Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: Building Tension with Mise-En-Scene

by Randy Krinsky

I recently had the opportunity to watch the Spike Lee’s critically successful film, Do the Right Thing (1989). I have seen it before, quite a few times to be more precise, but this time I was watching with an eye for critical dissection. I was looking for something to write about and Spike Lee’s award-winning film has always been a favorite for film studies. However, in watching, I got caught up in the drama and found myself engrossed in the film as if I had never seen it before. It was afterwards that I realized how brilliantly Spike Lee builds the tension in the film’s climax using the mise-en-scene.  The way the climax is filmed couldn’t have been done better!

The term mise-en-scene is a bit misleading as it is not just concerned with the scene per se, but with all that is contained within.  Understanding the mise-en-scene gives us meaning, establishes mood, and expresses the importance of what the viewer is seeing.  Because of this, every detail is important.  The enlightened viewer needs to be aware of where the lighting is coming from, how the camera is angled and how it is moving, what area of the frame is in focus, and distinguishing how all these cinematic choices influence the overall meaning of the shot or scene.  In terms of cinematography and mise-en-scene, Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing, was significant.  Lee successfully used lighting, camera movement and camera angles to help reinforce the racial tensions that are prevalent throughout the film.  The film’s climactic buildup contained a sequence replete with canted angles, shadowy light and rapid fire shot/reverse shots that had great effect in making the viewer feel almost helpless in the face of building racial tension that was about to explode in emotions on the screen.

The initial climax sequence consists of over 40 shots, lasting approximately one and a half minutes, but I want to concentrate on the first series of seven shots of this climactic scene, introducing the struggle, to describe in detail.  Sal (Danny Aiello), his sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), along with their delivery man, Mookie (Spike Lee), have closed up Sal’s Famous Pizzeria for the evening Sal decides to let in a last-minute group of teens looking for one last slice of pizza.  The shot opens as the camera cuts to a medium four shot, eye level, of four African-American teens, dressed in various multi-colored outfits, sitting around a table in the pizzeria with the wall of fame behind them.  This wall of fame is the controversial centerpiece that has become the focal point for the racial tension that is stirring in the neighborhood.  The wall is full of important American Italians, yet lacks any African American representation, even though the pizzeria is in a predominantly African American neighborhood.  Regardless, the teens seem focused elsewhere, namely on getting their pizza before the eatery closes.  They are looking off screen, frame left, and carrying on loudly.  The shot is naturally lit from hanging lamps around the pizzeria, low-key lighting casting slight shadows against the wall behind them.  Suddenly, off screen, music is heard.  It’s Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” the signature song of neighborhood “hangabout”, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn).  The music is heard over the voices of the teens as they stop and all turn their heads frame right towards the sound.  Straight cut to a medium eye-line two shot of Pino and Vito.  Pino is a stereotypical tall American Italian, medium black hair, gold chain necklace, wearing black pants, a black short sleeve dress shirt, and a white undershirt.  Vito, the more sympathetic of the two, is also a tall American Italian, medium cropped brown hair, wearing a black muscle shirt and light colored shorts.  They are sitting at opposite tables and look up and off frame left towards the sound of the music.  The lighting is still low key lighting from the overhead lamps casting shadows all around them.  The camera cuts to a canted low angled tight medium three shot consisting of Radio Raheem, the aptly nicknamed Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith).  Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out dominate the frame, with Smiley between and behind them.  Raheem is a tall, imposing, African-American male, short-cropped faded hairstyle, a white graphic t-shirt with the words “Bed-Stuy Do or Die,” camouflage shorts, and an African medallion draped down from his neck.  He is carrying a large boombox style radio in his right hand, from which the loud music is emanating.  Buggin’ Out is an African-American male of medium height, with short dreadlocks sticking up out of his head, with the sides shaved high and tight.  He has a thin moustache, one gold front tooth, and he is wearing black round-rimmed glasses, multiple medallion necklaces, an orange-yellow striped multi-colored shirt matching his predominantly orange multi-colored shorts.  Smiley is also a tall African-American male, but not as imposing as Raheem; he is mentally slow, with short hair and a light beard and moustache, wearing grey cargo pants and a pinkish long-sleeve collarless shirt, with a pocketful of markers and pens, a walkman carrying case hung around his neck adorned with various stickers.  The camera pulls back to a wide angle medium shot, not tracked but most likely using a handheld camera as indicated by the unsteady nature of the withdrawal.  The camera has pulled back to a position suggesting it is just in front of the counter and then stabilizes.  Buggin’ Out spits on the floor, then he and Raheem walk toward the camera still at a canted angle.  The lighting gets lower key as they enter the shadows surrounding them.  The camera cuts to a high angle canted wide medium shot of Sal, a tall dark haired American Italian, large build, gold necklace and pendant, wearing a black Hawaiian-style shirt with green cactus and red dirt images, and a black wristwatch.  He is behind the counter, looking straight up at the camera, throws down his white hand towel and steps inward toward the camera/counter.  He confronts the men about the loud music, talking slightly off camera to frame right, indicating he is addressing Raheem.  Quick cut to a canted medium two shot of Raheem and Buggin’ Out yelling back at Sal, with Smiley silently in the background between the two large men.  Cut to a reverse-shot of Sal responding loudly back. Quickly cut to a reverse shot of Raheem staring intently while Buggin’ Out continues his verbal barrage towards Sal.  By now the viewer sees where this is headed, the tension has built to a level where it was bound to overflow.

