Dialectical Form

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The film is structured throughout as a constant play of opposite modalities clashing against one another. In Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee returns to the dialectical methods of Sergei Eisenstein in the 1920s, who, inspired by the writings of Hegel and Marx, created a cinema that involves a constant juxtaposition or clash of opposites (a thesis and an antithesis), the goal being the creation of a new synthesis or higher consciousness in the mind of the viewer. Spike Lee's method was the same as Eisenstein's, to confront the viewer with a constant stream of conflicting images and viewpoints. For Lee, the goal was to liberate his audience from fixed stereotypical images of the conflict between black and white Americans and to open their minds to a more subtle awareness of racism in American society and the danger that racism poses to us all.

Spike Lee begins Do the Right Thing with a shock. What we think (because of all the film's advance publicity) is going to be a tense urban racial drama that explodes in violence begins with what looks like a number from a film musical. Rosie Perez performs a dance (under the film's credits) to the pounding rhythms of Public Enemy's rap song "Fight the Power." Rosie Perez plays the role of Tina, Mookie's girlfriend, in the film, but here she functions not as a character in the narrative but as a pure symbol of the creative and destructive energy of black youth.

The surprising opening number is structured by conflicts on multiple levels. On the most obvious level, the sound track clashes with the image. Angry male voices urging violence in response to racism ("Got to give us what we want! Got to give us what we need!/ Our freedom of speech is freedom of death/ We got to fight the powers that be") are coun-terpointed by the image of a petite female performing a dance. Yet the dance itself contains its own clash of opposites because it is choreographed as a combination of an aerobic workout session and a fight. The choreography includes multiple shots of Perez punching her fists directly at the audience, at times wearing boxing gloves. Sometimes she looks angry, sometimes she looks sexy, as her pugilistic stances segue into erotic movements. Here, through another clash of opposites, Lee fuses sensual entertainment and political threat. The LOVE and HATE featured so prominently on Radio Raheem's brass knuckles later in the film are symbolically prefigured by Perez's erotic yet angry expressions and dance movements.

Lee cuts this sequence in a way that recalls Eisenstein's use of montage (discussed in chapter 2) to create optical shocks. Eisenstein created these shocks by creating as much contrast as possible between each juxtaposed shot, both in content and on a purely formal level. Shots of Rosie Perez dancing in long shot are abruptly cut together with extreme close-ups of her face or parts of her body. Smooth matches on Perez's movements join together shots in which both her costume and the background against which she is dancing abruptly change. We first see her, for example, in an orange minidress dancing in front of urban brownstone residences but this shot is smoothly connected (by a position-and-movement match) to a shot of her in a blue spandex workout suit, now dancing in front of a deteriorating graffiti-marked building. Shortly thereafter she appears in front of a shop window, now wearing a black-and-white boxing outfit that contrasts with a pair of bright orange boxing gloves. At another moment near the end of the number, an image of Rosie Perez in profile shad-owboxing on screen right jump cuts to an image of her performing the same movement on screen left. The abrupt juxtaposition creates a shock, because she seems to be fighting against herself. (This cut prefigures Lee's preoccupation in the film, not only with tensions between members of different races, but also tensions between members of the same race as well as tensions within individuals who are at war with themselves.)

Conflicts are also created through the use of color filters. A red filter occasionally transforms the black-and-white background image before which Rosie Perez is dancing7 into a sinister image connoting heat and blood. The use of warm red filters to illuminate the background in one shot contrasts with cool blue filters in the subsequent shot. Sometimes Lee mixes reds and blues, creating a conflict of colors (hot and cold tones)

within the same shot, a technique similar to Eisenstein's intraframe optical conflict. The formal contrasts of this opening number (long shots with close-ups, movement matches smoothly connecting discontinuous spaces, jump cuts, and color contrasts that create optical jolts) in conjunction with contrasts relating to the content of the images (male voices/female body, dancing/fighting, sex/aggression) creates a visually compelling, fun-to-watch spectacle which at the same time prepares us mentally for a film structured by a clash of opposites that will move its audiences beyond ossified ways of thinking about racial relations in America.8

The systematic clash of opposites that informs the filmic treatment of Rosie Perez's dance also informs the mise-en-scène of Do the Right Thing. The film was shot on location in Bedford-Stuyvesant, thus grounding it in the physical materiality of the black ghetto. The film's cinematog-rapher, Ernest Dickerson, felt something vital would be missing from the look of the film if they shot the film on constructed sets on a Hollywood back lot. "You wouldn't get those same molecules at a studio"9 he comments. Yet, despite the location shooting, the look of Do the Right Thing has nothing of the gritty realism of a film such as De Sica's The Bicycle Thief. This is because the atmosphere of authenticity gained by shooting on location is dialectically countered by the distinctly nonrealistic theatricality and stylization of the film's art design. The facades of many of the buildings on the block on which the film was shot were freshly painted, a huge, colorful "Bedford Stuy Do or Die" mural was added, and the garbage-strewn streets were cleaned up. The drab browns and tans of the urban-desert cityscape were punctuated by bursts of vivid colors, the most striking example being the fire-engine red building before which the three corner men spend most of the day loafing and commenting on life. According to cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, the major motivation for the predominance of warm or even hot colors in the set design (reds, oranges, and yellows) was to imbue the film, whose action takes place on the hottest day of the summer, with a felt sense of heat. But aside from the effect of heating up the atmosphere, the bright colors of the neighborhood take on a metaphorical meaning, connoting life, vitality, and emotional, as opposed to merely physical, warmth. The setting, moreover, is bathed in the glow of old-fashioned carbon-arc lighting, giving the film the look of an MGM Hollywood musical.

Lee was criticized for choosing to shoot in a black ghetto but then prettying it up. In news conferences10 and interviews he is frequently asked: Where was all the garbage that typically litters the streets? Where were the prostitutes? The drug dealers? The rapists? The guns? Lee justifies his aesthetic choices by claiming that there are enough films already that show black people only in the context of garbage, drugs, sex, and violence and he consciously chose not to add to this store of stereotypes. In an interview he states: "I made that choice because any time you hear people say Bed-Stuy, right away they think of the rapes, murders, drugs. There's no need to show garbage piled high and all that other stuff, because not every single block in Bedford-Stuy is like that. . . . These are hard working people, and they take pride in their stuff just like everybody else."11

By deliberately creating an atmosphere that contests stereotypes of the way people live in the black ghetto, Spike Lee is not trying to put one over on his audience by creating false "positive images" of ghetto life. Rather, by creating a mise-en-scène that patently clashes with preconceived ideas, he encourages viewers to confront their stereotypical expectations. I am reminded of Robert Stam's analysis of a moment in Mel Brooks's comedy Blazing Saddles, when a group of redneck cowboys start singing "Ole Man River," after which a group of black railroad workers suavely sing "I get no kick from champagne." Like Lee, Brooks was less interested in constructing positive images of sophisticated black workers than in "challenging the stereotypical expectations an audience may bring to a film."12 Moreover, while the deliberate brightening-up of a dismal reality works to give most of the film a Hollywood escapist feel, it also makes the ending of the film all the more devastating when the candy-colored world erupts into violence and all that conspicuously absent garbage from the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant reappears with a vengeance in the scenes after the riot.

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Boxing Simplified

Boxing Simplified

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