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The formal dualism of Spike Lee's do the right thing.

In an essay on Kurosawa's High and Low, Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (1) examines the film's "formal dualism". This dualism takes the form primarily of oppositions, the film's titles in both English and Japanese (Heaven and Hell) alerting us to this formal strategy. Yoshimoto notes that a "moral Manichaeaism" is characteristic of melodrama and one can find it as a structural and thematic feature in many genres. (The policier, the gothic, and the western are exemplary).

The privileged realization of duality as a motif is the use of doubles, again exemplified in the genres noted in the opposition of hero and villain in both the policier and the western and between hero and monster in the gothic. However in the complexities of the relationship between the doubles in melodrama (and to qualify Mr. Yoshimoto's reading) we actually find something closer to that of Hegelian dialectics rather than that progress characteristic of Manichaeism. (Although Manichaeism is hardly the only religion whose mythology describes a purifying movement toward a final triumphant separation of good and evil). That is, the movement of the narrative is less toward separation of the opposing forces characteristic of religious myth than toward something akin to synthesis: What gives the relationship of the doubles in progressive texts its profundity is the impossibility at the conclusion of making a moral distinction between the opposing forces. As Yoshimoto insightfully notes of the relationship of doubles in Kurosawa "the boundary between the two is constantly tested, questioned, and problematized."

Spike Lee frequently utilizes doubles in his work, the power struggle between rivals in School Daze and Mo' Better Blues or the contrast between siblings in Jungle Fever and the policier Clockers being exemplary. By far Do the Right Thing (DTRT) illustrates the most extensive use of doubles as a structuring device in Lee. While recognizing that the recognition (or denial) of commonality between doubles is the raison d'etre of the motif I would like to distinguish between two types of doubles used in the film:


1) One type corresponds with the use of the double in High and Low and, as noted, is based upon dialectical oppositions between the double figures, often narrativized as antagonism between 'hero' and 'villain'. In Lee's film this type is closely associated with the characters of Sal (Danny Aiello) and Mookie (Spike Lee). Sal is a storeowner and Mookie his employee. However (it is a mark of the film's greatness) from this relational germ, countless related political oppositions can be theorized: racial (whites vs. blacks); Marxist (ownership/private property/production vs. non-ownership/public space/consumption); psychoanalytic (power vs. impotence); imperialist (colonizer vs. colonized).

2) The other type of double is not defined by difference but obvious similarity. This type of double is extensively used throughout the narrative. The relationship between Mother-Sister (Ruby Dee) and Jade (Joie Lee) is exemplary, the connection between the two all the more obvious for the fact that they are the film's most prominent black women. Both women let living quarters, Jade to her brother Mookie and Mother-Sister (who owns a brownstone) to her tenants. Both women also have contentious relationships with a man.

Mookie and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) respectively. Significantly, Mother-Sister tells Jade that Da Mayor, one of several doubles for Mookie in the film, reminds her of her least favorite people, her ex-husband and her tenants. This provides an additional parallel between the two characters for not only is Mookie Jade's 'tenant', Lee characterizes their relationship throughout (primarily through Mookie's sexual possessiveness) as that of lovers rather than siblings. The very name "Mother-Sister" makes the point of the character's symbolic relationship to Jade deriving as it does from both her status as neighborhood matriarch as well as her sharing significant traits with Mookie's sister.

The film's formal dualism is further developed through the critical relationship Lee establishes between the two types of doubles: The central conflict between Mookie and Sal finds symbolic expression in relation to their symbiotic doubles. The film's subsidiary characters, although fully realized within the narrative, also function symbolically in relation to the central conflict as alter egos, projections of personality traits or potentialities within both Sal and Mookie.

