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British Association for American Studies


Issue 13, Autumn 2008: Article 4


Issue 13, Autumn 2008: Article 4

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 13, Autumn 2008

Inter-ethnic Encounters in Late-Twentieth Century Urban America: Portrayals of Italian American Ethnicity in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing

Francesca De Lucia
© Francesca De Lucia. All Rights Reserved

The aim of this article is to investigate how Spike Lee, as an African American film director, interprets the evolution of Italian Americans as an ethnic group in the late twentieth century, a group that holds an ambivalent status in the racial hierarchy of the United States, having been historically considered an inferior ‘brand’ of whiteness in the past but presently being absorbed into a broader white mainstream. In particular, Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) (and his subsequent Jungle Fever (1991)) focuses not only on the racial aspect of modern Italian American identity, but also on a portrayal of the decadence of the key Italian American values in a world removed from immigrant origins. I will place a particular emphasis on Lee’s representation of Italian American discourses of race, as well as on the way in which Italian American characters interact with African Americans. Indeed, Lee emphasizes not only the theme of interethnic conflict, placing in the background of Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever two notorious hate crimes of the late 1980s (which will be subsequently described in more depth), but also more ambivalent and potentially more positive exchanges. The key element emerging from Lee’s representation of late twentieth-century Italian American identity is a sense of continuity in between Italian American and African American communities. This is rooted in a common experience of marginality in impoverished inner city neighbourhoods as well as in echoes of cultural similarities, which are also based on a geographic and historical link between Southern Italy and certain parts of Africa.

While Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever were generally praised by critics, Lee’ African American and Italian American detractors have claimed that Lee portrays their respective groups in very reductive or derogatory terms. Hence, for instance, Amiri Baraka argues that Do the Right Thing depicts unilateral black characters and trivializes the racial violence that prompted vicious hate crimes in the 1980s, such as the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst murders ( Interestingly, Baraka ignores the Italian American identity of the Frangioni family, considering them as part of a dominant white bourgeoisie). On the other hand, the Italian American academic Angelo Mazzocco has sharply attacked the treatment of characters of Italian descent in Jungle Fever as being composed of a string of negative stereotypes that contrast with an idealized view of African Americans. Both these interpretations appear flawed, however, since Baraka misreads the ambivalent white identity of the Frangioni family and Mazzocco neglects to observe that, while the black characters of Jungle Fever are indeed more established and productive than the Italian American ones, they are often portrayed in a rather harsh light, as shallow and hypocritical individuals. As will be subsequently elaborated, ethnic stereotypes of various forms are indeed brought up in Lee’s films, but they underpin a deeper discourse on interethnic relationships, whether based on clashing or more harmonious interaction. It is significant for various reasons that, in both Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, the Caucasian characters staged by Lee are of Italian descent; not only because Italian Americans have held a peculiar position within the racial hierarchy of the United States, as becomes evident through a brief analysis of their history, but also because as a group they have interacted and often clashed with blacks while cohabiting in the same inner-city neighbourhoods. In fact, as a prominent and successful black director, Lee has been identified as a ‘cultural mulatto’ by Trey Ellis and James C. McKelly. Ellis defines this category as consisting of African American individuals who have grown and have been educated in predominantly white social environments. Ellis observes that:

Just as a genetic mulatto is a black person of mixed parents who can often get along fine with his white grandparents, a cultural mulatto, educated by a multi-racial mix of cultures, can also navigate easily in the white world…[Cultural mulattoes] no longer need to deny or suppress any part of our complicated and sometimes contradictory cultural baggage to please either white people or black.[1]

This situation is reflected in much of Lee’s work that deals with interracial relations. It is relevant to observe that Lee grew up in a predominantly Italian American neighbourhood of Brooklyn, which is one of the various factors that might have prompted him to focus on members of this specific group as a foil for his African American characters.

