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Verbal Interactions in "Do the Right Thing"

Verbal Interactions in “Do the Right Thing”

Do the right thing (1989) written and directed by Spike Lee is regarded as one of the most prominent of the “hood films”. Among other films that depict African American suburban community, it stands out due to its theatrical nature, distinctive mood, and ambiguous message. The film combines the elements of comedy and drama to show life in a multi-racial neighborhood. Lee’s artistic approach, joined with charismatic, though a little formulaic characters and sharp dialogues help the director to create a picturesque portrayal of a small community, torn by hidden clashes from within. The conflict of the film is fueled by social and racial issues. As the plot of the film unfolds, these conflicts result in verbal altercations between antagonistic characters and a series of emotional outbursts, directly aimed at the audience. The way these scenes are framed, shot, and directed provides additional layers to the narrative. In that context in is interesting to analyze Spike Lee’s approaches of building substantial and sophisticated dialogues scenes in his film.

The film was inspired by the nonfictional events of Howard Beach incident, and while this story is original, it was meant to express director’s attitude toward the racially fueled violence. While the picture has a distinct visual style, framing, and camera movement, the main emphasis is laid on the conversations of the characters. Spoken word is the main driving force of the conflict in the film. The conflict is ignited by verbal abuse and, until final violent confrontation, dialogue scenes move the plot. But before the paper addresses some particular dialogue scenes filming in Do the right thing, certain words should be said about its setting and characters. The film is set in a neighborhood populated by different ethnic groups: African American, Italian, Chinese and Latin American. The story is shown in the eye of a member of African American community, but Lee does not ignore the problems that exist in it. In Do the Right Thing there are no defined “heroes” or “antagonists”. Spike Lee is well acquainted with the course of life in such a district; thus, he recreates the atmosphere, mood, and typical inhabitants of these neighborhoods in detail. Taking this into account, the setting of the film with its colored backgrounds and claustrophobic heated apartments does look theatrical. Researcher Catherine Pouzoulete states,

Spike Lee performs a series of manipulations that artfully transforms a very real setting into a theatrical stage. On this stage his didactic vision projects itself onto the silver screen… Lee’s aesthetic concerns deliberately overshadow the depth and intensity of racial and economic exclusion. (Pouzoulete 34)

Pouzoulete mentions that unlike other “hood films” Do the right thing does not show black suburbs as dangerous criminal districts. Lee’s version of Downtown Brooklyn is schematic and idealized, but the problems it depicts are real. The theatrical nature of the film is evident not only in the setting, but also in the structure of the film and described characters. The figures of the film represent different social and ethnic groups, and Lee does not hesitate to use stereotypical racial tropes. In his interview Lee confirms that his characters are the archetypes that he tries to disclose describing the film’s protagonist, Mookie, as “irresponsible young black youth” (Glicksman 17). They can seem formulaic, however in their interactions and minor subplots the depth of major characters is revealed. In the center of the conflict there is a pizzeria owner Sal (Denny Aiello) and his son Pino (John Turturro), Mookie (Spike Lee) who works as a pizza delivery boy, local inhabitants Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and various supporting characters. In the film, schematic approach to character creation is justified by general stage nature of the film. The artificial neighborhood of the film serves as a stage for the main conflict which, in a theatrical tradition, unfolds in a series of verbal exchanges.

First confrontation in the film which serves as an inciting incident takes place in the pizzeria. As Buggin’ Out, a self-proclaimed political activist, notices that there are no African American people on the wall of fame in the pizzeria, he voices his concerns to Sal. The scene is medium shot; behind Buggin’ Outs back the whole space is occupied with the wall of pictures. There is no music in the background, and the level of tension is rather low. Nothing could foreshadow that this small episode will be the driving force of the film central conflict. However, it gives a first glimpse at the ideological differences between ethnic groups of the community. Sal, an Italian American who owns the pizzeria, is respectful to his national heritage and people who represent it, at the same time neglecting that most of his customers that are from the African American community. Buggin’ Out at this point of the film serves as a comedic relief. For him, the wall of fame is just a reason for an angry rent, aimed at more successful and, as a result, arrogant pizzeria owners. In further scenes he is revealed to be a ringleader of the community’s mood.