These alter egos divide very simply by race. The scene where a white motorist (Frank Vincent) tries to traverse a street where youths of color have opened a fire hydrant exemplifies this formal strategy, the whites present sharing common traits with Sal. The driver, whose car is ruined, drives a vintage car, as does Sal. Clearly a vaunted object (to prevent damage to the car he elicits a promise from the youths to stop the flow of water until he passes), his obsession with his car suggests something of Sal's obsession with his pizzeria. A parallel relationship between the two men is even more strongly suggested as each man hubristically puts his treasured possession at risk, the driver by not backing up and taking an alternate route and Sal by stubbornly refusing to relocate, a decision repeatedly questioned throughout the film. The flooding of the car anticipates the destruction of the pizzeria.

The white policeman who turns off the hydrant (Rick Aiello) is also Sal's double, his function as double underlined by the fact that he is portrayed by Danny Aiello's real-life son. In his hubris he is a brutal exaggeration of Sal, specifically in his confidence that he is in control of the populace with which he interacts. For example, his suppression of the energy represented by the community's spontaneous play outdoors parallels Sal's suppression of energies indoors, within the pizzeria ("No music, no rap, no music!"). Compare additionally how Sal threatens to "kick ass" when Pino (John Turturro) and Mookie argue, as if their aggression were a threat to his personal authority. Similarly, the policeman warns the members of the community that they will "have to answer to me" if the hydrant is again switched on. As an expression of Sal's personality, the cop represents that aspect that relies upon brute strength and physical power (note Sal's reliance upon his baseball bat to establish control). Their relationship as doubles is confirmed at the conclusion when the cop kills Radio Raheem after Raheem overpowers Sal.

Throughout the narrative Sal's sons, Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino, also function as alter egos, Vito representing his liberal, tolerant side, the vociferous Pino, his dictatorial and potentially racist side. Significantly during the course of the film we see Pino hovering behind his father, encouraging and influencing him, recalling another cultural embodiment of the double, the mythical doppelganger.





The black characters associated with Mookie also share personality traits with him but the emphasis is more on the potentialities they represent. Lee emphasizes this reading of Mookie by his use of a journey motif: Although he never journeys beyond the perimeters of his neighborhood, like a character in a fairy tale or myth, he encounters various symbolic characters along his route, each representing a possible political choice. Three characters stand out in particular, each offering Mookie advice during the day. (I will return to a fourth character later). Mother-Sister (who, because of the heat, advises Mookie not to work too hard) is a double not only for Mookie's sister but Mookie himself. Observing the world from the same settled position daily, she represents Mookie's desire to remain politically neutral, to allow things to happen. (In the Sal/Buggin' Out encounter, Mookie remains an observer until the point where he is forced to become involved). Mother-Sister also represents the possibility of a permanent withdrawal from life's conflicts: As she herself notes "Mother-Sister always watches".

In his fecklessness (he is inebriated much of the time) and compliance with the white status quo, Da Mayor (who advises Mookie enigmatically to "do the right thing") is clearly meant to recall traditional cultural images of black men, a point emphasized by his encounters with Mother-Sister, which suggest the comic stereotype (from Whale's Showboat to Sanford and Son) of combative black male/female relationships. His willingness to take on menial labor for meager compensation (when Pino orders Mookie to sweep the pizzeria, it is Da Mayor who eventually takes on the task) grotesquely projects Mookie's delivery-boy job into a bleak future. When neighborhood teens accuse him of being a corruptive influence within the neighborhood, in defending himself Da Mayor refers to a family he possibly abandoned in the past. This provides an additional parallel to Mookie, who similarly neglects his girlfriend Tina and their son Hector.

Finally, Buggin' Out (who advises Mookie to "stay black") is a comic exaggeration of Mookie's spirit of political protest. (Mookie not only challenges Pino on his racism, but he twice defends Da Mayor from oppressors). Buggin' Out represents a final, angry withdrawal into a confrontational stance. It is also he, however, who realizes the necessity to take political action (or "fight the power"), a position that Mookie and the community align themselves to only after Raheem's death.

