Do the Right Thing
Getting Under the Skin
Thinking about the visual texture of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee turned to his cinematographer and said "I want you to really think about how you can give the feeling of the hottest day of the summer. What can you do visually to make the audience sweat?" (Spike Lee, Kaleem Aftab) Keeping this quote in mind while watching Lee's film is as important as thinking of the main debates that gathered around the movie on its release: In The Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted after the film came out that "it's hard to think of another movie from the past several years that has elicited as much heated debate about what it says and what it means..." According to Rosenbaum, many of the reviews centred on the question of what Lee was saying, what his message happened to be. "Many people believe that Mookie's throwing of a garbage can through the pizzeria window is Spike Lee's version of "the right thing". Is the film not only an exploration of the immediate frustrations of the body affected by the heat, but also the underlying resentment which means it is likely that, given horribly high temperatures, blacks will react to feelings of injustice that are more deeply rooted than in their own restless, hot bodies?
What we want to pay attention to here is the temperature that makes doing the right thing all but irrelevant next to doing something, and then wonder whether at the same time there is in Lee's film an attempt to see slightly beyond the nervous energy he so astutely captures. Was there in the reviews of Lee's movie too often a room temperature morality at work, where Lee is searching out a heightened feeling that is less concerned with the right thing to do, than first and foremost looking at what sort of things are likely given a number of combustible elements? We needn't agree or disagree with, say, The New Yorker's Terrence Rafferty, "that in order to believe it [Lee's violent climax, where a black man ends up dead at the hands of the police, and a white man's' pizzeria is torched], and to find the characters' behavior in these disturbing scenes wholly comprehensible, we have to accept a proposition that's external to the terms of the movie: that we're all bigots under the skin." Now these were supposedly claims Lee actually made, believing that, sooner or later, pushed hard enough any white will reveal his contempt for blacks, but if Lee's film works at all it isn't in illustrating a thesis, but in physiologizing a certain tension almost inevitable given the elements at work, and present in almost all the characters.
This is basically expressed in a threefold cinematic manner: evident in the mise-en-scne, in the dialogue and in the editing. Lee has frequently shown a colourist fascination in his work, no matter if his first feature was of course the low-budget black and white She's Gotta Have It. School Daze, Mo Better Blues and Jungle Fever all worked with exuberant primary colour schemes, and even the darker, more subdued Malcolm X played up the colour on offer in the zoot suit: a flamboyant attire popularized by black jazz fans in the forties and fifties. In Do the Right Thing yellows, red and sky blues are pronounced, as though Lee wanted to clothe many of the characters in colours that would be pushy and forceful: Rosie Perez's bright red and blue costumes at the beginning of the film, for example, or, the yellow vest worn by Giancarlo Esposito's Buggin' Out. Ernest Dickerson, who was for years Lee's cinematographer, reckoned, "I've always been interested by the psychology of colour", and so he wondered, "what if the colour scheme was all these reds, yellows and earth tones and nothing blue?" (Spike Lee) This might be a rough assessment of colour psychology, and we may note his own colour scheme is more encompassing than he might have recalled - Perez's blue jumpsuit is almost as bold as her red mini-dress - but the point is taken. The film isn't interested chiefly in colour realism, but colour expressionism: a palette that hints at tensions to come. Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic may have believed the violence came as a surprise, reckoning "I thought the film was going to end as the sun sets on the street's usual life", and saw the film's colour scheme indicative of calm rather than tension - talking of the "sepia tone that would hang over the film like a haze of heat through which the people moved". Yet surely the colour scheme is one of the elements Lee utilises to imply trouble ahead. This is Lee's colour foreshadowing: a cinematic equivalent of red sky in the morning; shepherd's warning.
Another element is the dialogue, the pugnacity of which is alluded to in the very title song to which Perez dances: Fight the Power. The way Kauffmann describes the film it would seem closer to a Jim (Strangers in Paradise, Down by Law) Jarmusch or Kevin (Clerks) Smith movie - a hang out film. Certainly there are hang out elements, especially in the three not always so wise men that sit around and shoot the breeze, but Lee is closer to Larry (Kids, Bully) Clark than Jarmusch or Smith: hanging out can't harnesses restless energy awaiting to be unleashed. Dialogue exchanges are rarely witty, sublimating any tension into the creativity and delivery of the lines; they are agitative.
