Racism is a continuing fruitful topic for gripping drama in cinema. From older movies like Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), up until last years’ Fruitvale Station (2013) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), movies based on the topic of racism continue to be made, to be watched, to be analyzed and to be critiqued.
The way we, as a society, continue to struggle with finding the balance of differentiating between people, and treating those different people as equals, is both sad and -apparently- infinite. Racism fuels the public discours globally and each nations seems to have it’s own form of nationalized racism.
Cinema has always been a great way of communicating the ideas and opinions surrounding racism. Because racism is so often fueled by irrational emotion, it’s something that’s often harder to actually describe than it is to show.
Looking at agent Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) in In the Heat of the Night, and seeing how he, as a black man, is being treated by the white policemen, it’s something you immediately notice visually, but it’s at times hard to describe in words. It can be seen in small gestures, in looks, in words being uttered, or in a way they physically relate themselves to agent Tibbs. Those small things translate so well to the art of the movies, where they audience immediately relates to Tibbs and recognizes all those details visually.
Many movies have successfully portrayed racism and the horrifyingly dehumanized actions they inspire. The aforementioned Fruitvale Station, American History X (1998), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Mississipi Burning (1988) are some that come to mind. And though most of them have received positive reception from critics and audience, none have avoided a certain level of controversy because of their subject matter.
But more importantly, a lot of those films take a pretty clear position on the subject of racism by -first of all- objecting to it completely. American History X makes a simple point of the moral deplorability of the racism inherent in it’s characters, Rabbit-Proof Fence clearly shows how wrong the white people were in abducting the aboriginal children, and few people could argue against the heartbreak of watching an innocent man die in Fruitvale Station.
Now It’d be hard to argue that racism, as a philosophy for co-existence, has any merit of existence. BUT, it is important to realize that the underlying machinations that result in racist behaviour are infinitely more complex than the simple black versus white viewpoint they lead to. Why people become racist, and why they become racist towards some people and not others, are incredibly complex questions to answer. And how do people deal with racist actions? When somebody wrongs someone on the basis of a racist viewpoint, how to you fight back? Do you fight back?
Now I don’t want to start a discussion about these complex subjects on this blog. I might as well write another anthropological thesis to even start covering that subject. But I did want to start with these paragraphs about the complexities behind racism, because those complexities are at the core of what makes Do The Right Thing (1989) a masterpiece and my personal favorite movie about racism.
Do the Right Thing
Do the Right Thing by director Spike Lee, is a movie about racism in its broadest sense. It’s about the underlying thought processes that lead to racist behaviour and the effects of said behaviour. The movie takes place on one extremely hot day, in a small part of a Brooklyn neighborhood, filled with residents from all kinds of corners of the globe. It is a movie about boiling tension between tons of different people, with conflict and strife arising between genders, generations, nationalities and races. The whole movie feels like a pan filled with water which, over the course of it’s two hours of running time, slowly rises in temperature until it explodes in a boiling explosion of heat just as the day ends. An innocent man dies because of police violence, and an ensuing riot destroys the local pizzeria of the fatherly Italian Salvatore..
The thing I love about the approach that Spike Lee takes in this film is that he doesn’t focus purely on the moral deplorability of racism, and he doesn’t preach that we shouldn’t be racists. Instead, he seems to suggest that, no matter what, we will always be racists. It’s unavoidable and in our nature to differentiate and discriminate. He doesn’t suggest a way of life devoid of racism, he suggests that it’s a basic human concept that we’re stuck with.
Taking this stance, however, Spike Lee elaborates on the issue and does question how people deal with this reality of racism. And I’m not talking about ‘questioning’ in that he shows how it’s not done, or how it should be done. No, Lee actually poses serious questions about every type of behaviour, and he never seems to pick a side. Even his lead character, Mookie, portrayed by himself, doesn’t come across as the moral center of the film in the end. He does seem the intelligent, thoughtful and peaceful one for most of the film, and has most of our sympathy throughout the film, but it is also Mookie that eventually initiates the major riots that destroy Sal’s pizzeria in the end.