(One might remark, in passing, that such doubling might provide an explanation for the odd little street scene when the child, Eddy, is scolded by his mother. Although clearly reflecting Lee's notorious bias toward women, the scene is somewhat redeemed by relating the woman to the film's other belligerent young mother, Tina/Rosie Perez, who along with Mookie's son Hector, is seen here for the first and last time outside of her apartment. As the woman explicitly denies the child's father interference in her child rearing, she possibly represents for Lee a dark potentiality in Tina and thus Mookie's potential exclusion from Hector's life. The castrating mother is a familiar feature in Lee).

The division of alter egos by race is not entirely strict. Lee achieves decided ironic effects by exposing similarities between characters that cut across racial lines. For instance, those between Mookie and his rival, Pino, are very striking. As employees of Sal's Famous both are frustrated and repressed, theft complaints always conveniently redirected by Sal into work. (This helps to underline the impression given of Mookie as a potential third son within the family business). Even more striking is each man's attachment to his younger sibling, both Mookie's feelings for Jade and Pino's for Vito suggesting incestuous desire. Lee also exposes similarities between Sal and both Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem. Sal's comment to Mookie about freedom ("What freedom? This is my pizzeria!") is very closely echoed by Buggin' Out (whom Sal has just expelled from the pizzeria) as each lays claim to the pizzeria, Sal as private property and Buggin' Out as public space. (An opposition discussed in W.J.T. Mitchell's fine essay "The Violence of Public Art"). (2) Similarly, in the Sal/Radio Raheem confrontation over the pizza counter, each man encounters his distorted mirror image as each impassively asserts his power.

As noted, DTRT's basic narrative opposition between employer and employee can be approached from a variety of social and political theoretical positions but the psychoanalytic seems to me the most resonant. This is because all social dynamics, whether those of class, race, patriarchal gender, etc. have a personal psychological component or purchase. It is for this reason that I will continue to discuss the film in terms of an opposition between power and impotence: The politics of castration are probably the most resonant within the film.

This theme is established in the music of the opening credits, Public Enemy's Fight the Power (to which the film's most vocal yet socially and economically impotent character dances, single mother Tina), music also heard throughout on Radio Raheem's stereo. It is there in the film's climactic moments when the community confronts a convenient symbol of white racial and capitalist power, Sal's pizzeria. It is the underlying premise behind Mookie's insistence on "getting paid" (as he tells Jade), his only compensation for a job that is physically wearing, as well as occasionally demeaning and humiliating. But if the politics of castration color all patriarchal social relations, its relevance to relations based upon exchange and consumption are of particular interest to Lee, his situating much of the action in a place of business (where the dynamics of exchange are constantly present) making this clear.

W.J.T. Mitchell notes the importance of economic participation or ownership as prerequisite to full social participation under capitalism. One can hardly ignore the reification of objects operating within the narrative. However, if "commodity fetishism" is an appropriate description of the overvaluation of a car or a pair of sneakers in the film, it will hardly suffice as a description of the emotional meaning of Sal's pizzeria or Raheem's radio. Part of the pizzeria's importance to Sal is that it is a family business and also that it allows him a unique social presence within a minority community; Raheem's radio not only 'broadcasts' a political message but its sonic power suggests a direct communication from the psyche, specifically the id. Therefore, while recognizing the importance of the commodity aspect of object worship in the film, one must not ignore its fetishistic aspect. As detailed by Freud ("Fetishism", 1927) two characteristics of fetishism are particularly relevant to the film: 1) The association of the fetish with castration fears and 2) the possessor's personal over-investment of the fetish with compensatory value. (A third characteristic component, the association of fetishism with the male psyche is also relevant. Note that Mother-Sister also owns property, a brownstone, but does not relate to it as fetish. Significantly, once Lee establishes the fact of ownership in relation to the female character, he proceeds thereafter to ignore it. As in almost all Lee, the interpersonal dynamics in DTRT are primarily masculine).

With this in mind the film's realization of fetishism encompasses not only commodities but also (for example) the voice and the ability to insult (i.e. play 'the dozens') for Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris), his very name announcing a phallocentric nature. (In terms of the voice-as-phallus, compare also Rosie Perez's incarnation of Tina). There is also the law and what is made of it by its individual representatives. (Recall the fire hydrant scene). For Radio Raheem it is his stereo, his gratuitous displays of its sonic power making clear its psychic relevance. For Sal it's obviously his pizzeria, his overvaluation of it as object visually symbolized at its introduction as a fortress, behind locks and a metal gate.

