Twenty-seven years ago Do the Right Thing was released, and while it may arguably be Spike Lee’s best film, it is without a doubt his most important. In most cases, when a film tries to deal with current social issues, over time it becomes heavily dated, as the ideas do not remain relevant in later years. With that being said, as time moves on, the thoughts expressed throughout Do the Right Thing still hold value in today’s social climate because of the way the film uses characterization, mise-en-scene, and cinematography to deliver a clear and concise statement that has stood the test of time.
Throughout the course of Do the Right Thing the audience is introduced to a wide range of characters from different racial backgrounds that all, in one way or another, interact with the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn, where the film is set. In both direct and indirect ways throughout the course of the film, each the character’s ideology about race and politics is expressed, and through that the overall message of the film is formed. Throughout the entirety of the film, the perspectives from each of the characters is that their own race is the best and any issue that they have to deal with is the result of another race and the inadequacy of those people. The pinnacle of this expression of hatred begins near the midpoint in the film when the main character, Mookie, and his boss’s son, Pino, argue back and forth about how Pino can hate black people even though all of his favorite celebrities are black. As the conversation comes to a climax with Mookie declaring that Pino deep down wants to be black, the film’s narrative grinds to a halt and enters a segment where every race that is present in the neighborhood despairingly talks about another race present in the neighborhood. Through this segment it becomes apparent to the audience that the idea of racial hatred is not something that only exists within a small bigoted percentage of the population, but exists in everyone.
Even though the expression of racial division is more explicit during the moments of characterization, the real nuance of the film’s message really comes through its carefully crafted mise-en-scene. By having the film set on a single street in Brooklyn, the setting of the film becomes an allegorical sandbox where Lee can easily showcase the racial dynamics of the residents within the community. The small size of the neighborhood also reinforces the idea that racism does not only exist between strangers that do not know one another but also extends to those that know each other personally. Throughout the film we see several of the characters interact with one another and even though they understand each other’s personalities and can see them as complex individuals, they are still able to reduce them down to their racial stereotypes. In addition, by having the film limited to one block, the element of weather is also able to play a large role in the film’s narrative. In the same sense racial tension in America has been coming to a boil over the last few decades, the setting of the film itself is coming to a boil. As the film progresses throughout the day, constant references to the rising heat and the difficulty to remain cool are made. This deliberate fixation with the weather in the film is meant to symbolize the hot bed that race is within America and how any discussion of it quickly gets “heated” and leaving any level headed resolutions in the dust. By highlighting this issue in the film, several film critics have asserted the idea that this film brought those of different races together in real life to talk about racial tensions. Therefore showing how relevant the comments Lee was saying about society’s unwillingness to speak about race before the film’s release was.
The most important element used to promote the film’s overall message of division comes form the element we actually use to the view the film, cinematography. As discussed earlier, Lee is comfortable with using unconventional camera choices if in the end it results in the message of the film being clearer to the audience. In effect, this means that throughout the film there is a large surplus of close ups that are meant to make the viewer feel like they are on the street interacting with the characters in the film. But this feeling of interaction is not the extent of what the close-ups provide for the films message. While making it seem like we are actually looking at the characters, Lee also uses this same technique to frame his shots to make it seem like the audience is watching scenes from the perspective of the characters themselves. Dialogue heavy scenes are shot in a shot-reverse-shot style where the audience is able to take on the point of view of the characters in the film and see how the characters see other characters. Often, these shots are canted or slightly off center to give the feeling that either something is off or wrong with what is going on. By doing so, the idea that something is wrong with society is again reinforced to the audience, along with the idea that the characters in the film physically view those of other races as grotesque
Through carefully crafting Do the Right Thing around the film’s central message of the racial divide that exists in America, Spike Lee has been able to craft a film whose message has not only remained clear, but relevant so long after its release. By locking the location down to one street in Brooklyn and filling it with a cast of diverse characters that view one another in the same light, Lee is really able to highlight the issues that exist in society and the hotbed that these issues are generating. While it is unclear if the relevancy of Do the Right Thing is bigger now or when it was released, it is understood that very few social conscious films have been able to remain as relevant as long as Do the Right Thing has.
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