Essay On An Exploration Of The Mise En Scene In Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Film, Cinema, Camera, English Language, Media, Viewer, Race, Tension

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2020/12/07

The boldest idea, most brilliant script, and the greatest cast would all be nothing without masterful cinematography, which Blain describes in Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Imagemaking For Cinematographers and Directors as “the process of taking ideas, words, actions, emotional subtext, tone, and all other forms of nonverbal communication and rendering them in visual terms” (Blain 2). In his journal, Lee reiterates the importance of exquisite filmmaking: “Not just anyone can make a good film. Film is not to be played with. It may be our most powerful medium and should be treated as such” (Lee 19). In Do the Right Thing, Lee commands his uniquely powerful directorial voice through the use of cinematic tools in order to create a necessary reaction within the viewer about a perpetual issue that demands to be recognized.
One of the most crucial tasks in filmmaking is to design a convincing visual microcosm. This imaged world plays an absolutely vital role in the viewer’s perception of the story, as well as their connection to the characters and their inclinations. Cinematography is largely responsible for this created universe in which the characters inhabit and the story unfolds; furthermore, “all these elements work together [and] everything in visual storytelling is interrelated” (Blain 2). To create this unique visual world, Lee’s first intention was to create an intensely heated scene, both physically and mentally. In his journal preparing for the film, Lee writes: “‘The hottest day of the summer’ is a good starting point [] Examining racial tensions and how the hot weather only makes them worse” (Lee 34). Set in a swelteringly Brooklyn summer day that would rise above 100 degrees, Lee utilizes the nature of heat as a representation of not only physical discomfort but also a metaphor for the emotional unrest related to the controversial topic of race relations. The unprecedented heat wave in this black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant
accentuates the undertow of racial tension, which Lee describes as “how the hot weather adds fuel to the fire,” ultimately leading to the film’s climax, which bursts into violence, havoc, and death (Lee 41).
“Choosing the frame is a matter of conveying the story,” and through the movie’s composition and perspective, Lee is able to display fundamental elements of the story without using any verbal exposition (Blain 4). For instance, the uses of light and color possess a unique power that is matched only by music and dance: “they have the ability to reach people at a gut, emotional level” (Blain 8). Lee uses light and color as implemental tools for adding further layers of emotional meaning to the story. In his contemplation about the film, Lee writes, “The look of the film should be bright. The light in the daytime should be an intense white light almost blinding, and the colors, bright” (Lee 29). This intense color accentuates the black community and its culture, while also inviting the viewer into a world he or she may otherwise not be familiar with. In addition to light and color, visual texture is also used to manipulate what would simply be a mere replication of reality. “The whole range of image manipulation” has an effect on the viewer’s perception of the film, which can include “changing the color and contrast of the picture, desaturating the color of the image, filters” and so on (Blain 9). For instance, the film begins with a deep, red-orange overlay to convey the warmth of summer as well as familial bond within the community, while also adding a moody touch of heaviness and sensuality. All of these elements serve to bolster Lee’s inspired vision of “the black community as his extended family, in which there still exist brotherly sharing and civil interaction between black people” (Reid 11). Furthermore, the film allows a medium through which Lee can concoct a thorough display of the “inescapable social exchanges that occur in an increasingly diverse America” (Reid 11).
Do the Right Thing employs heavy use of Dutch angles to exhibit Lee’s cinematic vision. Lee uses Dutch angles to express volatility, danger, and increasing tension—particularly leading up to the disastrous climax where one of the characters dies in a chokehold. These angles are a vital channel through which the relationships between the characters are faithfully expressed. For example, Dutch angles are used during a scene with Tony and Radio Raheem in the pizza parlor. Using Dutch angles, the camera goes back and forth between the two characters. These particular angles are particularly functional for the visual demonstration of dysfunction, and serve to underline the antagonism and indignation between Sal, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem. “Dutch angles in the film also serve a less obvious purpose of creating a rift between fiction and realism. The unnatural slant of such angles is a constant, subtle reminder to the audience that what they are witnessing is a film. Here, we can witness the deeper intent of Lee’s direction and purpose in his desire to dismantle the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. As the force behind the film, Lee knows better than anyone else of the immense weight of his film’s message. Rather than add even more gravity to his already weighty subject matter, he offers a bit of a reprieve for the audience by balancing the content with cinematic choices such as unrealistic angles. Lee cleverly avoids the pitfall of potentially becoming too peremptory and high-handed in its message. Do the Right Thing is undoubtedly a momentous examination of racial tension, but it is still just a film. Rather than simply coinciding with realism, Lee exhibits not only his unique style about a contentious topic, but also allows the viewer to feel captivated and inspired, rather than expounded or berated. Following the climax, Lee discontinues any further usage of Dutch angles. The conclusion is without any of these unnatural slants, indicating diminished tension and reinforcing the message of hope contained within the final scene.
