, Pino/Vito, Da Mayor/Mother Sister, Jade/Tina, "whiteness"/"blackness," "King"/"X," cool/heat, "LOVE"/"HATE," "right thing"/wrong thing.
When considering what is conventionally regarded as Do the Right Thing's ideological denouement - Mookie's decision to hurl a trash can through Sal's plate-glass window, an act which sparks the ensuing riot that destroys the pizzeria - critics have ignored the dialogical ambiguity cultivated in the protagonist throughout the film. Typically, Mookie is seen to have been driven by "Radio Raheem's death . . . his own personal frustrations [and] his underlying lack of self-esteem" to one pole of the system of antinomies which besets his life: "Mookie is a victim of and catalyst for hate - racial, economic, and personal" (George 80). The logical conclusion of such a view is to limit the film, as Mark Reid does, to a single, thematically univocal implication: In its portrayal of "an important social problem - interethnic rivalry," Reid argues, the film errs in suggesting that "to celebrate black empowerment, African-Americans must deny an Italian-American small businessman his property rights" (108).
Even critics who take a more complex view of what they understand as Mookie's declarative action - and, by extension, the declarative symbol of Lee's "intent" - see the film as exploring what Mitchell identifies as the issue of "violence and nonviolence as strategies within a struggle that is simply an ineradicable fact of American public life" ("Violence," 898). For Mitchell, the film succeeds because it "resituates" the two terms of the "King"/"X" binomial in American political discourse. In a response to Mitchell, Jerome Christensen argues that the film fails because this "resituation" actually amounts to an autocratic, irresponsible circumvention of the "obligation" to negotiate these "oppositions" by "democratic dispute" (586-87). In his reply to Christensen, Mitchell refines his conception of Mookie's act as a "dialectical image" which creates public debate ("Seeing" 605) - but the point is moot, since the debate itself, as evidenced by this critical exchange, serves merely to reinscribe the very antinomies that produced this debate's putative "currency" in the first place. Either way, the meta-narrative binarism endures, and the diaphonic logic of "two-ness" is confirmed in its structurally "ineradicable" power.
With his concept of Signifyin(g), Henry Louis Gates gives us a critical means of avoiding this hermeneutic trap consistent with the dialogic character of the film's protagonist as well as the polyphony of his Bed-Stuy milieu. As Gates describes it, Signifyin(g) is a "double-voiced utterance," a "double play" executed by the African-American subject in the realm of language and characterized by the "repetition and revision" which Gates proposes to be "fundamental to black artistic forms, from painting and sculpture to music and language use" (xxiii-xxiv). Signifyin(g) manifests itself as a vernacular stratagem which on the one hand puts to use the modes of discourse which the colonizing hegemonic culture has made available to it, yet on the other hand always already imbues these culturally endorsed forms with a "signal difference" which renders them at once both conventional yet subversive, deferential yet disruptive, comprehensible yet oblique, disciplined yet resistant, assimilated yet other.
For Gates, "whatever is black about black American literature" consists in this black Signifyin(g) difference. Signifyin(g) is that trope and interpretive figure by which the African-American consciousness subverts the naturalized rhetorical constructions that confine it to a circumscribed set of psychological and sociopolitical locations. As such, Signifyin(g) enables homo rhetoricus Africanus to navigate the rhetorically oppositional discursive realms of "white" and "black," precisely by foregrounding the figures "white" and "black" as figures - as particular discursive locations in the system of significances that constitutes hegemonic culture.
Through Signifyin(g), then, the African-American subject is able to dispel the culturally inscribed "binary political relationship . . . between black and white" as well as critique "the idea of binary opposition" in general (70). Like Derrida's deconstructive critique, Signifyin(g) "insists on being a double operation," neither denying nor fully embracing the discursive systems of univocal logocentrism, "work[ing] on the edges" (Brunette and Wills 11) of, in the case of American culture, a racist symbolic order. Signifyin(g) functions also as a kind of blues, which, in Houston Baker's words, comprises "a mediational site" wherein "familiar antinomies may be . . . dissolved" or receive "polyvalent interpretations" (67). In this way Signifyin(g) can be understood as a performance of what Senor Love Daddy calls "the double truth, Ruth": a double-talk that confounds the antinomies resulting from the logic of "double-consciousness" - a duplicity that confounds duplicity itself.
