- Alternative Character Interpretation: The whole damn movie is an exercise on what each viewer interprets each character's actions and intentions as, but especially:
Radio Raheem picks Sal up from behind the counter and starts to choke his ass. Radio Raheem's prized possession—his box, the only thing he owned of value—his box, the one thing that gave him any sense of worth—has been smashed to bits. (Radio Raheem, like many Black youth, is the victim of materialism and a misplaced sense of values.) Now he doesn't give a fuck anymore. He's gonna make Sal pay with his life. Vito and Pino jump on Radio Raheem, who only tightens his grip around Sal's neck.
- What was Mookie's motivation for throwing that trashcan. To redirect the mob's rage and save Sal's life? To vent his own rage over Radio Raheem's death? If he was trying to vent, why didn't he join in on the actual rioting and looting with the other black people? If he truly was trying to save a life, why help start a riot, which could easily lead to plenty of other people getting killed? "I wanna clear up something once and for all," Spike Lee says in a commentary track on the 20th anniversary DVD of the film. "Mookie did not throw the garbage can through the window to divert the mob from jumping on Sal." Rather, he "threw the garbage can through the window because he just saw one of his best friends get murdered in cold blood by NYPD."
- Pino. An unapologetic racist and a bully? Or a hypocritical, insecure young man whose Italian friends make fun of him for working in a black neighborhood that, in turn, barely tolerates him only because he's Sal's son?
- Sal. Per Spike Lee, Sal is a racist. While Buggin' Out is often blamed for kicking off the series of events that lead up to the downer ending by boycotting Sal's pizzeria over the pictures of Italian-Americans on his wall, an often overlooked aspect is the fact that Buggin Out seems to let the issue go to eat his pizza... before Sal threatens to bust his head in with a bat while calling him a troublemaker. But speaking of Sal, is his relationship with Mookie's sister paternal or romantic?
- It should be noted that Danny Aiello, who played Sal, disagreed with Spike Lee about his character and didn't see him as a racist.
- The script actually confirms one: Radio Raheem wasn't just roughing Sal up, he was genuinely trying to murder the old man, and came close to doing it. The cops' use of force looks more understandable in that context.
- Harsher critics label Buggin' Out as a self-insert character for Lee. Considering Lee's outspoken contempt for mixed-race couples and his 2014 rant against gentrification, it's not too much of an impossibility.
- Award Snub: No Best Picture or Best Director nominations. Lampshaded by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, both of whom found it to be the best film of 1989. Kim Basinger famously went off script during the Academy Awards ceremony that year, bashing the Academy for not nominating the film. Unsurprisingly, this is still a sore spot for Spike Lee. He seems unable to mention the film that won Best Picture that year without resorting to profanity.
- Crosses the Line Twice:
- The insult montage, shown right after Mookie questions Pino on his racism. It should be insulting, but the degree to which the two of them insult each other quickly stops being offensive and starts being funny within the first few seconds.
- Mookie shows up the day after the riot to collect his money (which he didn't earn) from Sal, after Mookie incited the riot which cost Sal his business. If one is of the opinion that Mookie did what he did in order to save Sal's life, however, his doing this makes a bit more sense.
- Death of the Author: As shown in Alternative Character Interpretation above, many viewers and critics have a more nuanced view of the film and its themes than Spike Lee himself.
- Harsher in Hindsight:
- Radio Raheem's death through Police Brutality is similar to what happened in a police brutality case in 1991 in Los Angeles with Rodney King, a black man brutally beaten up by the cops. While Rodney King did survive the beatings, the riot that followed (which was a much larger-scale riot than the riot from the film) was considered to be one of the worst racial riots in United States history, to the point that the National Guard was called in. In 2014, meanwhile, Eric Garner died after being put in a choke-hold by an NYPD officer, similar to how Radio Raheem died. And similar, even worse acts of unwarranted violence towards black people continue to happen in American on a daily basis.
- In the film, a general store owned by a Korean man, Sonny, was spared during the riot as he pulls a famous line with the black rioters stating the Koreans too suffered racial discrimination in America. Sadly, most of the businesses and stores destroyed during the riots were owned by Korean-Americans themselves, who were targeted as a result of longstanding racial tensions between black and Korean communities in California. The riots only galvanized these tensions, to the point where even today, if you meet up any Korean or African-American in Los Angeles (particularly the older generation that lived through the said riots), chances are many of them hold some negative grudges and stereotypical (if not outright racist) views towards each other.
- In-Universe example: At the end of Sal's first scene he jokingly says, "I'm gonna kill somebody today." The statement's a little harsh, but he certainly did not mean it. The words become haunting when Sal "kills" Radio Raheem's radio, which causes Radio Raheem to attack Sal, which leads to the altercation in the streets, which leads to the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of a police officer. While Sal is not the only character who can be blamed for this tragedy, it can at least be said that he (along with Buggin' Out) helped kill someone.
- Heartwarming Moments: Sal explaining to Pino that he has no issue with black people, that they've supported him for decades and he's proud that people in the neighborhood have grown up on his pizza. The mood is broken when Smiley shows up and Pino starts picking on him, but still.
- Jerkass Woobie: Radio Raheem only supports Buggin' Out's protest out of petty spite over Sal telling him not to blast his boombox in the pizzeria. He didn't deserve to be killed, though.
- Narm: It can be hard to take the movie seriously after you've seen the opening credits. Or it could be Narm Charm.
- One-Scene Wonder: John Savage as Clifton, the white bicylist who is confronted by Buggin' Out after the former accidentally bumps into him by making marks on his sneakers.
- Retroactive Recognition:
YMMV / Do the Right Thing