Escalation (and De-Escalation) in Do the Right Thing

The idea of escalating conflicts is explored throughout Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee) as the day escalates in temperature. Buggin’ Out’s initial dispute with Sal (at least literally) starts with a half-dollar argument over how much cheese he gets on his slice of pizza. It then grows into an argument over Black representation in Sal’s Wall of Fame, and further into an argument over Sal’s treatment of the neighborhood and the ownership of his space. Both Sal and Buggin’ believe at each step to be simply responding in kind to the other’s actions, but are in fact taking steps to worsen their conflict. Buggin’s criticism of Sal’s wall in a different context (e.g. after ordering a slice and not arguing over price and value of that slice) would be taken in a completely different manner. Sal seemingly can’t help but take his criticism as a continuation of their argument over pizza and aggressively tells him to leave instead of staying and causing trouble. This escalation continues until Mookie takes Buggin’ out of the store. Neither aggrieved party is willing to de-escalate the situation, and an outside actor in Mookie has to step in to calm things down.

We see similar situations of escalation throughout the film (Radio and the store owners, Mayor and the store owners, Sal’s sons, Mookie and his sister, and of course in Radio and Sal’s confrontation at the end). In all of these cases (maybe not the brothers’). For these situations, neither person/group is necessarily, completely in the wrong (even the police were shown earlier in the film not to “have it out” for the people in Bedsty, though their treatment of Radio Raheem shows racist tendencies). These morally grey situations seem to leave little hope – if neither party is wrong, how can we prevent situations from arising? However, Lee does depict some scenes of de-escalation.

When Buggin’s shoes get scuffed by the biker, the outside parties actually step in and deliberately raise the tension. The biker escalates the situation by being rude to Buggin’s instead of apologizing. Buggin’ has to choose to calm himself down and take no action, rather than escalating the situation further.
We  see Mother Sister and Da Mayor reconcile after years of hostility through Mayor’s gift of flowers, and Mother Sister’s recognition of Da Mayor’s positive qualities.Other resolutions: Mookie and Tina make up, the Korean store owners avoid damage at the hand of the neighborhood, even Sal and Mookie have some kind of resolution at the end in front of a mural showing The American, Jamaican, and Puerto-Rican flags all sandwiched together. In a sense, even the neighborhood’s burning of Sal’s pizza is a de-escalation relative to the loss of a human life.

This write-up was very muddy, but it is a complex topic and my own thoughts and feelings on it aren’t completely settled. I think the most important take way from Lee is that viewing conflicts like these (especially in the context of racially based conflicts) as tit-for-tat is not productive and is missing the heart of the issue. This is especially relevant today, as conversations about violence against Black people get locked into looking at the specific circumstances of these events and not on the larger issues that enable this brand of violence to occur.

1 comment
  1. Escalation definitely seems to be a central characteristic throughout the film, and it’s crucial to capturing the true intensity of the conflicts that occurred throughout the day, especially since the film also employs elements of a comedy. It’s important to note that these escalations in intensity of conflicts are portrayed while attempting to display both sides of the conflict equally. Although we understand the large crowd’s rage, we also understand why Sal had his sudden outburst. All of this leads to us addressing important moral questions without clear answers. Like you mentioned, if neither party is wrong, who is to blame?

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