Vintage Shelf Spike Lee Brings the Heat in Do The Right Thing

first_img Summer in New York is a special breed of hell you’ve got to experience for yourself to fully understand. My first was in 2013. I came up to the city from Richmond, VA (a city in which summers get hot as hell, but remain generally manageable thanks to a reliable breeze and a lack of constant humidity) for an internship and spent June, July, and a bit of August living in an NYU dorm. Because of a late application, I ended up in Rubin Hall, the one dorm without air conditioning.My roommates and I all bought fans from the Kmart down the road but as the summer droned on all they seemed to do was stop the hot air from stagnating rather than cool our dorm room down at all. By the time mid-July rolled around, the overwhelming heat in the dorm was deemed a safety hazard. The only part of the building with reliable AC was the second floor common room and soon, there were fold-out cots assembled across that tiny space to give us some slight retreat.And that was just indoors. Outside, New York is a veritable solar cooker in the summer. If you’re in Manhattan, the mass sprawl of reflective-glass skyscrapers seem to trap the heat and magnify it — and it only gets worse down in the subway system.A column about what we can take away from movies decades after their original theatrical run probably seems like a strange venue for me to talk about how hot it was in Rubin Hall six years ago. I’d wager it seems even weirder considering that this piece is about Do the Right Thing, an indisputable masterpiece of cinema rich and layered in complex doctrines on race, gender, capitalism, and the American dream. But aside from its touching on these heavy, important ideas, Do the Right Thing is a movie that captures just how oppressively hot New York City can get better than any film I’ve ever seen.It has to, doesn’t it? Heat is so fundamental to the film’s narrative function. Director/Writer/Star Spike Lee had no choice but to find a way to make the weather tangible to viewers who had never experienced it. Had he failed, the characters’ journeys through Bed-Stuy on one of the hottest days of the year would seem to make so much less sense. The portrait Lee paints of this neighborhood is one of a stick of dynamite. Tensions have been simmering for god knows how long. The Brooklyn heat is a match and we can tell from the jump that the wick is running short.Portraying a heat wave of this severity isn’t as simple as having Samuel L. Jackson’s DJ (Mr. Señor Love Daddy) note in his morning broadcast that it’s shaping up to be the hottest day of the year, nor is it as simple as having him repeatedly observe that it’s a scorcher throughout the day. Something as necessarily tangible as weather can’t be conveyed through telling. It must be shown.Lee starts with sweat. It doesn’t appear so blatantly at first. Instead it slowly seeps into the film as the hot morning rolls into a scorching afternoon. Before you know it there’s not a single shirt onscreen that isn’t adorned with a ring around the neckline. Foreheads, arms, and chests glisten until you can’t help but wonder how Da Mayor is walking around for the entirety of this movie in a suit without contracting heatstroke.Then Director of Photography Ernest Dickerson steps in and puts in work. He roots the film in tones of mellow and vibrant brown, yellow, and orange. These colors could just as easily be associated with autumn but in his hands they’re made to embody the dog days of summer, the time when the thrill of warm weather has finally worn off and all that remains is a still pressure that won’t go away and seems to become more overbearing every day. He saturates the colors and lights the screen with a hazy glow. At times it seems like Radio Raheem’s white tee has an overexposed glow surrounding it and the views from apartment windows often feature a similar murky haze, as though the world outside is being seen through the fog of heat rising from asphalt.Lee and Dickerson utilize anachronistic close-ups intermittently throughout the film, close-ups that both accentuate detail and provide a necessary isolation of character. With regard to the former, the aforementioned physical side-effects of the heat are never more evident than when the camera is up in the actors’ faces. It’s in those moments you can see tiny lines of sweat on upper lips, hair growing wet at the root, and pores opening up in the heat of the day.But these closeups also serve to provide the feeling of the character in frame being stuck, even imprisoned by the weather. On days like these even apartments can’t provide an escape from the heat (in the film’s opening scene Mookie’s girlfriend, Tina tells him it’s too hot in their bedroom for them to have sex). Enclosed spaces just isolate the heat and let it metastasize like a car with the windows left up. These tight, claustrophobic shots Lee and Dickerson utilize emphasize the inescapability of the weather, the idea that these characters are trapped in a hotbox.These techniques and decisions make the Brooklyn heatwave something the audience doesn’t know but rather understands. We’ve all known days like this, days when the sun won’t quit and there’s no way to escape it as it presses on, the day growing hotter by the hour and neither shade nor the fall of night bringing any real relief. Days like those can drive you crazy — or in the case of Do the Right Thing remove any semblance of pretense. Under the relentless onslaught of the sun, Mookie and his neighbors are too impatient, too aggravated, too damn hot to expend energy on lying, on putting on a friendly face to disguise hatred or prejudice. The heat, pardon me, melts it all away. All that’s left are ugly but necessary truths.Summer in New York City will do that to you sometimes.Stream Do the Right Thing on Amazon or on Hulu.More on Shelf: ‘Election’ and the Joy of Hating a CharacterVintage Shelf: ‘The Hunger’ Has Sex, Vampires, and BowieVintage Shelf: ‘Cobra’ Is Morally Repugnant and Entirely Awesome Stay on target Vintage Shelf: ‘Election’ and the Joy of Hating a CharacterVintage Shelf: ‘In the Heat of the Night’ (1967) last_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *