Release date: June 30th 1989
Running time: 120 minutes
Writer and director: Spike Lee
Composer: Bill Lee
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Spike Lee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Joie Lee
Fire hydrant: 00:25:56 to 00:30:18
Inequality, racial tensions, claustrophobia and heat: the perfect combination of ingredients to simmer up a recipe for disaster.
Spike Lee offers us a chance to glance into a window overlooking Brooklyn in 1989 with his breakthrough film Do the Right Thing; a socially realistic film that symbolises to us how mineral oil and water can never mix.
I enjoy films that aren’t passive, films that challenge you to make up your own mind by just showing you an unbiased, true account of how things are and so, it’s not a surprise that I love this film; It’s unconventional. It’s brilliant. Its takes on the flaws in America society are a must watch.
The heat of the day is an oxymoron for the prejudice felt between different racial communities living in the same area of Brooklyn; Spike Lee’s home town. The drama genre is used, this allows the film to feel more realistic to us and the fact that Spike Lee grew up in Brooklyn adds to the pronominal realism.
There is also a sub genre of legal drama. Do The Right Thing presents flaws in the legal system and law enforcement, showing that the system is corrupt and as a result, adding to the tensions between racial groups. The fact that this film even dares to present the legal system as corrupt is daring and truly jaw dropping.
In James Monaco’s How To Read A Film he explains:
Lee has manipulated every shot to create a meaning for the audience so that he can highlight the racial tensions in America. By symbolising the themes, through underlying messages within the mise en scene, he is making it more interesting for us to read. It also makes the themes more memorable as the scenes are quirky and unforgettable.
The water hydrant scene portrays the community having fun, cooling down with the water and forgetting about fights prior to the boys turning on the water hose. Lee uses this scene to tone down the suspense felt by the audience. Nevertheless, the underlying messages of the ironic scene are not toned down at all when the mise en scene is considered and the metaphors are analysed.
At a first viewing of the scene, the water gives off connotations of purity, as if the characters are cleansing themselves of their sins from previous fights and tensions. Everyone is happy, children are playing and no one is causing trouble. The boys even allow Radio Raheem to pass without getting his boom box wet as it blares out Public enemy’s ‘Fight the Power‘. The song alone is a hint of what is to come as it acts as the theme tune to the film. The song seems unimportant as Raheem walks past the children yet the 1989 summer hit that brought hip hop to the mainstream has huge relevance to the film. It presents racial inequality and revolutionary anger in Brooklyn.
Flava Flavs rap reminds the audience of the root to all the arguments that day, reminding them Buggin’ out wants to boycott Sal’s Pizzeria. As soon as Radio Raheem passes, we know the tension will build back up to a dangerous level. Ultimately, as soon as a different race of an American enters the scene, the peace is abolished and hatred returns as they interfere with the new character.
The water spilling from the hose erratically represents ideas of a party popper being opened, exploding its contents everywhere. Lee is using this action as a hint for what is to come. The hydrant represents the fight that will inevitably break out at the end of the day and the water represents the tensions and hatred felt that is currently being held in by a plug, put there by the government.
Monaco goes on to say:
Space is an essential theme throughout. The hydrant scene is one of only a handful of scenes where Lee uses a wide shot frame to tell his own West Side Story. The frames are usually small and the fact that he does not use an establishing shot to introduce the setting of the film presents ideas of claustrophobia.
In the hydrant scene the frame showing the community playing together is wide, yet still narrow. This frame symbolises the relationship being close-knit within the black community. When the white American abruptly drives through their fun symbolises the fact that all the different communities are living on top of each other and there is nothing that they can do about it.
The abruptness of the car interrupting the scene shows us that anything can happen within this story as we cannot always see the whole picture because of the fast paced editing and narrow, quirky frames.
His car symbolises the inequality of America; it is expensive and distinctive. It shows the social difference between the races and when they destroy it with the pure water, Lee portrays the corruption, even in innocence.
Lee purposefully does not use widescreen, he is emphasizing the fact that there is no space in Brooklyn. All the characters live peacefully at the beginning of the day but as the sun heats up and the weather becomes more intolerable and the phrase “It’s hot” is repeated more and more. The lack of space will inevitably lead to problems.
The limitations of the camera shots force us to only understand Mookie’s narrative, leading to more themes of claustrophobia.
At first, Mookie is presented as the glue that keeps all the races together. He is seen as the peacemaker, the protagonist. As the film moves on, we realise that he is in fact the antagonist of the story. He is passive and he also causes the fire at Sal’s Pizzeria. Lee is saying that not one race is the ideal race and not one opinion is the right one.
In my opinion, Lee uses this film as a platform for highlighting racial inequality in America by using his own experiences as an example. The fact that this film is still popular shows its relevance to racism that still exists today.
The adaptation from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by way of West Side Story has themes that continuously run throughout Lee’s film. The idea of having two enemy gangs from different ethnic backgrounds; the Jets and Sharks, fighting because of their differences is key. Lee uses the opening credits as a tribute to West Side Story demonstrating the fact that America’s idea of an equal country can only exist in a fictional musical. He demolishes the idea of dancing being the anecdote to fixing the problems in America.
The mise en scene and mise en shot help establish the anger and build up the tension that leads to a hugely violent fight to symbolise his opinion that if America does not change, the tension will become too high and violence will entail. Lee is saying that to find equality will be difficult. He uses two contrasting quotes from two men fighting for the same cause. Malcolm X says:
Martin Luther King argues:
The director is summarising his film, portraying the racism through a raw outlook but not providing an answer. He leaves us confused and uncomfortable with the outcome showing that something needs to be done but he does not know how to fix the apartheid.
Lauren is final year student on a Creative Media course with the aim of starting university later this year. She enjoys spending her time either writing, analyzing, watching films or pouring pints for the locals at work.
An avid cult fan, she also enjoys films that depict social realism and are not afraid to be bold and brutal. On the other hand, she also likes the odd ones too; Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude is one of her favourite films. People she admires include director Shane Meadows and Hollywood icons James Stewart and Orson Welles who was 26 when he made Citizen Kane. “I have 5 more years to prepare a film that’s as good as his…”