The foreseeable occurs as shown with a series of quick canted shot/reverse shots continuing as the tension builds with Sal insisting they turn the music off while Buggin’ Out responds with demands that some prominent African Americans need to be placed on the pizzeria’s wall of fame.  Ultimately, Sal has had enough and takes a baseball bat to Raheem’s radio setting off a all-encompassing brawl that overflows into the street, igniting a riot that eventually leads to Raheem’s death and Sal’s pizzeria being ransacked and burned.  This is the  culmination of the racial tensions between Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out and Sal, apparently over the issue of whether African Americans should be represented on the wall of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.  However, this is just an excuse as you already have a group of angry, disenfranchised youth on what is portrayed to be the hottest day of the year looking for an outlet.

In setting up this sequence, director Spike Lee and his cinematographer made deliberate choices in terms of camera angles, positions, movement and lighting.  The music plays a large role as well.  The racially-charged anthem by Public Enemy, earlier established in the film as the signature song of the character of Raheem, is heard and immediately broadcasts the arrival of him and his cohorts before they are even seen on screen.  In fact, the music blaring over the interchange adds to the drama.  Canted angles are usually used to denote confusion or to disorient the viewer.  Once the camera cuts to Raheem, Buggin’ Out and Smiley, Spike Lee uses multiple canted angles to signify the anger and hostility of the group.

We are also shown the group from a low angle, as if to enhance their status or to represent their own importance as seen through their own eyes.  In contrast, the high angle view of Sal is depicted in almost a criticizing manner, meant to diminish his status in the eyes of Raheem and Buggin’ out.  The different angled views of the participants sets up the dramatic differences in the perceived, if not real, stature of the characters as viewed by their opposition.  From Sal’s point of view, he most certainly would have been seen from a low angle or straight on in an eye line view to show his status as the business owner; however, to Raheem and the others he is seen as the focal point of all that is bad and racist with the neighborhood.

In addition to the camera angles used, the decision to use specific types of shots tells the viewer much about what is going on in the scene as well.  The use of the fast paced shot/reverse shots with the yelling characters builds a sense of heightened confusion and adds to the tension.  This showed the quickness of how an event can escalate without any time for reason to prevail.

Do the Right Thing is a testament to mise-en-scene as the director and cinematographer’s choices of shots and camera angles add so much to the climax scene.  What is actually said is of little consequence, the actors could have read lines from any script.  What makes this scene meaningful is that it was delivered with the intensity that comes from the combination of low-key lighting, canted angles, and rapid fire shots.  The racial tension was built up to an inevitable explosion of emotion on screen.  This is one of the main reasons that this film is held in such high regard and seen as one of Lee’s seminal works. If you haven’t seen it, you are missing out!