Lee might have called the film a Spike Lee joint - but the movie indicates a stronger substance. In the first ten minutes there are several moments that suggest all is not well in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn. A conversation between Mookie (Spike Lee) and his sister ends with her insisting his breath stinks. Then outside the pizzeria where much of the action happens, Sal's (Danny Aiello) son, Pino (John Torturro) tells his father how much he detests the place. When Mookie arrives at the pizzeria shortly after, Pino tells him he's late, and insists he sweeps the floor. There is little in the dialogue to indicate the director is creating space for warm encounters; more volatile possibilities.
Lee seems so interested in creating tension that he even generates it without any narrative payoff later on. In one scene a cyclist (John Savage) runs his bike wheel over one character's sneakers, much to Buggin' Out's consternation. A brief argument ensues, and the cyclist says he is as much entitled to stay in the neighbourhood as anyone, telling Buggin' Out that he bought the Brownstone Savage is about to go into. At another moment an Italian in a flashy car passes while the black kids are playing around the water hydrants. The Italian warns them that they're in real trouble if even a splash of water lands on his Cadillac, and as he drives past the kids turn the hydrant on him. Both scenes could have gone somewhere, yet they are simply a couple more examples of the many tense encounters Lee works into the film.
Even the comments made by our three wise men indicate that they should be doing something rather than nothing. When they talk about what they might do with their lives, one keeps insisting that they're never going to get off their backsides. When one of them says the Koreans who have moved into the district must be geniuses to get a business going, or there is something wrong with blacks, another reckons the blacks have been oppressed for so long, but the impression Lee gives the audience in relation to this exchange is that finally they haven't worked hard enough. In Lee's world hanging out is lazy or frustrated energy; he isn't especially drawn to exploring casual bodily states. So while many critics pointed out that Lee was making statements about black frustration, and Lee himself was making statements that hardly contradicted them, we can see he is a director interested in frustration per se. His is a trouble-making aesthetic, constantly looking to create situations out of dialogue, not exchanges out of conversation.
The third element that goes into creating tension is the editing. In one heated discussion halfway through the film, Mookie and Pino are arguing over race and an exchange that could have easily been done in a two-shot gets much of its energy from shot/counter-shots that indicate the gap between the characters. As they talk of the Louis Farrakhan idea that once again the black race will rule the earth as it did at man's inception, Mookie agrees while Pino reckons it is an absurd fantasy. The abruptness of the shot/counter shots, as Lee cuts frequently not on the end of a character's line, but in the middle of it, gives the impression of no one really listening to anyone else. In the earlier scene where the Italian in the Cadillac passes through the neighbourhood while the kids are playing, again Lee creates tension in the cutting. As the Italian warns them, and the film cuts back to the kids playing, Lee seems not only to watch the tension, but be part of its creation. It often feels that it's Lee's form that anticipates the aggression, as if it doesn't only come out of the characters, but out of his style, whether through colour, framing or editing. This seems to be the case partly because Lee isn't afraid of longer takes, evident in the opening crane shot after the credit sequence, and lateral tracking shots along the street at various points in the film: the fast edits consequently and in contrast create impact, force. When Mookie talks with Pino's brother, who's much more easy-going, Lee films it in more or less one slightly-high angled tracking shot. Even though they're arguing as they walk, the brother accepts at the end of the exchange that maybe he needs to talk to Pino about Pino's attitude. There is a sense of resolution here even in the form; where we sensed the discussion between Mookie and Pino was going nowhere and if anything moved towards escalation not conciliation. The editing reflects the tension, but also in some ways creates it.
There is a Scorsese side to Lee here in the various elements he brings together, and it resides in the problem of escalation over conciliation; an underlying tension that is greater than the situation, so that dialogue cannot be expected to resolve situations generally, but to exacerbate them. One notices this in the argument between Mookie and Pino, after Mookie arrives late for work at the beginning of the film, and again shortly afterwards in the scene that is perhaps the key moment in the movie, where Buggn' Out asks why there aren't any black people up on the walls in the pizzeria.
Though unlike the Louis Farrakhan sequence we mentioned, Pino and Mookie are mainly in the same shot in this early sequence as they discuss who should do the sweeping, while the film cuts between the pair of them and Pino's father and brother. The argument isn't only between Pino and Mookie, it especially rests on Sal's decision. The slightly accelerated cutting still functions in a similar way to the other examples of faster editing - to create tension - no matter if Pino and Mookie are in a two-shot.
