Spike Lee & Sports Iconography

In Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing (1989), sports iconography is used to as an effective underscoring of the film’s themes relating to race and cultural representation. In the recent performance piece Rodney King (2017), Spike Lee directs Roger Guenveur Smith, who delivers a stunning, poly-vocal monologue wearing a black Los Angeles Dodgers jersey. In this film again we see the power of sports iconography to communicate notions of identification, unity and conflict.

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing opens with a shot of Mookie (Spike Lee) wearing a Michael Jordan jersey and counting money out loud. It’s an interesting moment that craftily breaks the fourth wall, reminding us that Spike Lee came to prominence in part by playing Mars Blackman (“It’s gotta be the shoes!) in a series of commercials for the Air Jordan sneakers.

The sneakers make an appearance in the film too, but by opening the film with a reference to Jordan, Spike Lee gives a nod to one of reasons that some people showed up to the theater. Is there also an acknowledgement here of the way that sports and money are married in the minds of many children growing up in neighborhoods like this one in Brooklyn?

Is Mookie, in all his overt and grandiose naivety, intended to tell us that we can dream at home and count our money in Jordan jersey, but for most of us in order to actually get paid, as Mookie is fond of saying, we have to do what Mookie does next. Take off the jersey and put on a work-shirt for a regular, non-sports job?

Later in the film, Mookie dons a Jackie Robinson jersey — Brooklyn Dodgers #42 — and we are invited to connect Robinson’s historical act of crossing the color line in professional baseball to some of the conflicts that are apparent in this 1980s Brooklyn neighborhood. In the context of combative and racially-charged language and direct discussions of racism and racist rhetoric, the #42 jersey becomes a complex symbol of precarious racial politics.

There are still color lines in this neighborhood. There are still sides being taken.

Rodney King

The entirety of Roger Guenveur Smith’s one man show Rodney King is performed in a sports jersey. This time the Dodgers jersey has no visible number. It doesn’t even spell out the name of the team and instead features the two word name of the city — Los Angeles — in the identifiable type-face of the city’s favorite baseball team.

The show explores the human cost and certain strange intimacies surrounding the Rodney King story. The violence of the 1992 riots that followed the not guilty verdict for the police officers caught on tape beating King is explored in Smith’s performance as a community event. The show is not all or only about racial divisions. It is about a community of people, connected by race, sure, but also connected by outrage and, importantly, by a concern for one another.

The Dodgers jersey here becomes a telling representation of the idea that a city is a community too, connected and divided by the same kinds of anxieties and concerns and hopes that characterize sports fandom.

Our teams belong to us as manifestations of local pride. They bring us together literally and figuratively to partake in the vibrant air of contest.

And while we may root for our city’s champions as a unified voice, we recognize that sports teams exist in a world of stark division. It’s an Us vs. Them situation and you know who is who based on that most obvious and outward of signs — the jersey.

As a symbol in these films, the iconography of professional sports takes on a powerful and irreducible set of meanings. We see the Us Vs. Them message built into the fabric of the symbol and we also see, almost too clearly, a bitter disappointment that our communities too often fail to achieve the status of a unified Us.

Both comments are built into the metaphor.

Sports are conflict drawn on a categorical playing field. Grey areas are eliminated. The possibility of truce is anathema to the very idea of the institution. There are teams set against one another. There are winners and losers.

Sports are communal. Teams and the games they play provide common ground and allow whole cities to occupy one identity for the duration of a season. Sports bring people together. Teams and their uniforms represent the possibility of community action and community pride.

The two-sidedness of the iconography is appropriate for these films as they both explore social fissures and seem to probe deeply into the question of where cynicism ought to realistically give way to hope and where hope, for its part, ought to give way to cynicism.

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