Be it the Air Jordan sneaker or the pizza pie, Spike Lee makes use of various cultural objects in Do The Right Thing to explore divisions within the community and delve into the daily situations that exacerbate racial tension. One of these particularly subtle objects is Lee’s references to baseball–as “America’s pastime,” baseball is as mainstream, beloved, and traditionally American as apple pie. Lee refers to baseball in a variety of contexts, demonstrating how something so canonically charged with American values can indicate racial impasses.
Most evident of these references is Mookie’s Jackie Robinson baseball jersey: the reference to Robinson’s legendary disruption of the then-overwhelmingly white landscape of baseball speaks for itself as a statement on black achievement amidst white domination. However, the metaphor extends further than the jersey. When Mookie and Vito are hanging out in the block, they proceed to have an argument about baseball players: Mookie advocates for the black Dwight Gooden, while Vito pushes the white Roger Clemens. Their argument of their respective races is a subtle, lighthearted implication of the racial strain that characterizes Buggin Out’s immediately proceeding encounter with the white man that scuffs his sneaker (who’s Larry Bird jersey provides a clever counterpoint to Mookie’s Robinson jersey). Lee uses this preceding conversation about baseball to establish a framework for the kinds of racial tension that eventually boil over in the film’s climax.
Spike follows the thread of this baseball metaphor to the climax, namely by positioning its cultural symbolic worth in opposition to Radio Raheem’s boombox. In contrast with the traditional, all-American values encompassed by baseball, the boombox represented something quite opposite in the 1980s: its popularity in the context of urban communities imparted it with cultural connotations of urban youth counterculture. This is further underscored by Radio Raheem’s perpetual blaring of Public Enemy, a hyper-political rap group notable for pushing values of black consciousness–Radio Raheem and his boombox together are a walking symbol of forward-thinking, politically-charged black youth.
With that baseball/boombox dichotomy of clashing American values in mind, Sal’s use of a baseball bat to smash Radio Raheem’s boombox becomes more than an escalation of their feud: it is an assertion of his white values and worldview to shatter those of Radio Raheem. It is thus the moment in which their argument crystallizes into a racial clash–highlighted by Sal’s defaulting to the use of a racial slur–marking the cops’ inevitable and deadly intervention.
**As a side note, if anyone who watched the film feels like exploring some of Public Enemy’s music, here is my favorite song by them, “911 is a Joke”; a funky, humorous indictment of emergency services’ slow responses to urgent situations in black communities: http://bit.ly/LCEIVO. “Flavoooor Flav!”