Actually, I can’t recall another movie that so honestly portrays so many different aspects of the issue in such a balanced way. During the course of the film the viewer will sympathize with the residents of the neighborhood as much as they will criticize them. Endless discussions can be had on who’s fault it is that a person dies and that a restaurant is destroyed, or whether there’s justice in the destruction or not.
All throughout the film a stuttering character Smiley walks around trying to hand out a photograph of Martin Luther King jr. and Malcolm X posing together. In the end he hangs that photograph on a wall inside the destroyed pizzeria of Sal and the movie closes with a quote from both activists, one promoting non-violence, the other promoting violence (in a sense). Thus the movie ends with an ambiguous message. ‘Is violence justified or not?’
It’s this honest and intelligent ambiguity that I respect so much about the movie. I felt so much injustice in the destruction of the pizzeria of Sal, but then I couldn’t forget the unnecessary death of the Radio Raheem character. No violence is justified in the movie, but can we understand where it comes from? Sadly I can.
So I’ve spent over a 1000 words writing about the film and I still haven’t even used the term cinematography. But I needed to write this background to arrive at the core of why I love the upcoming One Shot. Because this time, the One Shot is completely related to the themes of the movie. Whereas last time I picked a shot based on a loving, almost irrational, feeling of beauty, this time I chose a shot with utmost clarity of thought and analyzes.
But first of all, let’s talk a bit about the cinematography of Do The Right Thing, because it’s classic. It’s stylized, unique, and sizzling with color and movement that convey the time-period, atmosphere and subject matter perfectly. The cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson (a regular for Spike Lee by the way, having shot five of his movies) uses incredibly unconventional camera angles to heighten the tension, both between the characters and the audience. We see surreal fourth-wall-breaking monologue shots, extreme dutch angels and over-saturated color usage, all aimed at involving the audience in an active way.
In one dazzling sequence tons of characters start to spew all kinds of racist remarks about certain groups of people. All of them are filmed in fourth-wall breaking style, addressing the cameralens, and thus the audience. For a few minutes, you actually feel as if you’re the one who’s being harassed with racist remarks. The sequence is as funny as it’s painful and hard to stomach.
The One Shot
One of the most evocative shots of the movie comes at the end. When Sal’s pizzeria is completely destroyed and is burning to ashes, and the rioting crowd slowly disperses, the character of Smiley re-appears and enters the pizzeria. He places the aforementioned photograph of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King jr. on the wall and then smiles. Cut to black.
What follows is the epilogue of the following day, but that shot signals the end of the film, the final moment of the conflict. And Spike Lee resolves the conflict by paying homage to two seemingly incompatible viewpoints of King and X. That in and of itself is a beautifully ambiguous way of (not) resolving the issue, but what I love even more is that final moment when we see Smiley framed front and center smiling just off-center of the camera.
The shot is so beautiful in its weird contrasts. We can sympathize with the emotion of seeing King and X together in the frame and feel for Smiley as he finally gets his wish as the photograph is hanging on Sal’s “Wall of Fame”, but then we also realize that everything but the wall is completely destroyed and burned down.
That Spike Lee and Ernst Dickinson chose to frame Smiley front and center fits the style of the film, but here it becomes even more dynamic as they place a burning pile of rubble just behind him, making it look as if fire emerges from Smiley’s head.
The shot doesn’t overtly say anything we should take at face value, but to me it suggests the entire theme of the movie. How Smiley’s face seems both sweet and ominous, how there is a sense of heaven and hell in the composition and such an opposing sense of viewpoints. It perfectly caps off the conflict. It resolves nothing, but gives off the best questions to start talking about.
And that is the powerful ending of the movie. The diametrically opposed views of violence and non-violence converged in a single moment.