If Mookie's violent act were construed as Do the Right Thing's presiding symbolic image and the univocal consummation of Lee's "intent" as auteur, then bell hooks would be correct in complaining that "the film denies the problematical nature of identity and offers a simplistic view that would have skin color be all-encompassing" (Yearning 177). The image would then represent the protagonist's singular, definitive election of a single one of two conflicting metanarratives of resistance - and therefore constitute a simulacrum of "the right thing." But if Mookie's act is understood as merely the first term, so to speak, of a bilateral, duplicitous act of radical Signifyin(g) in the Gatesian sense, a different picture emerges.
Mookie supplies the second term of this Signification when he returns to Sal's early the next morning to collect his back pay. The night before, Mookie had been an influential practitioner in the discursive realm of "blackness" as represented by Buggin Out. The word he screamed just before he released the trash can - "HATE!" - seemed a declaration of his rhetorical situation, and the act itself seemed to declare his exile from the ethos of free enterprise. His subsequent return to the burned-out pizzeria, however, reinscribes him as homo rhetoricus Africanus, and constitutes a re-engagement with the "white" discursive realm.
Mookie's revisitation of American capitalism should not surprise us. Throughout the film we witness Mookie's attempts to reconcile the socio-political demands of "blackness" with the financial demands of life in a racist, capitalist democracy. James Weldon Johnson's "ex-coloured" hero succinctly defines this tension: "Since I was not going to be a Negro, I would avail myself of every possible opportunity to make a white man's success; and that, if it can be summed up in any one word, means 'money' "(193). Always the entrepreneur, Mookie negotiates this binarism which, as Johnson demonstrates, would construe "blackness" and "success" as mutually exclusive properties. Just as Mookie incisively defends his "blackness" when it is assaulted in the workplace by the boss's son, so does he defend his drive to "make that money, get paid" when Buggin Out tells him about the boycott: "You're wastin my time. You should leave that shit alone," Mookie tells him.
And Mookie's acceptance of the economic realities of capitalist culture mirrors that espoused by his author:
Am I a capitalist? [Pause.] We all are over here. And I'm just trying to get the power to do what I have to do. To get that power you have to accumulate some type of bank. And that's what I've done. I've always tried to be in an entrepreneurial mode of thinking. Ownership is what's needed amongst Afro-Americans. Ownership. Own stuff. (Breskin 188)
Even the name of Lee's production company, Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks - an allusion to a still-born legislative proposal after the Civil War to give land and the means to cultivate it to each freed slave - acknowledges, however reluctantly (note the "pause" in Lee's assertion), the free-enterprise economy as that medium of empowerment most pragmatically instrumental to African-American culture.
Appropriately, the morning-after completion of Mookie's "double-voiced" act of radical Signification itself takes the form of a Signifyin(g) exchange - a transaction between two entrepreneurs, the "currency" of which is both verbal and material. In a boldly oxymoronic request, considering his destructive repudiation of Sal's colonizing presence in the neighborhood the night before, Mookie asks his now former employer for his week's back pay, $250. In a gesture equally oxymoronic for its own reasons, Sal gives Mookie the $250 and $250 more, a kind of ironic severance pay. Rather than hand the bills over, however, he wads them up and fires them one by one into Mookie's face. It is a Signifyin(g) action, duplex in both execution and implication, at once both insult and gift, an indictment of perceived hypocrisy and a reward for loyal service. Mookie's response completes the Signifyin(g) transaction; he throws two of the c-notes back in Sal's face, and says, "I owe you fifty bucks." Mookie's keeping the $250 he is owed, as well as the extra fifty, tells us he feels justified, despite his having given in to "HATE!" the night before, in claiming what he's earned. Yet his unceremonious return of the extra $200 partakes of the same paradox as Sal's unceremonious offering of it, constituting both an expression of outraged integrity and an admission of responsibility and regret. The "stalemate" (Lee 91) that follows as both Sal and Mookie stare at the $200 lying unclaimed on the sidewalk is evidence of the conflicted ethical situations of both characters; Mookie's eventually snatching it up is, in the best Signifyin(g) tradition, both gracious and self-interested.