I will focus on Do the Right Thing, which offers a more complex treatment of relations between African Americans and Italian Americans than Jungle Fever. In order to analyze Italian American ethnicity in Do the Right Thing, I will borrow from the definition of contemporary ethnicity established by Michael Fischer, according to whom ethnicity is not transmitted mechanically from one generation to the other, but rather, that is fluid and that can take various different forms, being re-elaborated through time. He also points out that ethnicity is closely linked to memory, and therefore can re-emerge in uncontrolled and sometimes startling ways. Hence Fischer writes that:

[E]thinicity is something reinvented and reinterpreted in each generation by each individual and that it is often something quite puzzling to the individual, something over which he or she lacks control. Ethnicity is not something that is simply passed on from on from generation to generation, taught and learned, it is something dynamic, often unsuccessfully repressed or avoided.[2]

In this context, Do the Right Thing presents disparate aspects of Italian American identity by evoking characters of Italian descent belonging to different generations. Lee’s Italian American characters struggle to find a position in America’s increasingly hybrid society. As they distance themselves from immigrant origins, and come into contact with less-established coloured groups, they create new versions of the ethnic self. As I will subsequently discuss in greater detail, in Do the Right Thing Italian American ethnicity is expressed in multiple different ways by the triad of male characters constituting the Frangioni family. Moreover, the possibility of the development of a new form of ethnicity bridging Italian American and African American cultures is suggested by the somewhat symmetrical figures of Pino (John Turturro) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), being eventually unrealized because of these two characters’ aggression and lack of expressive means.

Before elaborating a close analysis of Do the Right Thing I will presently go on to determine the historical and cultural background of this film describing the evolution of Italian American ethnicity and the development of the interaction between Italian and African American communities.

The Racial Shift in Italian American History

When Italians first began to settle in the United States in the context of the mass migration from Eastern and Southern Europe that took place between 1880 and 1920, they were one of the groups to undergo the harshest forms of discrimination. Indeed, they were labelled as being unassimilable, lazy and crime-prone and, within the social Darwinist trend of the early twentieth century, their whiteness was put into question, as they were considered inferior to groups of Northern European descent. As observed by Salvatore LaGumina:

An examination of anti-Italianism in American history is instructive because it reveals that Italian in America were subject to some of the most scurrilous campaigns ever directed against any immigrant group…Italians earned a low score of acceptability, not only when compared to immigrants from North western Europe, but even when evaluated against other latecomers of the post-Civil War migration.[3]

However, at the same time, it is significant to observe that Italian immigrants were considered not so much as non-white, but as belonging to an inferior brand of whites, which put them in a favoured position in comparison to that of groups of non-European descent and in particular African Americans. Moreover, the perception of race in the United States would alter progressively with the outbreak of the Second World War. Discrimination against white ethnics became less acceptable as Americans wished to distance themselves from the ideology of Nazi Germany. Furthermore, the outbreak of conflict also favoured a stronger cohesion within American society in the context of a joint and uniform war effort. Military service and work in industrial war plants also led to uprooting from immigrant ghettoes and to intermingling of individuals of disparate backgrounds. In the specific case of Italian Americans, implication in a conflict against Fascist Italy also meant a stronger identification with the United States. More generally, the Second World War also marked the shift to a conflict between whites and blacks, rather than Anglos and European newcomers, especially as racial tensions began to emerge in this period, as signalled by the riots that exploded frequently in military training camps or defence industries. The social and political issues that arose around with African Americans in the war years, and which eventually led to the creation of the civil rights movement, contributed to the identification of previously racialised European ethnics such as Italians as simply ‘whites’.

The changes brought forth by the war led the situation that Richard D. Alba as defined as the ‘twilight of ethnicity’:

The approach of this twilight may seem deceiving, for when Italians and some other ethnic groups are observed in the aggregate, their features still appear prominent…Properly analyzed, the evidence on behalf of the looming ethnic twilight among Italians appears overwhelming. Despite the widely accepted image of an intense, family-centred Italian American culture, the group’s cultural distinctiveness has paled to a feebler version of its former self.[4]

To a certain extent, Americans of Italian descent have undergone a process of strong integration in the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first, and are fairly prominent in many areas of the nation’s society, in particular politics and the entertainment industry.

