What’s Your Angle?: Dutch Angles in Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING
25 August 2013
Watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is like watching a modern-day, cinematic Greek tragedy: unities (at least time and location) are evident, the chorus present, a prologue, and, of course, a conflict resulting in disaster. That said, Do the Right Thing is a well-structured, stylistic film, which pull its audiences in, entertaining them and posing deeply thought-provoking complexity, primarily on the topic of race.
Personally speaking, trying to write about Do the Right Thing is difficult. To explain, Lee maintains a fair amount of racial equality and perspective in this narrative. It is not a black film or an anti-white film, and, because of that, the film does not take sides, allowing its vast amount of characters to each emerge as three-dimensional individuals, without judgment. In Do the Right Thing, there are no “bad guys” or “good guys” (that intentionally excludes females, whose roles are rather minimized in this feature). Instead of favoring the characters Lee may want the audience to side with, every character is shown with positive attributes as well as flaws. However, it is very difficult to write about these characters and their actions without passing some of judgment Lee works very hard to keep out of his film. And, for that reason, instead of writing about personal thoughts this film has inspired, regarding its main theme of racial conflict, or making connections between recent real-life events perhaps inspired by racial conflicts, this reaction to Do the Right Thing will exclusively focus on Lee’s cinematic decisions, primarily Dutch angles and their influence on his storytelling.
One last note, this is not to say Do the Right Thing’s narrative should not be discussed or debated; in fact, not debating the film’s content, even questioning who, if anyone, did the right thing, if the “right thing” can actually be defined, does this film a disservice. However, after multiple viewings and hours of reflection, all I know about Do the Right Thing is everyone gets hurt, even though everyone did what each perceived to be the “right thing.” Although the ending of the film offers hope, Do the Right Thing is a heart-wrenching tragedy focusing on a real-life problem that seems to have no functional solution.
Briefly, Do the Right Thing is a swelteringly hot day-in-the-life of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy community. Most of the action takes place in or around Sal’s pizzeria (Danny Aiello), a, Italian family owned and run restaurant in the heart of a primarily black community. With a record-breaking heat wave blazing on, the undercurrent of racial tension comes to head. Bugging’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) notices Sal’s restaurant has a Wall of Fame displaying portraits of famous Italians. Buggin’ Out argues Sal should display some influential black men considering his restaurant is in a black community and that community is keeping him in business. (Yes, he does want men. Why not women? Again, the gender divide in Do the Right Thing is as gapping as the racial divide, but it is not explored.) Buggin’ Out tries generating a boycott of Sal’s. Shortly after, when Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a boom box sporting, “Bed-Stuy, Do or Die” resident becomes frustrated with Sal because Sal tells him to turn his music down, Buggin’ Out and Radio join forces and confront Sal. This confrontation, the beginning of the film’s climax, erupts into violence, leading to death and total destruction.
In filmmaking, Dutch angles are typically used to display tension, and in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing Dutch angles are heavily used when building up to the film’s confrontational climax. Clearly, the Dutch angles in Do the Right Thing have a conventional purpose. Beyond the tension, Dutch angles also communicate instability, unrest, and danger. Do the Right Thing is full of all these things.
However, Dutch angles also serve another, less discussed, purpose in Do the Right Thing. Dutch angles are a clear break from realism, unnaturally slanting the shot to remind the audience they are watching a film. Dutch angles are not the only camerawork Lee uses to break this perceived reality—slow pans, for example, are another—, but the Dutch angles are, perhaps, the most pronounced. Question is, why would Spike Lee want to constantly break the audience’s suspension of disbelief, repeatedly reminding them they are watching a movie and not reality?
The first and most obvious answer to this question is Spike Lee has a distinct, visually bold cinematic style. Lee, as auteur, is known for a dramatic use of angles, color, and framing. However, there may be more to it in Do the Right Thing. Lee understands all too well the gravity of his film’s content. The weight of his film’s narrative is heavy, and balancing that with a cinematic approach which does not emphasize this weight is wise. With a strong adherence to realism, Do the Right Thing may become too didactic and overbearing. The film’s bold non-conformity to realism, evident in these angles, not only represents Lee’s unique directorial style, but also offer reminders to the audience that, despite how real the film’s topics and themes are, Do the Right Thing is a film, one that entertains and inspires, but does not lecture.
After the film’s climax, in the film’s conclusion, Lee’s use of Dutch angles stops; there are no Dutch angles in the conclusion. This omission is a signal that tension has passed, complimenting the hopeful message inferred by the film’s final scene.
These angles are clearly part of the cinematic vision Lee felt necessary to capture his film with. Do the Right Thing is a powerful exploration of racial tension, but it is a film, and it seems as though Lee Does not ever want his audience to forget that. His directorial style is on display, and he rather masterfully navigates his way through a complex and controversial narrative with his bold visual design, namely these Dutch angles.