Heat Rises in Do the Right Thing

This week’s class review exemplifies the idea that you can learn more from a movie with multiple viewings. I first saw Do the Right Thing in high school and struggled with it. And while Lee’s breakthrough film still isn’t one of my all-time-faves, on second viewing I think I understood it better. Here’s a clip from the film…

From the first frame of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), it is clear that this will be an aggressive movie. Tina (Rosie Perez) dances frantically to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, gritting her teeth, grinding her hips, and throwing punches into the air. The sequence lasts for the length of the entire song—a rarity—and the editing is just as insistent as Tina’s dancing with precise, sharp cuts.

The song and the frenzied tone carry through the entire film as tension builds in Brooklyn. On the hottest day of the year, on a poor city block, pizza delivery boy, Mookie (Spike Lee), is at the center of the action as the neighborhood’s long-term bigotry ripens into violence. Do the Right Thing subtly focuses on a push-pull friction between non-violent rebellion and violent retribution. Mookie is often the voice of reason as racial conflicts continue to arise: he talks down his friend, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) from starting a fight in Sal’s Pizzeria and then forces Sal’s son, Pino (John Tuturro) to think about his own racism. Yet Mookie ultimately breaks under the pressure of the neighborhood’s pain by taking violent action in the film’s climax.

It’s a film where the word, “fucking” is traded like currency. Where everyone is yelling at everyone for reasons both profound and trivial. A film where music defines identity, particularly with Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carrying around a giant boom box, constantly blasting “Fight the Power.” Where all the characters are at war and the major dividing lines are the eternal battles of young vs. old, black vs. white, or love vs. hate.

Spike Lee wears many hats in Do the Right Thing as producer, writer, director, and star. As such, every choice in the film conveys a heightened sense of Lee’s aesthetic. For example, much is made of the heat in the movie. Radio host Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) as the eyes of the block tells his audience how hot the weather is while reminding them to cool down—a warning that works on many levels. Visually, the film is noted for its use of vibrant, sizzling color. And Brooklyn itself becomes a major player in the film as its raw, red-brick walls reflect and amplify the heat.

Lee’s cleverness extends to his positioning of the camera, as the lens takes on the perspective of various characters. The skill of Do the Right Thing is in forcing the audience to identify, or at the very least witness, the viewpoints of characters from every level of the social strata on the block. The camera and narrative tend to stick with Mookie, but shifts around because of the high tensions latent in each individual. To examine one issue too closely would be to ignite a powder keg. And that is exactly what happens as the camera whirls between Sal (Danny Aiello) and Radio Raheem, whose mutual violent outbursts end in destruction.

Though the emotions are amplified to the point of being unreal, the ensemble cast makes each over-the-top line feel honest and natural. As the film’s ringleader, Spike Lee makes a statement that is harried and loud. The ending is the most effective moment, however, with the dual quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X regarding violence and non-violence giving the film a quiet clarity that finally calms the raging passion of Do the Right Thing.

The Art of Storytelling in Short Term 12

It’s post-midterm time in my film reviewing class, which means that our word limits get bumped up to a max of 575. This class has forced me to watch several emotionally driven dramas that I had spent last year avoiding because I knew they might clobber my psyche. Each one has proven to be a well crafted and, yes, emotional experience. So without further ado, here is my first review with the new word limit.

With all the spectacle and grand capabilities of blockbuster films since the advent of computer generated effects, it is sometimes easy to forget about the quiet stories. And in a number of unfortunate cases, storytelling—the crux of the film medium itself—is being sacrificed for these extravagant digitized images. Independent films these days are akin to The Little Engine that Could churning up a narrative mountain. Stripped of a studio’s monster budgets, independent filmmakers are given the chance to hone the craft of weaving fiction. A prime example of the independent market’s grasp of strong narratives is writer/director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 (2013). As a writer, Cretton frames his film with acts of storytelling, which then furthers Short Term 12’s larger narrative. As a director, Cretton coaxes his actors to live and breathe their character’s stories. The combination of these two abilities is what makes Short Term 12 a quiet story with a loud impact.

As mentioned, Short Term 12 begins with the charming tall-tales of Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is sharing his exploits at the residential treatment facility to a new co-worker, Nate (Remi Malek). Mason’s story functions on two levels: one it introduces humor into what the audience comes to understand as a difficult environment and; two it acts as a framing device for the film itself. As the climax of Mason’s story nears, a kid comes bursting out of a building, screaming, and running for the exit. Mason, Nate, and Grace (Brie Larson) catch the errant child and hold him as he calms down. The true function of these social workers is revealed; they are to be anchors in the storm for these young adults with no mooring and very turbulent emotions. This scene also subtlety suggests a theme of the film which is that escape is not always the best way to handle pain.

Despite Mason’s engaging introduction, it is Grace who is the lead protagonist of this film. She is quiet, yet confident in her professional life in ways that she cannot manage to bring to her personal life. Grace’s strained romantic relationship with Mason runs parallel to her remarkably open interactions with the troubled teens of the film, which serves to illustrate her own personal scars. In particular, Grace’s connection with Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) provides a jagged mirror to Grace’s past that she is not ready to look at. As an actress, Larson is in command of her performance, providing emotional distance and depth that she allows the audience to gradually sink into. The young Kaitlyn Dever shows promise as she throws herself into the role of an angst ridden teen. Dever and Larson both had supporting roles in The Spectacular Now (2013) and are given an opportunity to play to each other’s strengths as reluctant equals in Short Term 12.

Overall the film deals expertly with the large-scale issues of abandonment and alienation as every character is allowed a voice at some level, and Cretton’s biggest achievement is that he respects these multiple voices that reflect real conflicts for troubled teens. The hand-held quality of the cinematography further contributes to that sense of reality as if Short Term 12 were a series of moments that Cretton and cinematographer, Brett Pawlak, just happened to capture. In short, the film is a natural, nuanced piece of storytelling. No effects needed.