At the same time, along with the other Southern and Eastern European groups, Italian Americans have retained a position of partial marginality, especially in terms of cultural representations. Even though the aggressive forms of nativism of the early twentieth century are no longer acceptable since the Second World War, Italian Americans continue to be stereotyped as crime-prone and violent, as the image of the Mafioso remains to the present day one of the most frequent popular portrayals of the group, exemplified by novels, films and television series such as The Godfather, Prizzi’s Honour and The Sopranos. Moreover, the stronger emphasis on racial conflicts and the introduction of coloured groups in traditional immigrant quarters has drawn attention to the alleged bigotry of the descendants of the 1880-1920 immigrants. This situation is summarized thus by Joseph M. Comforti:

For a long time the ‘typical’ white racist had been a ‘redneck’, a poor White Anglo Saxon Protestant living in the rural South. While the southern redneck had not wholly disappeared as a stereotypical racist, the old stereotype had been supplanted by a new stereotype, the ‘ethnic’, a white person living in the urban North whose ancestry was manifest and readily identified through the spelling of his or her name.[5]

Certain incidents of the 1970s and the 1980s, such as hate crimes against blacks that took place in predominantly Italian American neighbourhoods meant that this new form of ethnic stereotype touched Italian Americans more directly.

The Relationship between African Americans and Italian Americans

While in the early twentieth century a nativist perspective considered Italian immigrants racially inferior because of their Southern European background, in more recent years Italian Americans (and to a lesser extent, other Southern and Eastern European groups) became labelled as narrow-minded and aggressive racists.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Italian Americans were not the only group that was accused of racism against minorities of colour, but the clashes that developed between Italian and African American communities were rendered more evident because of a few notorious incidents. Tensions involving blacks and Italian Americans had already began to emerge in the pre-war decades, as exemplified most clearly by the riots related to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, which broke out for instance in New York and Chicago in October of that year, as indicated in Italian Americans by Luciano J. Iorizzo and Salvatore Mondello . However, on this occasion the political object of the contention obscured any deeper underlying discrepancy that might have existed between the two groups. On the other hand, in the later part of the twentieth century, the cohabitation of Americans of Italian and African descent in metropolitan areas, especially in Greater New York, led to various episodes of friction and intolerance, the most violent of which are the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst hate crimes that took place respectively in 1986 and 1989. Both incidents involved young black men who were viciously attacked and killed after they had entered predominantly Italian American neighbourhoods.

The causes of this prolonged situation of conflict are manifold, and, as suggested by Comforti, they can be located in the complex shifts of ethnic hierarchies as well as the changing pattern of settlement of different groups within urban regions. Moreover, the expression of prejudice against blacks may be seen as part of the assimilation process itself: ‘[Italian Americans] were expected by those ethnic groups who came before them to assimilate, become American, and in a racist society that includes learning who it is appropriate to hate’.[6] Nevertheless, in the collective imagination the main reason for this new form of racial clash was attributed almost exclusively to innate bigotry on the part of Italian Americans. The relationship between Italian Americans and African Americans is, however, more complex and not limited to brutal confrontation. Its cultural representation as staged in Lee’s Do the Right Thing offers an illustration of the late twentieth-century perception of Italian American identity, suspended between assimilation and a lingering sense of marginalization.

The echoes of the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst murders are clearly present in Lee’s films with Italian American themes: the former incident served as the inspiration for Do the Right Thing and is mentioned directly in the key scene of the film, during the attack of Sal’s pizzeria. At the same time, the use of Italian American characters allows Lee to broaden the ethnic spectrum of his work, focussing not only on New York’s marginalized black community but also on the predicament of a white minority in an increasingly hybridized and multiracial social context. He thus concentrates on the characteristics of the Brooklyn Italian community in the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to Marianna De Marco Torgovnick, this group of Italian Americans had the peculiar characteristic of atavistic attachment to the immigrant enclave, and consequently did not participate in the white ethnic diaspora of the post-war years:

I often think that one important difference between Italian Americans in neighbourhoods like Bensonhurst and Italian Americans elsewhere is that others moved on—to upstate New York, to Pennsylvania, to the Midwest. Though they settled in communities of fellow Italians, they moved on. Bensonhurst Italian Americans seem to have felt that one move, over the ocean, was enough…Bensonhurst was for many of these people the summa of expectations.[7]