Camera movement is also essential to the accurate presentation of race relations amongst the characters. Throughout the movie, rapid shot/counter-shots serve to intensify the scenes in which the characters are arguing and loudly voicing their opinions. For example, in a scene when Pino and Mookie are in a heated discussion about race, in which Lee describes as “how a little incident compounds tensions between Blacks and Italians and becomes a full-scale race riot,” the dispute could have easily been filmed in a two-shot camera angle which would contain both characters in one scene (Lee 41). The exchange, however, garners more power and steam from brisk shot-reverse-shots, while signaling to the gap between Pino, who is a racist Italian that resents his brother, Vito’s relationship with Mookie, a young black man. The rapid pose of the camera movements highlights the intensifying tension and turmoil, while adding to the avidity of the acerbic dialogue. In this scene, Mookie and Pino discuss the idea held by the leader of Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan: that blacks will again control the world as they did in the beginning of mankind. Mookie consents with this theory while Pino adamantly regards it as a preposterous delusion. In this scene, the shot/reverse shots are not only rapid but also take place in the middle of the characters’ lines rather than at the end. This lends the impression that each characters’ words and beliefs, though impassioned, are not truly being considered by the other. The audience is therefore able to experience the inner-workings of the characters’ minds, by witnessing how perception of other races is often marred by one’s own personal investments and concerns.
Visual storytelling relies heavily upon the skillful use of point-of-view. “The camera is the ‘eye’ of the audience; how the camera takes in the scene is how the audience will perceive it,” and in this scene, we are able to inhabit the characters’ minds and experience the world as they do (Blain 10). In the same scene between Mookie and Pino, the camera also uses lowered angles. This accentuates the dramatic contrast in stature between the two characters, as well as their own perceptions of one another. Camera distance and perspective is also instrumental in permitting the viewer to feel completely included and involved with the characters. In many scenes, the camera has a close-up on the character, placing the viewer at the forefront of the action. The audience is therefore able to experience to a deeper degree the mental and emotional unease that is created during the interactions between hostile and defensive characters. For example, the close-up of Smiley and the lit match in the darkness utilizes not only the intimacy of being in the mind of a devastated individual, but is also a closed-in moment of stoic grief in the midst of absolute chaos in the parlor. In addition, when Radio Raheem first enters the pizza parlor with his boombox and disturbs Sal’s peace of mind, the camera uses a close-up of Radio Raheem’s sweat-ridden face to accentuate his demand for not only pizza but also a deeper desire for respect and justice. When he returns with Buggin’ Out and again plays his “jungle music,” the extremely loud music and even louder yelling is again accompanied by abrupt and quick low angle shots. After Radio Raheem’s death, a group of black men stare back at Sal and his sons. The black men are at an even, medium angle, while Sal is shown with a lowered angle, which, in this case, places an ironic stance on the tragedy that his actions just created. On the other hand, in a scene when Mookie walks with Pino’s brother, Vito, who is far less acerbic, the lowered angle is replaced with a slightly higher shot. They are in an argument, but not one of the same nature as before. Eventually, Vito agrees that he perhaps needs to discuss with Pino the need for an adjustment in attitude. The sense of resolution is conveyed not only through the peaceable dialogue but also in the camera angle and form. Whereas the exchange between Mookie and Pino was dramatized by Dutch angles and abrupt camera shots, the milder camera work in this scene shows the effect of editing on both abating and creating tension. Other examples of the use of the camera as the audience’s eye includes the high angled scene of the carefree little girl drawing a house, sunshine, and flowers with chalkboard isolates the image and reminds us of the innocence that exists within such racial tension, which is signaled when Mookie walks across the artwork with no reaction from the girl. In the following scene when Mookie then encounters Radio Raheem and discovers his “LOVE” and “HATE” rings. The close-up angle of the jewelry points to the two broadest sectors of existence: love and hate. “Let me tell you the story of right hand, left hand—the tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man, the right hand, the hand of love. The story of life, is this (crosses fingers together): one hand is always fightin’ the other hand.” The close-up angle emphasizes the simple matter of human nature and its fight between good and evil.
The unique and mysterious world of film involves a masterful balancing act between the practicalities of the camera as well as the “artistic side of creating a visual world, visual metaphor, and storytelling” (Blain 11). It is singlehandedly responsible for making the vision of the director “come alive” (Blain 12). Even more, the cinematography in any great film demands attention to the psychology of the viewer, to allow him or her to gain something beyond the fictional, unreal storyline of the film. In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the unique style of cinematography is masterfully wielded to dramatize controversial racial tensions between the characters, through the specific use of angles, camera movement, and lens perspective, as well as moody light and bright, flamboyant color; furthermore, the film explores not only the physical irritation of a body in the midst of swelter, but also the takes a deep look into the undercurrent of unsettlement and resentment that remain even more prone to agitation than their physical bodies in the face of extreme heat.

Works Cited

Lee, Spike, and Lisa Jones. Do The Right Thing: A Spike Lee Joint. New York, N.Y.: Fireside, 1989. Print.
Reid, Mark. Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.
Brown, Blain. Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Imagemaking For Cinematographers and Directors. 2nd ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Focal, 2012. Print.

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