From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.Romeo and Juliet, Prologue
Racism and racial tension are the undeniable issues at hand in Spike Lee’s seminal feature Do the Right Thing, which culminates in a race riot between Black residents of a Bed-Stuy block and a white business owner in the area. Much has been written on the more blatant displays of these themes, such as police brutality against residents of the block or hostility between non-Black business owners and their Black customers. But what about more subtle interactions which heighten racial tension and eventually lead to the film’s violent climax? A flirtatious exchange between Sal, the Italian-American owner of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, and Jade, a young Black woman and sister to the only Black employee of Sal’s, is one such subtle example.
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in Ethiope’s ear.Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene 5
The Bed-Stuy block which serves as the setting for Do the Right Thing is a veritable hurricane of activity. A cast of characters with larger-than-life personalities, funny names, and signature habits lend the neighbourhood its rich, if eccentric, personality. Jade – sister and sometimes sidekick to protagonist Mookie – is the tranquil eye of this storm. It seems easy to overlook her stability; after all, she is one of few “normal” people in the film. However, Jade’s apparently straightforward character does not make her flat – in fact, it makes her a force in and of herself.
Jade seems to serve as a foil to her older brother; she rarely and briefly takes center stage. One such instance is when she pays a visit to Sal’s: Mookie’s place of employment and the only white-owned business viewers see on the Black residential block. She dresses for the oppressive heat of the day, wearing a pink wide-brimmed hat and a brightly colored sundress. When she enters, it seems as though (almost) the entire establishment breathes a little easier – especially Sal, the restaurant’s white, middle-aged owner.
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate
And in my temper softened valor’s steel.Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene 1
Sal is more than a little hotheaded. He harasses Radio Raheem about his omnipresent boombox and gets into it with Buggin’ Out over the restaurant’s all-white “Wall of Fame”. He keeps a baseball bat behind the counter, yells at his sons-slash-employees to complete tasks, and speaks sternly to Mookie about slacking off on the clock.
When Jade enters, Sal’s rough exterior immediately softens. In the screenplay, it says that “a very noticeable change comes over him”. He stands up straight, his voice gets quiet and calm, and he speaks graciously of Mookie as an employee. Sal, who up until this point remained unfazed in the face of the block’s oddities, cannot seem to hide his infatuation – and the entire shop notices.
As Sal talks to Jade (“I’m gonna make you somethin’ special, somethin’ very special”), Mookie and coworker Pino share an exasperated side-eye; it seems that this flirtation is a pattern. Pino, Sal’s violently racist son, has been at odds with Mookie (and every Black character) throughout the film. Here, though, they are united: this little romance violates not only moral, but racial boundaries; it cannot and will not happen.
We eventually see Sal sitting in a booth with Jade, where he compliments her on her eyes. (From the screenplay: “Vito, Pino, and Mookie look on, watching Sal have the time of his life.”) After a while, Mookie grabs Jade and all but drags her outside and around the corner, where he tells his sister that he doesn’t want her in Sal’s anymore. She insists that her interactions with Sal are “completely innocent”, and Mookie responds with “All Sal wants to do is hide the salami.” Much like a Shakespearean play, desire is a point of contention and an exacerbation of existing tension that leads to the climax. In Do the Right Thing, all interactions are racialized; it is only natural that desire is racialized as well.
O me, what fray was here?…Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene 1
White people love to claim that their romantic/sexual desire for or relationship(s) with nonwhite people makes them progressive and anti-racist; however, Sal’s thirst for Jade is an exemplary refutation of this claim. Sal still calls Black people “nigga”, antagonizes Black customers, allows his son to be violently anti-Black, and is friendly with the white cops who aggravate the block’s tensions. Sal, despite being mostly genial, is still unquestionably a racist white man.
Every interaction in the film is portrayed as a splash of gasoline on the neighbourhood’s unrest and therefore as another reason for the eventual race riot. At first glance, the interaction between Sal and Jade seems like a random, relaxed interlude in an otherwise uneasy atmosphere. Upon further study, it becomes clear that this scene is much like the others: a compounding factor in the racialized disquiet of the block.
In media about racial tension, interracial desire is often utilized as a catalyst for racial violence. How is the exchange between Sal and Jade any different? Their flirtation may not have caused the riot that left Radio Raheem dead and Sal’s Famous Pizzeria a burned-out husk, but it certainly did not help the existing tension that manifested itself as uneasiness at best and outright hostility and physical violence at worst. The dalliance between Sal and Jade was a minor scuffle, yes; but it was still part of the larger war.