Thomas Ferraro has also pointed out that Lee has grasped accurately the malaise of those groups of Italian Americans who did not assimilate and adapt to a suburban middle-class lifestyle:

By the 1970s Italian Americans in the outer belts of the inner cities were starting to feel abandoned—by the economy heading South, by race-based legislation and by the ambitious among them becoming educated and leaving blue-collar enclaves behind…feeling desperate,[they] latched onto the combination of territorial pride and[emphasis in the original] white righteousness at work in certain strands of new ethnic consciousness…It was in this ugly mix of frustrated longing that Michael Griffith[the victim of the Howard Beach killing], Yusuf Hawkins and their friends in the mid-to-late 1980s walked. Perhaps no artist or thinker not born in it has taken this aspect of Italian America more seriously than the contemporary film maker Spike Lee.[8]

Hence in Do the Right Thing Lee focalizes on a particular brand of Italian American identity that emerged in the late twentieth century, related to the part of the group who did not succeed in taking part in the process of upwards mobility and diaspora to the suburbs that occurred in the post-war decades and consequently had to cohabit with less-established, non-white groups. In Do the Right Thing, Lee explores this part of the crisis experienced by part of Italian America.

The Deconstruction of Italian American Identity in Do the Right Thing

As incarnated by the Frangioni family and by Pino in particular, the portrayal of Italian Americans in Do the Right Thing may appear at first reductive and demeaning, but it is in fact more complex. Indeed, the film juxtaposes the stereotype of the Italian American racist with some of the most rooted clichés concerning non-white groups, as Mookie (played by Spike Lee) exemplifies the traits of laziness, irresponsibility and lack of ambition stereotypically attributed to African American men; most of the other black or Latino characters display a tendency to idleness and violence, since productive activities are left to the Frangionis or to the newly arrived Korean shopkeeper, who will defend himself by claiming a black identity in broken English after the vandalism of Sal’s pizzeria (possibly thus referring indirectly to the existence of African American violence on Korean businesses in the context of racial riots).

Nevertheless, Lee’s description of ethnic clashes as well as of the redefinition of Italian American identity is not limited to the combination of different sorts of stereotypes. Indeed, Lee’s role as ‘cultural mulatto’ and as a kind of go-between mediating between the culture of African American and that of whites is reflected significantly in the character he plays, since Mookie functions has a sort of mediator between his Italian American employers and the clients of the pizzeria, who are almost exclusively members of coloured minorities. This is already a signal of the film’s ambivalent view towards issues related to the clashes or dialogue between different ethnic groups. Moreover, the familial triangle formed by the three Frangioni men reflects the protean new ethnicity defined by Fischer. Hence, the father figure remains attached to the echoes of a mythical immigrant-era past, whereas Pino expresses an inarticulate form of Italian American ethnicity oscillating in between adherence to white supremacism and the emergence of a buried Mediterranean identity which would point out to a sense of commonality with the African Americans Brooklynites whom he claims to despise. Finally, the younger brother Vito’s ethnicity is coded in terms of a sense of familial oppression as he is unable to escape from Pino’s domination.

The representation of Italian Americans in Do the Right Thing invokes several of the group’s founding myths, suggesting nevertheless that they are losing meaning within a community in crisis. The first crucial Italian American trope that Lee introduces early on is that of the family, as the pizzeria that will be a pivotal location of the narrative is ran by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons. This could imply that, according to the myth popularized by The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), the Frangionis have achieved success in the United States by merging the traditional archaic familial structure and American business techniques. At one point, Sal himself extols the advantages of family enterprises, but like most of his other boasts this seems illusory. Since the Frangionis’ first appearance, it is indicated that they have lost the cohesiveness and mutual solidarity of the immigrant familial structure, retaining only its more negative aspects such as hierarchical and stifling intergenerational relationships. This is visible in Pino’s open resentment of his work and his constant bullying of his younger brother Vito (Richard Edson). Moreover, as pointed out by Susan Fraiman in her article: ‘Geometries of Race: Eve Sedgwick, Spike Lee, Charlayne Hunter-Gault’ (Feminist Studies, Vol. 20, 1994), the familiar structure is extremely essentialised, cutting out female figures and in particular the presence of a mother. With the exception of Sal’s conversation with Mookie’s sister Jade, members of the Frangioni family interact only with other male characters, whether within the family unit or in the wider community. Thus it only in the subsequent Jungle Fever that Lee will investigate the predicament of an Italian American female character.

