FOCUS Black American Cinema Political Cinema Race

Do the Right Thing prompts study from many perspectives, not least its extremely striking visual style imposed by the cinematographic handling of lenses, camera angles and colour film stock printing. Still, it demands consideration within the racial context that reflects the thrust of its own political engagement, particularly since Lee's film seeks so consciously to provoke thoughts about the subject of race and society. This factor fuels its most overt visual stylisations, and the subject of racial tension is rarely far from the surface, right from the opening credits, which feature Rosie Perez dancing/boxing, sometimes face into the lens (audience), to the chant of a rap song (by Public Enemy) that incites its own audience to 'fight the powers that be'.

Do the Right Thing leads us towards a grim denouement, where a large group of (mainly) black citizens of the deprived Bedford-Styvesent area of Brooklyn, New York, respond to the killing of a young black man, Radio Raheem (asphyxiated by two white policemen during arrest), by rioting in their own neighbourhood. The crowd wreck and burn down 'Sal's Famous Pizzeria', owned by a local Italian-American family, although it caters almost exclusively for the young African-Americans, who use it as a hang-out, ordering 'Sal's Famous' by the slice. The scenario is of itself remarkable in the context of American cinema history. Questionable representations of black Americans are found throughout the first cinema century, from the singing, dancing simpletons of The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915) (where the Ku Klux Klan are portrayed as heroes), to the Oscar given to Hattie McDaniels for her cotton-pickin' caricatured maid in Gone with the Wind (Fleming, 1939) (see chapter 12), to the casting tendencies of the 1980s, which seemed to portray black men most often as violent, out-of-control drug dealers. Sidney Poitier's status as a black Hollywood star and director is notable for its very exception to the rule, and even so his career following In the Heat of the Night (Jewison, 1967) was limited by the lack of black protagonists' roles in the films that Hollywood developed. Liberal Hollywood has produced many films with a sympathetic view of black Americans, attacking the segregation era, Ku Klux Klan and Deep Southern racism, such as To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1968), Mississippi Burning (Parker, 1988) and Driving Miss Daisy (Beresford, 1989). What makes Do the Right Thing stand out is that, instead of showing 'good', abused black Americans meekly defended by heroic whites, it portrays ordinary black citizens rising up at injustice and reacting violently towards the most convenient symbol of the establishment, in the shape of Sal's little corner of the American Dream.

Spike Lee had already shown solid commitment to a (male) black perspective on American life with She's Gotta Have It (1986) and School Daze (1988). With Do the Right Thing, his intention to express black politics through directly polemical dramas was firmly established, and the film's frustration with black Americans' situation within a society loaded against them would be followed through with later films like Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Clockers (1995) and Get on the Bus (1996). Do the Right Thing is concerned squarely with the street politics of racism that echo around most scenes in the film. From the very outset, the film bombards the audience with vignettes of petty racial conflict, the cumulative effect starting to create the sense that some kind of explosion will be inevitable: Sal's embittered son Pino insulting the old street 'Mayor' who seeks work sweeping the pavement in front of the shop for a dollar; NYPD police mouthing 'what a waste' towards a trio of unemployed black men sitting chatting in the street; the wilful stereotyping of blacks voiced by a man who complains to the police about the youths who deliberately drenched his convertible with a gushing fire hydrant; young Hispanics goading Radio Raheem in their fight for the street supremacy determined by the volume output of their 'ghetto-blasters'; constant needling between pizza delivery boy Mookie and Pino over everything from Mookie's monopolisation of the pizzeria telephone to resentful argument about the merits of black political leaders. It is one of Pino and Mookie's exchanges that prompts the pivotal scene of the film, where, one after another, a series of individuals simply hurl a tirade of insults towards some other racial group, directed to camera, until its ugly momentum is broken by Mr Love Daddy, the local DJ, who pleads with everybody to 'Chill out!'.

Do the Right Thing conveys the idea of simmering racial tension in danger of spilling over by placing the action against the dramatic background of New York's hottest day of the year so far, with constant reference to the unbearable heat, established from Mr Love Daddy's verbal introduction to the story, and reinforced by Sal, the Mayor and other characters throughout the film. Lee builds the film's stylistic appearance entirely around the heatwave metaphor that constantly pushes the dramatic line, where characters' petty niggling and bickering fester and grow into angry frustration. The film is full of both heavily drawn and casually planted images of people fighting to

'cool off' in the heat, which gets worse as the day wears on, from the Mayor's feverish mission to buy a cold beer, to Mookie's aggravated partner Tina cooling her face in a basin of water. But, beyond these pointed images, the entire film is saturated with the impression of unrelenting heat by the warm, glowing, sometimes bleached-out tones of Ernest Dickerson's highly luminous colour cinematography, its oppressive glow compounded by the very strong presence of the colour red in key scenes, and even further by frequent and striking use of low/wide-angle lenses when shooting people in verbal conflict. The lens effects are extreme, and Do the Right Thing does not aim for subtlety. The clean portrayal of neighbourhood shows little interest in documentary realism, and seems designed to enhance the sensual evocation of heat, while ensuring that location/ social setting remains less important dramatically than human interaction and politics. These elements' consistency guaranteed Do the Right Thing's singular dramatic look, where every visual aspect of the place reflects the dangers growing along the verbal development of the script. The structure does not always seem to maximise dramatic power, however, and Lee's own flat acting is certainly a real flaw, but it is a testament to the power of the film's evocative strengths that it can still transcend having a poorly delivered protagonist. Political as it is, Lee's film is perhaps most memorable as a powerfully sensual work, projecting intense impressions of a blisteringly hot day and the racial strife that it is meant to represent.

The film ends with a lengthy survey of the aftermath of the destruction of Sal's place, showing the characters whose intercut stories form the body of the narrative. The impression is that some things have changed (the Mayor now communicates with Mother Sister, who had previously done nothing but berate him), some things have not (Mookie's day begins as before with Tina cursing his absence and inattention as a father). The clearest statement (from Mookie) seems to be that the burning of Sal's place is no big deal - he can collect the insurance money - whereas Radio Raheem's murder cannot be undone. In contrast, Lee (as Mookie) seems to defuse his own plea for direct action. Alongside an end-quote from Malcolm X, he placed an opposing pacifist quotation from Martin Luther King. Do the Right Thing leaves one wondering whether Hollywood is still simply unable to accept the voice of black Americans who insist on 'being difficult'.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• What are the clearest points Spike Lee makes in the closing scenes?

• Why do you think Spike Lee took the part of Mookie?

• Can you explain whether or not you think his decision is justified?

• What precise effects are created with wide-angle lens distortion?

• Do you notice anything interesting about the way argument scenes are edited?

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