Through the symbolic "double operation" of Mookie's radical practice, Do the Right Thing accomplishes precisely what Gates has identified as the crucial emancipation offered by the Signifyin(g) imagination: the deconstruction of the binarisms culturally inscribed by the received, repeated trope of "double-consciousness" (238). Ironically, it is through his "entrepreneurial mode of thinking" - his Signifyin(g) defiance of the ideological polarities that lay claim to him - that Mookie avoids the "entrepreneurial" dilemma of the African-American subject as we have understood Du Bois to have delineated it: "the waste of double aims . . . seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals" (5). As protagonist, Mookie offers a model not for the integral, stable resolution of "the peculiar ethical paradox . . . the double life every American Negro must live," but for the refusal to abide by the schizophrenic cultural logic of which that condition is a profoundly debilitating effect. This refusal, in its alternately playful yet deadly serious eschewal of the notion of a unitary subjective identity, places in suspension the coercive semiotic structures and the otherwise ineluctable devices of a racist symbolic order, and gives the postmodern African-American subject room to move within it.
In light of the film's Signifyin(g) contestation of the idea of an essential "blackness," hooks's charges that the film "denies the problematical nature of identity" and "offers a simplistic view" of race seem inaccurate. On the contrary, Do the Right Thing rises to the challenge of Cornell West's call for postmodern African-American cultural productions which "deconstruct earlier modern Black strategies of identity-formation . . . and construct more multivalent and multi-dimensional responses that articulate the complexity and diversity of Black practices in the modern and postmodern world" (74). The film's problematization of the "King"/"X" dualism releases the African-American subject into just such "multi-valent" and "multi-dimensional" modes of responsivity regarding these meta-narratives of morally intelligent liberation. And the film's interrogation of consensus regarding "right thing"/wrong thing delivers to the politically marginalized an experience of that binarism's arbitrary and constructed quality. Despite its semiotic power, this denaturalization neither promotes moral chaos nor renders the figure "justice" morally indeterminate. Rather, by suggesting what Lyotard has called "an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus" (37), the film helps to free "justice" from the violence of its designated confinement within terms forged by a racist symbolic ascendancy and, like Baker's blues, helps to make "justice" available to the "polyvalent interpretations" which proliferate beyond dialectic. Thus, Do the Right Thing's elucidation of the culture of ambiguity, and the internally dialogic subject which negotiates that culture, represents an elegant erasure of the logic of "twoness" in all of its ideological formations.
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Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevski's Poetics Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
Breskin, David. Inner Views. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992.
Brunette, Peter, and David Wills Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.
Christensen, Jerome. "Spike Lee, Corporate Populist." Critical Inquiry 17 (Spring 1991): 582-95.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: McClurg, 1903.
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Friedman, Lester D. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
George, Nelson. "Do the Right Thing: Film and Fury." Five for Five: The Films of Spike Lee. Ed. Spike Lee. New York: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1991.77-81.
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hooks, bell. Outlaw Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
-----. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End P, 1990.
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Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. 1912. New York: Knopf, 1976.
Lee, Spike. Do the Right Thing [Screenplay: Second Draft]. Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 1988. WGA #45816.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. "The Postmodern Condition." Seidman 27-38.
Mitchell, W. J. T. "Seeing Do the Right Thing." Critical Inquiry 17 (Spring 1991): 596-608.
-----. "The Violence of Public Art: Do the Right Thing." Critical Inquiry 16 (Summer 1990): 880-99.
Reid, Mark A. Redefining Black Film. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
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James C. McKelly, whose work in twentieth-century American cultural studies has appeared in numerous journals, teaches at Auburn University. He is currently engaged in a book-length project on African American cinema at the end of the century, of which this article is the keynote chapter.
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|Title Annotation:||film by director Spike Lee|
|Author:||McKelly, James C.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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