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The second meaningful encounter of the film happens between Buggin’ Out and a white bicycle driver Clifton (John Savage) who runs down his new white shoe with a wheel. Buggin’ Out verbally attacks Clifton, challenging his decision to buy a house in an African American neighborhood. Though at first view it is just another comedic scene, the tension gets higher. Esposito’s character is shot from a low angle stressing his aggression, while the bicycle driver is filmed at the eye level. Another important detail in the frame is that behind Buggin’ Out’s back there is a small mob forming. They do not support him much, but rather engage him in a quarrel, fuel his rage for their entertainment. Catherine Pouzoulete points out how this scene foreshadows further events:

The verbal altercation between Clifton and Buggin’ Out’s friends does not degenerate  into violence, somewhat unconvincingly, but this encounter is one of the several interracial altercations with nonblacks that increase racial tensions up to the murder of Radio Raheem and the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria. (Pouzoulete 35)

The next notable scene is the dialogue between Mookie and Pino as they openly discuss their racial issues with each other. Mookie points out that Pino has lots of African American celebrities to admire. The scene is shot in a very traditional way, with middle close-ups and camera placed at eye level. Jazz music soundtrack and low key lighting make this vignette look intimate, as Mookie and Pino try to have a calm argument for the first time in the film. The differences between their worldviews turn this dialogue into another emotional outburst. What follows is a series of rants performed by different characters of different races in their disdain to other races. These monologues which consist of offensive and stereotype-filled accusations are presented with actors looking straight at the camera on the background of their “natural habitat” (e.g. Pino stands behind the cash register, Mookie is  in the middle of the street, a policeman appears next to his car, etc). In these shots the camera moves on a dolly towards the actors, changing the frame from the medium shot to close-up. Five monologues from different characters about other races exist outside of the main plot. Spike Lee tries to break the fourth wall in many of his films. As characters speak out all their concealed hatred, the audience is directly involved, because these monologues are aimed at them. However, this framing has another opposing effect: as these monologues are directed at the viewer, they can cause a feeling of discomfort. So the audience is drawn into and pushed away at the same time. As if the director told,, “I want you to hear me, but you won’t like what I am going to say”.

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The final confrontation takes place in the pizzeria. Aggressive closing dialogue between Sal, Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out pushes the conflict to its final point, as everything turns to mayhem. All previously established oppositions and hidden racial anger find their way on the outside. The scene is shot in close-up from the Dutch low angle, to point out how deep the misunderstanding is and how dangerously close to ignition the situation gets. As a soundtrack an aggressive rap score “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy is used  and its tense rhythm amplifies the pressure. The scene ends with a riot with expected property damage and tragic casualties.

All of the above-mentioned scenes form the dramatic structure of the film. They signify the development of the conflict from the inciting point to the climax. The earlier calmer scenes have a playful mood and are shot in a traditional manner. As the confrontation, the framing increases, the editing combined with musical score and emotional over-the-top acting help to raise the tension. Cinematic techniques create the dramatic effect until the perfect drama of the unfolding events is in full motion.

In one of the closing shots of the film Mookie and Sall are seen standing opposing each other on the background of the pizzeria burned to ashes. Both of the characters are shown in full shot. Despite the tragedy, their conflict is not resolved; there is an illusive truce between warring parties. The racial hatred is still present in the society. However, confrontation is not the only focus of the film. As researcher Mark Reid stated,

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The interaction occurs among diverse races, ethnic groups and social classes, regardless of the fact that it appears unwanted or racially disloyal. The film will remain an important fixture in the American film canon because Lee weaves a complex image of inescapable social exchanges that occur in an increasingly diverse America. (Reid 11)

Lee shows his own vision of the multicultural melting pot of the American society in all of its diversity and the dangers the misunderstanding between different community groups can bring. Despite the tragic outcome of the film, his vision of the society described in the film is not pessimistic but idealized.

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Superficially, Lee’s film is about racial conflict. However, it contains a contradiction: its colorful stage-like setting, playful mood and quirky charismatic characters are in direct contrast with the racial conflict and violent conclusion. With the help of aesthetics and mood the director creates his vision of a diverse society which exists on the permanent verge of conflict but somehow keeps it from happening. Ethnic groups exist along with each other despite the differences. The intention behind the film was to show how easily this balance can be broken and all the suppressed rage can brake out. The conflict in the film is shown mostly through verbal exchanges, and director utilizes the arsenal of visual techniques to the full extent. With theatric setting, unusual framing, camera angles, and experimental narrative Spike Lee turns dialogue scenes in the film into a complex multi-layered storytelling.