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“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (Luther King Jr., 1967). Spike Lee’s 1989 movie, Do the Right Thing, makes a powerful statement on the discrimination problems that the society of the past and the society of today faces. This piece de resistance centers on the incidents taking place on a scorching hot day on a street of Brooklyn, starting off almost as a soft comedy regarding Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and the evocative community that it’s in; however, the story quickly escalates, resulting in white cops murdering a defenseless black youth and hiding their senseless crime, and Sal’s Famous Pizzeria deteriorating in a blazing fire amid a violent riot, while the temperatures only continue to rise. Lee’s cinematography methods and aesthetics techniques paved a pathway for the audience to understand the deep amount of hate the different cultured characters had for one another while being able to demonstrate the reasons for this hate. Ironically, although the movie itself doesn’t provide an explanation as to what the right thing is to do, as it challenges the audience’s morality, the ending quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X give guidance as to why violence isn’t the right thing to do. This paper will aim to provide a cinematographic analysis of Do the Right Thing by describing the narrative structure of the film, dwelling into the film style, discussing what gives the film worth, and examining the images and sounds that evoke feelings within the film.
Lee pulls in his audience from the very beginning of the film with memorable opening credits. The opening credits show a strong female character dancing in an aggressive and funky way to Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power”. It provides a powerful introduction to the rest of the film as Lee uses multiple close-ups of the dancer’s face as she grimaces, seems angry and is lacking any smiles throughout her performance. The dancer’s passion, moves, and face expressions all are clues as to what’s going to happen within the movie; Fight the Power pumping in the background during her influential performance emphasizes the police brutality, violence and racism that was faced then and that is still faced today, and it also emphasizes the resistance the dancer is passionately demonstrating against this senseless violence and hate. Moreover, she mostly dances under the hue of a red light, giving the scene a dangerous look and implicating the negative events taking place in the movie.
The narrative structure is well-thought-out as Lee utilizes a limited amount of time and isolation in space to raise tension within the movie. The entire movie’s setting is within one block of Brooklyn, with the Korean Market being right across Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, and the stone building that are everyone’s homes being right by them. Additionally, the movie only focuses on the events of a single day, where it introduces the characters and their and climax is quickly reached after a commotion between Sal and Radio Raheem end up in mayhem. After the climax, the day comes to an end, and the audience are given a brief denouement displaying the aftermath of the events. The limitation of time and isolation in space don’t give the characters enough time to make reasonable decisions, and the events building up to the climax happen at such a shocking speed that the audience is left at the edge of their set. The audience expects everything to be okay at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria when Sal happily talks of how they did today and gets ready to close the shop.
At this point, the audience already has a comprehension of the character’s views, as Sal is depicted as an understanding and hard-working man who is accepting of the black community (he questions his son’s hatred when his son talks of his embarrassment in working in a black community, and talks of being proud due to serving these people food for 25 years), and Mookie is depicted as a middle-man, almost a peaceful negotiator between the black community and Sal (he works for Sal and tries to minimize the drama happenings within the workplace, but also has strong friendships with the two main characters who are advocating for rights within the movie, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem). But the audience’s depictions of these characters come crumbling down as Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem demand that there should be someone on the Wall of Fame of Sal’s pizzeria; Sal ends up destroying Radio Raheem’s only prized possession, his radio and thereby his music, and while doings so expressing the most hateful racial remarks he can come up with, and Mookie choosing his community’s side as he is distraught by Radio Raheem’s death and initiates an attack on Sal’s pizzeria. To signify the beginning of the climax, when Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem come into the pizzeria, they are shot from a low-angle, almost showing them as towering over Sal, making them seem ominous and threatening and also implicating the turn of events within the movie.
However, the climax only catches the audience who are not watching for details by surprise. Implications of Sal’s true character was shown in his demeanor prior to Raheem’s death. For example, Sal uses the phrase “these people” when referring to the black community when advising his son not to be embarrassed of his workplace. Although Sal is trying to sympathize with the black community, he regardless is distancing himself from them by differentiating them as “these people”. Also, Radio Raheem is shown buying two slices of pizza prior to the events of his death and prior to him coming to Sal’s Famous Pizzeria for a second time. During this scene, Sal is yelling at Raheem to turn his loud music off and when he does, Sal states “No rap. No music. No music. No music” as if rap wasn’t in the category of music, it was something of different category, and this assumption is confirmed when Sal later refers to rap as jungle music. These are intricate details that give implications of the upcoming events within the movie. When it comes to Mookie, for the first half of the movie he is shown to be wearing a Jackie Robinson jersey, and for anyone who knows even a little bit of history knows that Jackie Robinson was an influential figure as he was the first black baseball player in history. Mookie’s wearing of this shirt for most of the movie is in itself a demonstration of his beliefs, and his personal support to fight the power.
The scene where Raheem orders pizza is a significant scene for the rest of the movie. Radio Raheem is a distinctive character within the movie. Unlike most of the outspoken teenagers that are shown, Raheem chooses to be observant, quiet, and in full support of his rights as he blasts Fight the Power throughout the day with his radio. One of the only scenes where Raheem speaks is when he is showing off his new brass knuckles to Mookie, those that state Love and Hate. The brief speech Raheem gives to Mookie regarding the tale of good and evil which he demonstrates with his right and left hand summarizes the dilemma within the movie, as well as the mixed feelings Raheem himself experiences: “The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right… Left-Hand hate KOed by Love. If I love you, I love you. But if I hate you…” (Lee, 1989). As can be seen, Raheem still has hope that love will conquer the hate that is undeniably existent within his community.
When Radio Raheem first goes into Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, the camera closely follows him while changing the focus of the scene but retaining the same size; in other words, as Radio Raheem entered Sal’s to get his two slices, the Vertigo Effect technique was utilized so Raheem can be seen as a menacing and sinister character, and also to demonstrate how Raheem’s entrance to the pizzeria produces tension, since he turns up his music to the loudest as he enters the pizzeria, attempting to make his statement even stronger. Following Raheem’s entrance, the camera takes the form of a canted frame as it in a sloped angle to display Sal and Raheem as placed in the middle of the scene, with their backgrounds moderately tilted. Canted frames are used more frequently throughout the movie, beginning with this scene, and it signifies how the characters’ realities are significantly altering. When Raheem is murdered, and the riot breaks out, canted frames assist in conveying the turmoil, confusion and mayhem that’s being experienced by the characters.
As can be seen, through this brief analysis of the cinematographic methods and aesthetic techniques used by Spike Lee in his influential movie Do the Right Thing, one comes to a better understanding as to how Lee conveyed the problems of police brutality, discrimination and violence to his audience. Lee’s movie was a movie full of surprises, and controversy, succeeded in challenging the viewer’s morality, and therefore, proved to be an extremely difficult movie to articulate on. The scenes analyzed here are only a small fraction of Lee’s masterwork, and one can write an entire book in analyzing Lee’s movie, as it is filled with multiple instances of symbolism, clever cinematographic methods, and insightful references. However, Spike Lee’s movie is a necessary integration in our society. Even though it was released in 1989, addressing the problems of that day, police brutality and violence due to discrimination and race are unfortunately ever-so present in the current society, with kids as young as 15 dying due to senseless hate, making Do the Right Thing an influential film in today’s society
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