But behind the pizzeria are the film's most consistently powerful fetishes, money and capital. In terms of the realities of capitalism, this is entirely logical. The perceived power of all the film's other fetish objects, (stereo, car, pizzeria, the law) is eventually subverted by outside forces, all except money. (At the conclusion, Mookie reminds Sal that insurance money will compensate his financial, if not his emotional, loss). Thus, the only time prior to the riot that we see Sal outside the pizzeria (after Pino has abused Smiley/Roger Guenveur Smith) he is brandishing cash in an attempt to placate the members of the community.

There is a certain irony to the film's association of Sal and money for he nowhere expresses a desire for money itself. Its necessity is only expressed below the surface in the unconscious and unrecognized (either by Sal or the community) continuous cycle of empowerment (for Sal) and disempowerment (for the community) embodied in the exchange of cash for pizza that is the pizzeria's business. Both this quotidian social amnesia as well as the politics of castration that characterize business transactions are relevant to the film's first encounter between Radio Raheeem and Sal where they volley for power, each respectively expressing his potency (like the incessant one-upmanship between campus rivals in Lee's School Daze). Raheem enters the parlor expressing power sonically, stereo blasting. Sal refuses him service unless the music is discontinued, an act that efficiently neutralizes Raheem's power. In an attempt at psychic compensation, Raheem rudely demands extra cheese on his pizza, which not only foregrounds the servile component of Sal's position but essentially attempts to rob Sal of 'capital'. However, Sal, as storeowner, holds the ultimate trump card: He returns with his habitual "Two dollars for extra cheese" a demand for more money that further robs Raheem of potency.

It is this aspect of the pizzeria that distinguishes it from all of the film's other fetishes: it is not only private property, it generates capital. As an embodiment of the capitalist ethos it grants Sal, more than any other character, the rights of full citizenship. As private property owner and vendor, Sal has the power to refuse service to potential customers as he threatens to do with both Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem. His position as employer also grants him limited control over the lives of his employees. The pizzeria functions as his personal fiefdom. ("What freedom? This is my pizzeria!") And although the film has been doubtless viewed by more workers than owners, social conditioning has made this a notoriously difficult proposition for audiences to challenge.

If repressed psychic energy characterizes relationships built upon exchange, repression is also characteristic of other social relations. Racism is a major concern within the narrative. Lee offers the viewer no explanation for racism, although he connects it to other concerns such as the inequities of capitalism. He makes it abundantly clear, however, that it is part of the American social landscape and all are prone to it, even oppressed minorities. Herein lies the significance of the scene in which characters of various ethnic backgrounds express their bigotry directly to the camera. It is (for the audience) a demonstration of the problem, but it is also, for the characters, on some level, a release. Significantly, Sal does not appear here. I would propose that Sal represses his racism under a cloak of liberal paternalism (an attitude that also blinds him to his sexual attraction to Jade). This attitude is made possible by the controlled environment of the pizzeria. His repressed racism only surfaces when that control is threatened by outside forces, as with the eruption into the pizzeria of Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem at the film's climax.

With Mookie, repression derives from the employee/ employer relationship and I will return at this time to the double motif. The generally negative aspects of his job inspire occasional protests from Mookie, protests that are either ignored or deflected back into work by Sal. This in turn results in the less direct and essentially ineffective protest of his extended, unscheduled work breaks (the midday shower, the visit to Tina's).

Lee, however, hints at a deep rage within Mookie, beyond what these minor protests would suggest. He does this by drawing on the conventions of a genre to which I earlier referred, whose chief concern is repression, one which characteristically utilizes doubles, alter egos and the figure of the doppelgeinger: the gothic. It is through Mookie that Lee most systematically uses the alter ego to express repressed desire and more so through one character, the one who comes closest to the gothic's monster: Radio Raheem.