In the scene where Buggin' Out comes in, orders a pizza while complaining about the price, and then briefly sits down as he moans about the pictures on the wall, again the editing is slightly accelerated, yet here really only at one moment. While Lee works in longer takes and indeed a two shot when Buggin' Out orders the pizza from Sal; as Buggin' Out looks up to the pictures Lee cuts rapidly, even breaking with Buggin' Out's point of view as he looks up at the photos of Italians on the wall. While the initial shots seem to be from Buggin' Out's perspective, the close-ups of Pacino, De Niro and Sinatra are seen from an angle slightly different from Buggin Out's position. Not only, then, is it slightly accelerated; it is also making a point that seems to go slightly beyond that of the character, even if it is of course Buggin' Out who complains there are no black men up on the wall. Whether it is in the rapid editing, or the slightly disjunctive point of view, there is an editorialising element to Lee's work that needn't rely on his actual comments to indicate some sort of statement is being made. Contrary to Rafferty, these aren't external to the movie, but half diegetic; half extra diegetic.
Lee is offering a perspective of his own here, it would seem, and so we needn't go along with Rafferty's insistence that it is a position external to the terms of the movie; Lee's mise-en-scne, dialogue and editing move the film towards a certain position becoming clear. (To say nothing of the film's in your face and often canted camera framing.) For example, Buggin' Out is generally an unsympathetic figure, and his comments in the pizzeria about the price of the pizza as churlish as his remarks later when he claims the cyclist has run over his sneakers. From the character's perspective we can say he is looking for trouble by pointing out there are only Italian photos. Hasn't he noticed this before; why comment on it now? Yet Lee's briefly disjunctive editing indicates sympathy for the observation without completely sympathising with the character offering the insight. Lee seems to be offering on the one hand a physiologically intense account of inner city living, but at the same time a more distanced enquiry into the problem of race in America. It is as if in form he is trying to find a way of making certain ideas internal rather than external to the movie. By making Buggin' Out unsympathetic but his position agreeable, Lee creates a gap between the diegesis and the non diegetic as he incorporates into the film more than the readily characterisational.
Yet the scene with Buggin' Out is in fact one of several where Lee pushes the diegesis into the extra diegetic, into a comment on the film as readily as a scene within it. There is of course the opening credit sequence with Perez; also a sequence where blacks, Italians and Koreans all offer racial slur about other minorities directly to the camera, and the long tracking shot shortly before Mookie throws the bin at his own employer's window in a moment that would seem to indicate solidarity with his fellow blacks after the mainly white police officers have killed the character Radio Raheem (whose ghetto blaster Sal had earlier destroyed).
Now In his article on the film Rosenbaum admitted that the first time he saw Do the Right Thing he misread the tracking shot where a number of the black characters offer their opinion on what happened. He believed it was a direct to camera address like the earlier moment where characters offer racial slurs, but on a second viewing he reads it differently, believing the characters are telling Mookie to do something about the murder. At the moment they're offering their comments, Mookie is still standing outside the pizzeria and next to Sal and his sons. Afterwards he crosses the road, grabs a bin and hurls it through the window.
However, perhaps Rosenbaum's initial misreading is understandable because the scene, rather like the disjunctive point of view shots of the pictures in the pizzeria, is one caught between the diegetic and the extra diegetic, between being narratively integrated, and disintegrating the narrative. When Rosenbaum interestingly mentions critic Berenice Reynaud's belief that the conflicts in the film weren't psychological but ethical, perhaps it is still more useful to say that while the conflicts diegetically are in fact not psychological but physiological, at the same time there is Lee's attempt at a half-remove of also addressing them as ethically pertinent. Hence when Buggin' Out makes his comments on the pictures, he seems to be responding physiologically, but that doesn't mean Lee can't at the same time allude to the ethical issue contained therein.
At the end of the film Lee concludes on two quotes. One from Martin Luther King and one from Malcolm X. King's comment talks of the problem of violence; Malcom X's of its occasional necessity. The question Lee's film seems to ask is what violence passes for doing the right thing ethically; what happens to be violence expelled for no better reason than the product of a body's frustration. Lee's film is never more interesting than working with this twin problem: the body's understandable frustrations, and the mind's needful ethical decisions. Doing the right thing needs to come not from the literal heat of the moment, but from an ethos that contains a dimension of the disinterested.
© Tony McKibbin