The legendary image of Italian American familial model as an anti-assimilationist instrument of power is invoked derisively by some of the black characters, who accuse Sal of imagining he is Don Corleone. However, while Lee deconstructs a focal element of Italian American mythology, he puts great emphasis on the motif of the family within the economy of his narrative: Mookie’s disrupted family unit is symmetrical to that constituted by Sal and his sons. As he focuses on the dysfunctional relationships between the Frangionis, Lee parallels the rejection of a positive Italian American cliché with the tendency to familial disaggregation attributed to non-white minorities (Mookie has produced a child out of wedlock and seems little inclined to support financially his girlfriend and son or spend much time with them). The film indirectly dismisses the suggestion, advanced for instance by Richard Gambino, that the main source of conflict between Italian Americans and blacks or Hispanics arises from a discrepancy between family-based and street-oriented mentalities. The theme of the family assumes a bleaker overtone as Sal, who seems little aware of his strained relations both with his children and the wider community, claims that he considers Mookie as a son. Since Mookie is clearly in a subordinate position, Sal is inadvertently invoking the model of the ‘paternalist’ plantation where slaves were supposedly incorporated into the familial structure. In Lee’s perspective, the racial condition of Italian Americans remains hazy, but in this case they are included in America’s traditional white ruling class. This position of superiority is reinforced by Sal’s role as an entrepreneurial figure. As pointed out by James C. McKelly:

In Mookie’s world, Sal, the eponymous owner of the pizzeria, represents the ‘discursive universe’ of American capitalism. He is the embodiment of the white patriarchy to which Mookie must be accountable if he is to be granted a continuing position, trifling as it may seem, in the dominant economic order. As such, Sal functions symbolically as the sole arbiter of the private sector’s social responsibility.[9]

At the same time, however, the narrative underlines Sal’s position of isolation in the neighbourhood. The role of Italian ethnics in rapidly mutating urban environments is also questioned in other ways, which still emphasize the idea of the decadence of New York’s Italian community. According to the model suggested by De Marco Torgovnick, Sal embodies well the typical inhabitant of Bensonhurst because he resists change, even though in this case it would not involve relocating to a more prosperous area, but rather moving his business within an imaginary ethnic border. It is significant that Pino, who so intensely dislikes the atmosphere of the pizzeria, does not yearn to escape beyond the stifling limits of the ethnic ghetto (to ‘cross Ocean Parkway’, in De Marco Torgovnick’s metaphor). Rather, he expresses the desire to retreat further within the remaining Italian American enclave of Bensonhurst, as he feels the increasing presence of coloured minorities in Bedford-Stuyvesant as a threat. Sal and to an even greater extent Pino, who unlike his father denies the possibility of peaceful interracial contacts, contradict the paradigm of the immigrant who is capable of breaking free from roots and adapting to new environments. Thus Lee emphasizes the idea of the community’s stagnation. Moreover, the character of Sal refers to yet another Italian American myth which has lost meaning, when he is shown contemplating the ruins of his pizzeria and exclaiming that he has built it all with his own hands. This scene alludes to the notion of ‘making America’ as well as to the construction activities of Italian immigrants, which are no longer seen in a context of triumph or destructive self-sacrifice. In more general terms, the visual symbols of the decay of Italian ethnic identity are the fading photographs of Italian American celebrities on Sal’s ‘Wall of Fame’, which will become a major object of contention in the film. They are supposed to be tokens of ethnic pride as well as of American success, as indicated by W. T. Mitchell:

The wall is important to Sal not because it displays famous Italians but because they are famous Americans[emphasis in the original] who have made it possible for Italians to think themselves as Americans, fully-fledged members of the public sphere. The wall is important to Buggin’ Out because it signifies exclusion from the public sphere.[10]