Mookie and Raheem are juxtaposed throughout. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that both continually traverse the neighborhood, Mookie on his deliveries, Raheem with no clear purpose, this last fact underlining his function as double. Raheem is like Frankenstein's monster in size, demeanor, physical strength, and inability to communicate verbally. He additionally utilizes the brute force of his stereo: As the monster cut a path through the village community, so too does Raheem with his stereo. But Raheem is ultimately only monster-like and Lee reveals his emotional vulnerability and humanness throughout. His gratuitous displays of sonic force are obviously boosts to a fragile ego. Lee emphasizes this point in Raheem's encounter with the Korean grocers, an encounter that, like his encounter with Sal, is the only time he is forced to rely upon verbal communication. With the potency of his stereo neutralized (the batteries have died) he desperately and cruelly reverts to verbal abuse to express his power just as later, with the destruction of the stereo, he will revert desperately to retaliatory physical violence.

Both the narrative's formal dualism as well as the doubling of Mookie and Raheem is underlined when Raheem and Mookie converse midway through the film. The scene occurs in the middle of the street, Raheem entering from the left, Mookie from the right, their paths almost forming a diagonal across the screen. At the scene's conclusion Mookie (who had just left the pizzeria on a delivery after a failed attempt to get paid before closing), will exit left of screen and Raheem, going in the opposite direction, will enter the pizzeria, radio blasting, symbolical ly expressing the rage Mookie suppresses. Raheem's monologue concerns his philosophy of life and is the equivalent to the advice Mookie receives from his other alter egos. The ideas expressed ("Love conquers hate"), besides recalling Robert Mitchum's monstrous psychopath in Laughton's Night of the Hunter, are just relevant to the film's social concerns (racism, capitalism, aggression, etc.) but are noteworthy for Raheem's oversimplification of the issues: The mystification of complex political issues to a Manichaeistic opposition of 'love' and 'hate' is entirely characteristic of a man who, through his use of force, relies very single-mindedly upon a simplified approach to achieving his goals. It also explains his inability to brook any challenge to his power, his view of the world providing him with limited understanding and no alternate modes of behavior to achieve those goals. The force he represents can only be stopped by a greater force, one which comes, at the film's climax, in the form of the out-of-control cop who kills him, the cop who is also (as noted) Sal's double.

But Raheem is only the embodiment of repressed desire and we should expect to find symptoms of repressed rage in his 'creator', Mookie. Early signs of Mookie's growing frustration are his abruptness in an encounter with Da Mayor (when he advises Mookie to "do the right thing") and later when he loses his temper with Smiley (who ends up in tears). But the turning point occurs when Pino calls him a nigger. It is at this point (immediately after his discussion with Pino) that he asks to be paid his salary, knowing that it is Sal's custom to pay at the day's close. Thus Mookie's fetish is his salary ("I always get paid") and as events become more stressful his desire for compensation becomes more urgent. He is like the werewolf when the full moon rises or the vampire in his need for blood. Making these allusions more apt is the fact that the film's climax (ironically in a film where much is made of the effects of the day's heat) occurs well after the sun has set. The image of Mookie (just before the riot) at the pizzeria door blocking the eruption into the shop of Sal's volatile customers (whom Sal fatefully allows entrance) is also Mookie suppressing a rage that, because he has still not been paid, has not been appeased. That rage comes in the form of the union of Radio Raheem and Buggin' Out (i.e. brute strength and political action). However, with the death of the one and the arrest of the other, Mookie must for the first time take direct action. As if in a daze he makes the deliberate choice to vent his fury, with a cry of "hate" that underlines both the connection to Raheem and the element of personal choice inherent in the action. The minority, mostly black rioters appropriately come to represent the released forces, the sense of chaos perfectly suited to the expression of repressed rage, resulting in the destruction of the one object Mookie has most cause to hate, the pizzeria.

