The Semiotics of Race and Power in the Spike Lee Film, Do The Right Thing

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The use of symbolism and iconography in Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing (1989) serve as an indicator (use diff word) of racial divides in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy and the power divide (use another word?) between racial groups. My goal is to show how Spike Lee uses a boombox and the song, Fight the Power” by Public Enemy and the wall of fame in Sal’s Famous Pizzeria as strong metaphors for cultural images.

In this semiotic analysis, I will be discussing how certain symbols of race in the film, denote the powers that have over each other or lack thereof. Radio Raheem’s character always carries around a boombox that plays the song, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. This portrays his character to be a proud black man and resist the power of dominance. His character is a quintessential representation of police brutality against the black community. In the scene where Radio Raheem was ordering pizza (00:51:57) and Sal would not serve him because he was blasting music from his boombox. As the song, “Fight the Power” was playing, it was fitting to the scene because, Radio Raheem was not causing any harm or bothering anyone. Due to Sal’s social authority because of his skin color, he thinks he can deny Radio Raheem because of his intolerance. When Sal asks Raheem to turn off his music, Raheem’s way of fighting the power is to not denounce who is as a black man and for him that was his song and the boom box. In more recent times, Radio Raheem’s character is still so apparent to police brutality today. With social media, the general public are now more exposed and aware of the racial injustices that have been occuring in communities like Bed-Stuy in the late 80’s faced.

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The next example of semiotics is the love and hate knuckle rings. The metaphor behind Radio Raheem’s knuckle rings say that love and hate are always at conflict, but love still prevails. As Radio Raheem is explaining his speech on Love and Hate to Mookie (00:50:21), the camera is focused on a close up of Raheem and slights pans out to put emphasize on his rings and their significance. As director, Spike Lee uses a close up of Raheem’s face and hands, this camera angle helps to highlight hidden details, otherwise missed in different angles because he is presented as the neighborhood tough guy.

The element of contrast that Spike Lee shows in his characters, give the film a reality to the social issues at hand. From the intense camera work that reflect issues like identity and racial oppressions between the different groups in the neighborhood. Jade shows love at 1:04:31, she Buggin Out to not go to through with his boycott and to redirect to energy. Continuing the scene at 1:05:48 when Jade walks into Sal’s, his mood changes and he is not so pent up with anger and frustration. From the beginning when Sal’s son Pino mumbles in Italian at 00:12:10, after the Mayor comes in looking for a quick job. Pino is explicitly race and rude which and continues this tone of of growing racial tensions through the film. These characters help the audience to denote meanings of what love and heat means in the contextual analysis of what it means to portray love and non-violent acts towards to acts of racism and the events that it leads to like, police brutality.

The hall of fame in Sal’s Pizzeria is a wall of famous and successful Italian Americans. To Sal, it is a symbol of pride, but to Buggin Out and other community members, it is a symbol of racism. The wall has no realistic representation of the community it serves. When Buggin Out brings this issue to Sal, he harshly refuses. At 00:19:28, Buggin Out realized that there are not black people on Sal’s wall of fame. It shows cases all Italian Americans but not Blacks, even though he serves this community. Later in the film, after a day of frustration, Radio Raheem and Buggin Out come into Sal’s in protest of the wall, the song, “Fight The Power” is also playing (1:29:42). You can infer that, is setting up the context of the scene to fight against racism and the indirect oppression by Sal’s via his wall of fame. The narrative structure from this scene gives Buggin Out’s character a motivation to rally a boycott against Sal.

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