However, because of their faded and bland quality, the photographs are chiefly an iconic representation of Sal’s attachment to a revolved era, an idea that is enhanced by Pino’s preference for African American stars. The notion of the decay of Italian American culture is indicated more indirectly through other visual symbols: hence, for instance, a fresco representing the ruins of the Coliseum serves as the background to the scene where Mookie verbally confronts Pino. This may be interpreted as a reference to the persistence of a nostalgic looking back to a now historically remote era of Italian glory, associated with the notion of the ‘buried Caesars’ elaborated by Robert Viscusi as a form of the Italian Americans’ suppressed identification with the legacy of ancient Rome. However, since the imperial monument is actually partially collapsed, it also hints metaphorically at the crumbling of Italian identity in the United States.

As Lee develops the representation of the crisis of working-class Italian American individuals within dissolving traditional ethnic networks, he also questions the shifting racial status of the group. The three Italian personae of Do the Right Thing apparently all correspond to a greater or lesser extent to the stereotype of the white ethnic proletarian as the new racist designated by Comforti. Moreover, they also embody a form of Italian American cliché that emerged in the 1980s, being no longer associated with the combination of threat and admiration inspired by the gangster figure, but rather with the features of vulgarity and narrow-mindedness as well as bigotry. The character of Pino as played by John Turturro adheres most closely to this cliché, both for his frequent expression of prejudice against blacks and his appearance, since for most of the film he sports an undershirt and a thick golden chain. However Lee alludes to the dubious racial label given to Italians in the earlier phase of their history, which makes Pino’s white supremacist perspective ironic. This emerges clearly in Mookie’s only attempt to communicate with him, as he points out to Pino some of the potentially Negroid physical characteristics of Southern Italians and invokes the notion of Southern Italy’s contiguity with Africa. But rather than allowing the possibility of a dialogue between representatives of two groups, the scene serves to underline Pino’s lack of articulation, because he tries to justify his appreciation of African American sportsmen and entertainment figures by claiming that they are not really black. Pino’s complete misunderstanding of his ethnic and racial identity is reiterated in a more subtle way when he warns his brother not to become too close to Mookie, remembering that he is ‘Vito Frangioni and not Vito Muhammad’. Whereas Mookie protests that he has no interest in adopting a Muslim identity, Pino is apparently completely oblivious of Southern Italy’s historical prolonged close contact with the Arab world, which includes the medieval colonization of Sicily, and means that Italian Americans have a more direct link with Islam than African Americans.

Pino’s extremely reduced self-perception is also reiterated in association with a sexual dimension. It has already been observed in this article that in Do the Right Thing the Italian American characters are relegated to a homosocial dimension of interaction. Pino displays the visual signs of a stereotyped Southern Italian arrogant masculinity, but he is surrounded by a sense of sexual ambiguity, rendered explicitly in the scene where he roughhouses Vito in the recess of the pizzeria. Here, his jealousy for Mookie’s friendliness towards Vito as well as his physical attitude towards his younger brother suggests the possibility that Pino might be a repressed homosexual (an idea reinforced by the fact that this scene occurs in closet).

More generally, in constructing the character of Pino, Lee seems to be adhering to Reed’s idea that the hostility of whites of immigrant descent against blacks is caused by the idea that the latter group, whose minority status is physically evident, serves as a symbolic reminder of the past of ethnic marginalization that the descendants of European immigrants tend to repress:

To permit[the descendants of immigrants] to be ‘white’, to liberate themselves from what they regard as the shackles of ethnicity, there has to be ‘blackness’…[Blacks] remind people who are ‘passing’ for Anglos of their immigrant grandfathers…[They]’re like walking examples or emblems of ethnicity.[11]