I will conclude with an examination of the political significance of the film's formal dualism. As noted I view this binary system as dialectical in nature, that is, it supports the narrative's move toward the synthesis of or balance between opposing political or moral positions. This refusal to take sides or privilege one political position over another is also characteristic of multi-character narratives (such as Lee's film) where a variety of ideological positions may be represented. If Lee cannot quite achieve the generosity or tolerance for human folly that Renoir achieves in The Rules of the Game, he comes close to achieving a balance between the opposing positions of employer and employee.

The ending repeats the final tableau of School Daze (Lee's preceding film) with the reconciliation of two male rivals but the differences are more significant than the similarities. Where that film ended with the reconciliation in the presence of the entire campus community, the community's presence underlining the significance of the reconciliation to every individual present, here the startling absence of all other characters underlines their symbolic function. It is as if the previous evening's release of repressed desires had made unnecessary the need for alter egos and Sal and Mookie are left alone to directly confront each other and finally resolve their conflict. The comedy of their respective refusals to claim the cash they had earlier hurled bitterly at one another points to their underlying mutual affection and affinity, feelings that the inequities of race and class in America only served to complicate and they are given the chance for growth and change.

For Sal this growth is ironically linked to the destruction of the pizzeria, the one barrier that separated him from the minority community. The resolution of his relationship with Mookie has implications beyond the personal: Through his acceptance of a side of Mookie that he may never understand (or control) he accepts the autonomy of the racial 'other'. For Mookie there is no obvious sign of change: He is still demanding his pay as he had the day before. But whereas his previous demands were predicated by his need to compensate for his powerless position within the pizzeria his motivation is now more ambiguous. He is going to see his son, which can imply that his interests have developed beyond self-gratification.

Lee provides neither with easy salvation. For Sal the possibility remains, should the pizzeria reopen, of falling back into old patterns, the pizzeria re-established as a barrier between him and the community. For Mookie, the future seems even dimmer, the possibility for growth even more tenuous. His 'growth' associated as it is with the concept of family is qualified by Lee's pessimistic presentation of families throughout, all the families to which we are introduced (Mookie and Jade, Sal and sons, Tina and her mother) being characterized by unhappiness, conflict and the unsatisfactory economic dependence of one member upon another. This negative view extends to the family's latest incarnation: The charming picture of Mookie, Tina and son asleep is shattered, the moment they awaken, by bickering.

If the film's constant musical theme is Fight the Power, the ending confirms that it is only to balance that power, to find some sort of equity between opposing elements. The Sal/Mookie resolution supremely affirms this: Sal's financial loss (and corresponding growth in knowledge) is balanced by Mookie's newfound strength and maturity (and corresponding loss of regular income). A sense of equity is reflected in the tentatively achieved balance of other opposing elements in the film. Beginning with the music of the opening credits, (Lift Every Voice and Sing vs. Fight the Power) the theme is taken up in the film in the opposition of black and white races, man and woman (the long Mother-Sister/Da Mayor feud) and even fire and water (the riot). The film's final image is the photograph of Martin Luther King shaking hands with Malcolm X (passive resistance vs. self-defense), the film's poignant symbol of resolution and harmony. I don't think this balance is at all undermined by a view of the film as documenting a shift of power from one race to another. One might note such moments as the Mookie/Pino discussion of civilization where the bigoted Pino, backed by a picture of ancient ruins, can be seen as one culture's current and perhaps final product. The riot itself presents the minority neighborhood taking power and its final image, as the flames die, is of a photo of two black American icons being hung on a wall, replacing those of Italian American personalities. The symbolic function of money as potency plays its part here specifically in the image, during the destruction of the pizzeria, of hands grasping coins from the cash register, taken up later when Mookie snatches the excess cash from the ground. The final image of a triumphant Mookie strolling determinedly into an undetermined future is a fitting conclusion.


(1.) Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, "High and Low", Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press, 2000, pp. 303-33

(2.) W.J.T. Mitchell, "The Violence of Public Art: Do the Right Thing", Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, Chicago University Press, 1995.
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Title Annotation:ROBIN WOOD Dossier
Author:Lightning, Robert K.
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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