In 1983, Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee created his first award-winning student film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, in which he developed a unique style of introducing films. Viewers are first taken on a ride in the black car in which Joe is being held to be killed. Music, humour, and media combine to place onlookers in the middle of a black, serio-comedic tale of culture and commerce. The texture of the film is grainy, muffled, slightly unfocused, giving the “joint” production, designated in Lee’s film making process, an air of both realism and low budget independence. Lee went on to make films like She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, and Do the Right Thing developing not only his conceptual ideologies of culture and racial identity, but techniques that have made these films stand-out in the African-American community and other areas affected by the issues presented in these films. Lee’s most lauded film is Do the Right Thing, in which Lee elaborates on race and racism solidified into “normal” social contexts.
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On one of the hottest days in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York, racial tensions grow as the brutal sun slinks across the sky and the day comes to an end. The film elapses over a period of twenty-four hours, and Lee’s protagonist and self-acted role, “Mooki”, is a young African American male who delivers pizza for Sal’s pizzeria. On this day another young male asks Sal about a wall of fame within the restaurant, and how come there are no famous black celebrities’ pictures hanging proudly on the plaster. This argument highlights racial divisions within the Bed-Stuy neighbourhood in the first half of the day; by the afternoon, the racial tension and heat of the day have escalated into a fight between Sal, his family, and several black people in neighbourhood. As the police arrive to break up a fight, just as entangled in the stifling atmosphere created by stereotypes of African Americans and the criminal activity of the early 80’s,  they further anger a mob of the black people in the community. A riot explodes amongst all races present, and the officers of the law are left scrambling. Sal’s pizzeria is destroyed during the riot, and it becomes clear that differences must be reconciled on many levels.
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The ambitiousness of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing lies in the film’s rapid movement over so very underrepresented territories. This suits Lee’s explosive technique of cutting from scene to scene during important racial incidents like the famous “Racial Stereotypes” scene where characters are sharply saying racial slurs at the camera to give the illusion of being placed in the first person view of the spectacle. Lee always emerges in his films as both a slippery, ambivalent and slightly shady character, often the object of implicit critique, and as an extradiegetic resistance interrupting the narrative texture. Lee places himself within the context of the storyline, even though he already writes, produces, and directs each film. Being a character within his films creates the reality of the social instability that is seen not only on screen but in the reality of everyday life.
The entirety of the film was shot within two weeks, and the setting was stationed between Quincy and Lexington Avenues in the Bed-Stuy Neighbourhood, and therefore places a fictional story in a gritty reality. The New York climate is used as a metaphor to describe the racial tension escalating between the people within the neighbourhood. The street colours were altered by the production designer to convey the essence of a heat wave. One of Lee’s signature techniques is the making of allusions to real life occurrences and working them into the content of his films through subtle hints. For example, at the climax of Do the Right Thing, angry mob members began chanting “Howard Beach”, referring to the 1986 Howard beach incident. Howard beach was a place where many hate crimes were committed by white males against black males. Lee’s subtlety of real life situations placed in the context of a fictional story creates the anxiety shoved into viewers based off of their own racial views. When the film was released, there was much concern that vicious scenes involving the police and residents of the neighbourhood might cause actual violence to erupt.
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After its release, the film stirred up controversy connected to the conceptualisation of self-identity, an issue not only focused on in painting, writing, film, and music, but in all forms of visual communication. The arts, in fact, can prove quite handy at deciphering the differences and similarities between genders, races, and sexual orientations. Like film, art has only recently begun to be able to express the ideas and concerns of people affected by the stratifying troubles of everyday life. Music videos have also begun to allude to stories and issues of racial discrimination and feminism. All kinds of artists are able to discuss the issues, but others find the issues to be more central within their own lives, and this creates a sense of balance between what is experienced, and what is dreamed of for better experiences.
All forms of communication have begun branching off into conceptual realms, which ask “what is reality?” and “what does it all mean?” Artists like Rashid Johnson have taken a less violent approach compared to some Hip-Hop artists who are influenced by the poverty and discrimination stuck in urban communities. Yet music has also played a role in which Hip-hop, predominately an African American culture, has conceptualised the identity crisis, and the social effects of the urban lifestyle. Lyrics, music videos, and even real life situations have influenced the views of African Americans, not only from a varied outward perspective, but also from an internal viewpoint. The influence of racism integrated itself within black communities and caused a larger demographic divide between African Americans. The violence shown to them was pushed into the minds of the urban youth.
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Spike Lee seems to sense that African Americans have had fill of attempting to reconcile a lack of social status with the worthiness of who they are. Artists, musicians and film makers alike have succeeded in bringing the issues to light, but not many actions have been carried out to change anything off screen. Lee was not the first African American to discuss the issues of racial identity in a form appealing to larger demographics outside of the culture in question, but he has proved more successful than some. His films have won awards and sparked outcry to the point where people began to notice the intricacies of their own everyday interactions. As Do the Right Thing so poignantly and wittily reveals, Lee is a master of mixing contemporary societal views with the potency of visual culture, and is fully capable of creaking open doors to the minds of those who might be oblivious to what is happening all around them.
Sean Steadman
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