At the same time, in the economy of the film’s narrative, Pino is placed in a position of symmetry with Buggin’ Out. While these two characters appear to identify in a militant and aggressive ways with their respective ethnic identities, paradoxically they both implicitly hint at the possibility of a more positive intermingling of Brooklyn’s African American and Italian American communities. Indeed, Pino’s admiration for black celebrities and the reminiscence of his remote connection with Africa as an individual of Southern Italian descent are symmetrical to the fact that Buggin’ Out is played by an actor with a hybrid Southern Italian and African American background and the very Neapolitan-sounding name of Giancarlo Esposito. As noted by Pasquale Verdicchio, ‘Esposito’s invisible Italian American side provides a balance to Pino’s suppressed or invisible blackness’.[12] In this context, Buggin’ Out’s complaint concerning the lack of photographs of African Americans on Sal’s ‘wall of fame’ may be interpreted as a clumsy subconscious attempt to create a bridge between the two communities which come together in the pizzeria.

Hence, throughout Do the Right Thing, Lee emphasizes in various ways the ambivalence of the status of Italian Americans within the racial hierarchy of American society, as well as underlining the sense of instability experienced by the members of decaying Italian American communities towards the end of the twentieth century. At the same time, he also alludes at the potential development of a new, hybrid form of ethnic identity based on the interwoven cultures of different minorities, undergoing the process of reinvention suggested by Fischer, but which however struggles to assert itself.


Overall, Lee succeeds in capturing the multicultural mosaic of modern metropolitan America, in which descendants of the 1880-1920 migration wave such as Italian Americans must learn to coexist with the longer-established but more marginalized African Americans or with newly arrived non-European immigrants. Do the Right Thing emphasizes racial clashes and the alleged bigotry of Italian Americans, but also hints at common experiences and the possibility of productive intercultural dialogue. As suggested by Ferraro, Lee’s film displays ‘[an] intuitively brilliant deployment of interethnic [emphasis in the original] common ground: if not quite a universal catholicity still a dyed-in-the-wool Brooklyn urbanity, Italo-African American at the least and perhaps more’. [13] In this way, Lee indirectly refers to a sense of continuity between cultures that might appear to clash. In broader terms, Lee constructs a vivid representation of the society of the inner cities of the United States at the end of the twentieth century, chronicling the rapid evolution of the notions of ethnic and racial identity.

St Hugh’s College, Oxford


[1] Trey Ellis, ‘The New Black Aesthetic’, Callaloo, 38 (1989), 233-243 (p. 235).

[2] Michael Fischer, ‘Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Art’, in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, (Berkeley: California University Press, 1986), pp. 194-233 (p. 195).

[3] Salvatore LaGumina, ‘Introduction’, in WOP!: A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination in the United States, ed. by Salvatore LaGumina (San Francisco, CA: Straight Arrow, 1973), pp. 9-19 (p. 11).

[4] Richard D. Alba, ‘The Twilight of Ethnicity Amongst Americans of European Descent: The Case of Italians’, in Ethnicity and Race in the U.S.A., ed. by Richard D. Alba (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 134-158 (p.152).

[5] Joseph Comforti, ‘WASP in the Woodpile revisited: Italian American-African American Conflict’, in Shades of Black and White: Conflict and Collaboration between Two Communities. Selected Essays from the 30th Annual Conference of the American Italian Historical Association, ed. by Dan Ashyk, Fred Gardaphé and Anthony Tamburri (New York: AIHA, 1999) pp. 62-97 (p. 62).

[6] Ibid, p. 75.

[7] Marianna De Marco Torgovnick, Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian American Daughter (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1994), p. 8.

[8] Thomas J. Ferraro, Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America (New York: New York University Press, 2005), p. 164.

[9] James C. McKelly, ‘The Double Truth, Ruth: Do the Right Thing and the Culture of Ambiguity‘, African American Review 32.2 (1998), 215-227 (p. 220).

[10] W.T. Mitchell, ‘The Violence of Public Art’, in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, ed. By Mark A. Reid (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) pp. 107-128 (p. 110).

[11] Ishmael Reed, ‘Is Ethnicity Obsolete?’ in The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. by Werner Sollors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 226-236 (p. 228).

[12] Pasquale Verdicchio, Bound by Distance: Rethinking Nationalism through the Italian Diaspora, (Madison, NJ: Dickinson University Press, 1997), p. 109.

[13] Ferraro, p. 166.