So why does Mookie throw the garbage can through the window? It’s not Sal’s fault that Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem is dead. Trashing Sal’s is by no means productive. The anger should have been directed at the long gone police not at Sal. I think that many white Americans can understand the emotions behind the riot, they just do not understand why it is Mookie, significantly played by Lee, who starts the riot. Is Spike Lee saying that he believes this was the right thing to do in this situation? Out of context this is a valid opinion, but given the movie as a whole, it is Lee’s point that the tragedy of the movie is that Mookie, given the attitudes of the majority of the film’s characters had no choice but to throw that garbage can through the window.
Mookie should not be viewed as the moral center of the movie. He is almost literally used as a human rope in the race relation tug of war. Just about every character implores and demands that he choose between black and white, love and hate. Neither side of the racial war is willing to compromise. These characters are mostly intolerant, and Mookie is in the unfortunate predicament of attempting to walk a high wire down the middle as he is pulled at by both sides. The true message of “Do The Right Thing” is that no one wins when people choose to believe that they have the only valid opinion. No matter who was successful in pulling Mookie from the other side he was still going to fall off the rope. Lee believes that right thing to do is to be hard working, loving and tolerant, and the examples are in every frame of the movie.
Let’s look at Mookie as a character. He is consistently caught between his race and his job. The conflict is exemplified by the two jerseys that Mookie wears during the course of the movie. As noted above, Mookie sports a replica of Jackie Robinson’s original Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, homage to the black hero and the black area where the film takes place. After taking a midday shower, he changes into a Sal’s Pizzeria jersey. He is clearly trying to balance his racial pride with his need to “get paid, make that money.” The rest of the movie can be seen as a contest for Mookie’s support.
Start with the martyred Radio Raheem. He is treated both as a religious figure and as an example of the worst case scenario for a black youth gone wrong. He is the largest and strongest African American figure in the movie. This power is expressed by his radio, which is the essence of his identity. He plays one Public Enemy tape incessantly because it is all that he likes and plays it so loud that there is no way to coexist with him without liking his music. He is like a lot of flawed people in the world, who feel that their overwhelming loyalty to their friends is enough reason to ignore their hatred and ill will towards everyone else.
Raheem’s first major appearance with Mookie is very telling. Spike’s homage to Robert Mitchum’s tainted preacher in “Night of the Hunter” both illustrates Raheem’s nature and criticizes young black men, by substituting Mitchum’s tattooed hands for Raheem’s Gold LOVE and HATE version of brass knuckles. It is to Lee’s credit that he is able to enjoy with the creativity of the language and style of Raheem and other misguided characters at the same time he stridently opposes the damning cliche that is the boom box carrying ghetto youth wasting his money and time acquiring gold jewelry while he desperately tries to affirm his manhood and equality with loud and blind bravado. As Sal says, “these are good people” albeit one’s whose potential has been misdirected for many reasons. The movie fails to conclusively answer why these lives have gone wrong, but it argues that it is nonetheless necessary to “wake up” to them.
Raheem’s version of Mitchum’s Cain and Abel narrative of love and hate is in this version cloaked in boxing terms, which hark back to the boxing attire Rosie Perez wears while dancing to the only song Raheem likes PE’s Fight the Power. This boxing image foreshadows the agony of the violent end of these attitudes and is climaxed by the bloody pictures of black and Italian fighters which are shown from Sal’s Wall of Fame as Raheem lies dead and Sal’s burns to the ground.
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