MasterBlog: Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”

One of the things that makes Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing such a compelling film, no matter the time or the context, is its one-of-a-kind sense of style. Lee’s vision is urgently alive with image and sound, full of quick cuts, jarring angles, and uncannily intimate POV shots. Its vividity is at once cartoonish and raw. What we’re seeing is one auteur’s interpretation of the matrix of racist ideologies in which we all live, and because this film is an opus of self-identity, it’s formulated like an audiovisual missile. I’m interested in exploring the question of why the sounds, images, and spoken dialogue of Do the Right Thing are designed to hit hard, and how this film embodies Robert Stam (and others’) characterization of New Black Cinema.

Sound itself makes a declarative statement in this film. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” is an omnipresent soundtrack, a call to action which stays on a loop from its first explosive appearance in the opening credits to its final swan song, leading to Radio Raheem’s death. One thing I really love about DtRT is Spike Lee’s repeated use of this song, literally having it follow his storyline wherever it goes, Radio (and his boombox) functioning as a kind of cultural bard. Stam, quoting Clyde Taylor, traces a persistent presence of oral traditions and a “strong articulation of black musicality” in New Black Cinema. Accordingly, the musical soundtrack goes hand-in-hand with the overwhelming (and sometimes cacophonous) layers of sound in the film. The pacing of the script/performances, along with bold sound mixing, paints the black urban landscape as a dynamic tornado of voices and perspectives. Group scenes, such as the one outside Mother Sister’s apartment after the Mayor saves Eddie, are structured as a rapid-fire dialogue pastiche. The three men who sit outside the Korean shop essentially deliver soliloquies at one another, choreographed to appear like a conversation. Stam writes of a filmic dialogue that is “sometimes violent, often shrill, at times communicative – between Anglo culture and its Others”; certainly this dialogue figures prominently in DtRT, but the dialogue of and about this black community takes precedence in the narrative.

Spike Lee knows the following, asserted by Stam: “Spectators themselves come equipped with a ‘sense of the real’ rooted in their own social experience, on the basis of which they can accept, question, or even subvert a film’s representations.” The transcendence of DtRT not only hinges on almost anyone’s ability to locate their identity and vocabularies of prejudice and grouping in the text (think of the POV sequence in which the white policeman, black revolutionary, Korean business owner, and others voice a string of stereotypes and epithets). It also, in a pointed way, caters to the black spectator and represents a variety of their voices and experiences. DtRT is not a study of “accuracy” but of complexity. DtRT is, in many ways, a meta-narrative about the dual awareness of the black individual in society, and their “epistemological advantage[s]” by virtue of their “biculturalism”. Marginalization enables the mind to interrogate the lines and language of life, from the proverbial inside and outside.

Another note about Spike Lee the auteur – I picked up this quote from Brecht about the Chinese actor who actively interrogates spectactorship. Brecht notes that he “looks at himself” in an “artful and artistic act of self-estrangement.” Although Brecht’s piece smacks of exoticism and an outdated kind of detached ethnography, I felt this point really speaks to Spike Lee’s approach. His filmmaking style both alienates and invites empathy; the abruptness, the saturation, the action, the faces so close we can see the sweat on their distorted brows. Lee is located squarely in the center of this film, as Mooki is arguably the main character, yet he is never featured in POV. Lee follows himself with a documentary-like camera, but gets personal and tender with the other characters; for me personally, this has the effect of both alienating us from the traditional everyman-in-the-text and drawing us closer to the marginal players, complicating our identity and allegiance as audience. Take one of my favorite scenes, for example – the moment between Mooki and Tina with the ice cubes. We experience Tina as only snapshots of physical intimacy, body parts and shadows and disembodied sound. It’s a moment of sensual pleasure that collapses our detached spectatorship, and juxtaposing it with the loud, frenetic subsequent scenes only complexifies and rarefies it.

Media discussed:
Do the Right Thing (1989)

“Alienation Effect in Chinese Acting” – Bertolt Brecht
“Bakhtin, Polyphony and Ethnic/Racial Representation” – Robert Stam

Leah Steuer
COURSE: Text & Context
QUARTER: Fall 2015

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