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Baked Apple: The Stealth Worldbuilding of Do the Right Thing Part 2

Welcome back to my essay exploring the worldbuilding of Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing. To catch up on Part 1, click here. Otherwise, continue on! 

“How Come You Ain’t Got No Brothers Up on The Wall?”

Spike Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson

The most important element to effective worldbuilding comes from the overall presentation of the world itself. Though the director is the overseer of all the decisions, the actual execution falls to the production and costume designers to create the sets and clothing and the cinematographer to shoot it. Thus, in order to present the world properly, these departments must work in perfect harmony, assisting one another in order to craft a perfect world. The design team for Do the Right Thing was lucky to have the eye of Ernest Dickerson, the insight of Wynn Thomas, and the perception of Ruth E. Carter to bring the world of Bed Stuy to vivid life.

In order to have a believable world, one must have a world to begin with. As the production designer, Wynn Thomas sought to create a realistic representation of a Bed Stuy neighborhood where there was “a true sense of reality” not only for the audience, but also for the actors working on the sets so that they can be “secure that the world they’re working [in], the set that they’re working with, is very close to the real world.” However, Thomas was also struck by Spike Lee’s use of theatrical conventions in the script which allowed him to visualize more theatrical sets and images for the world of Do the Right Thing.

Thomas’s design of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria is a prime example. When researching pizzerias, Thomas found that most of the contemporary pizzerias didn’t look right. They lacked a sense of personality. Instead, Thomas sought to create a more theatrical set, a pizzeria that may not reflect what the pizzerias of the time actually looked like, but one that felt welcoming and would be something “that is clearly not realistic, but feels realistic.” 

As a result, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria is an extension of Sal himself and reflects the essence of his character. “This was a place that Sal built with his bare hands,” Thomas explains. As a result, the audience feels a connection to the pizzeria and are shocked to see its destruction at the end of the film. Many of the reviews balked at the destruction of Sal’s with no mention of the death of Radio Raheem that preceded it, something Spike Lee is always quick to point out. This shows the power of a place, where people are more appalled by the destruction of property than human life.

The reason for this lies in the success of Wynn Thomas to create a space that audiences subconsciously connect with a character. When the pizzeria burns down, what one feels is “sorry for Sal the person, but also the fact that his physical world is being destroyed in this film.” Sal notes throughout the film how he built the pizzeria with his own hands and feels a connection to it and the neighborhood it resides in. It’s the set we spend the most time in and see its status as one of the few communal locations on the block where people can gather and enjoy a slice in peace. It is a pristine example of effective production design creating an emotional connection between the location and the viewer.

Despite the subtle brilliance of Wynn Thomas’s sets, they wouldn’t be as effective without characters so smartly dressed by Ruth E. Carter. Carter took great care in not only finding costumes that reflected the characters, but also predicting what styles would be popular a year in advance of the shoot. Carter took great care into crafting costumes that “reflect time, place, palette, person” in order to “bring in more of the Brooklyn community with the costumes.” Carter’s costumes succeed in depicting an honest sense of place through how its inhabitants dress.

Carter reveals a lot about the characters living in this world through the way they are dressed. The older generations, like the corner men and Da Mayor wear more understated, more traditional clothing while the younger denizens wear flashy, bright brand name clothes and gold jewelry. Mookie sports a Jackie Robinson jersey, “symbolizing a Black who breaks the color line in the white man’s world,” and later wears a Sal’s shirt with his name on it “signifying his position between the two worlds.” The world of Do the Right Thing is filled with characters dressed to reflect their own sense of cultural identity.

The design work of Wynn Thomas and Ruth E. Carter is critical to the effectiveness of Do the Right Thing’s worldbuilding, but it would’ve been all for naught had it not been for Ernest Dickerson’s eye as a cinematographer. Dickerson’s cinematography is vital to the audience’s perception of the world Thomas and Carter built. Through his dynamic use of color, Dickerson evokes a sense of heat throughout the film by using a variety of color psychology to shape the viewer’s perception of the heat. Dickerson utilized a lot of bright, hot colors in a more expressionistic fashion to “get an emotional response from the audience.” By doing so Dickerson presents a world that is constantly hot, even when the sun goes down. 

Dickerson draws the audience even further with his use of camera angles and perspective. There is an extensive use of close-ups on characters where one can really see the beads of sweat coming off their foreheads. Oftentimes there will be shots that start from a third-person perspective only to transition into a first-person point of view. It changes the viewer’s status from omniscient viewer to active participant in a single camera movement. Even in those moments of perspective, Dickerson employs a litany of canted angles to constantly showcase that this world is “off-kilter” and ready to burst.

The use of clashing camera techniques and styles are designed to be disruptive and keep the audience on their toes. It lulls the viewer into thinking they will be a casual observer only to suddenly toss them into the middle of the action. Dickerson’s cinematography seeks to reach a deeper truth with the audience with a more abstract presentation of reality. “It’s not about creating a reality, it’s about getting an emotional response out of the audience and sometimes if it means you have to play with the medium to do it, then there you go.” By shooting the neighborhood in Do the Right Thing so unconventionally, Dickerson presents a warped version of reality to the audience while simultaneously sucking them deeper into it.

The work of Wynn Thomas, Ruth E. Carter, and Ernest Dickerson is invaluable to the success of the audience buying into the world of Do the Right Thing. There’s a single image that is a perfect encapsulation of all three artists working together. Early in the film, Buggin’ Out looks at Sal’s Wall of Fame and asks “Yo Sal, how come you ain’t got no brothers up on the wall, here?” Buggin’ Out is dressed in yellow to really make him pop out from the brown background of Sal’s walls. In the top right corner of the frame, the “Sausage” embossed on the window is lit just right to cast a shadow on the wall above Buggin’ Out. It is a wholly theatrical image that is the result of expert set and costume design and cinematography coming together in perfect harmony.

“He Even Walks In Stereo”

An oft overlooked element of effective worldbuilding stems from the use of sound design and music supervision. Spike Lee’s use of (and in some cases lack of) music departs “from the classic idiom” of cinema in order to “orient the spectators within the film story.” The world of Do the Right Thing is a mosaic of musical styles old and new from Bill Lee’s laconic, jazzy score, to the punchier in-your-face rhythms of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” These clashing styles are paired perfectly with the camera motions to blend the music into the world itself and create a more distinct and otherworldly place.

Bill Lee’s score evokes a nostalgic feeling in the listener, specifically a “romantic, American folk inflected orchestral style that also incorporates jazz, blues music, and instrumentation.” It shows “that an idyllic community” is still possible. It almost seems like an inversion of the classic “aw shucks,” black and white sitcoms of the 1950’s as Mookie walks down the street greeting the nice ol’ lady on her stoop (Mother Sister) as he goes to work. This clashes with the more contemporary sounds of soul and rap. This rich history of diverse musical styles “denies the emergence of any singular empowered voice,” and shows not only racial divides within the community, but generational ones as well. These songs serve to show the anger and power of the youth of the block that at times can clash with more traditional tunes or blend together in harmony.

That harmony is all thanks to the power of Mister Senor Love Daddy. We Love 108’s DJ provides a bridge between generations playing a mixture of jazz, soul, and rap throughout the film. Mister Senor Love Daddy represents the “middle generation” of the neighborhood and thus can see the conflicts between the young and the old from both sides. He serves not only “as the voice of the community,” according to Samuel L. Jackson, but also “the conscious of a lot of the people and the community.” Mister Senor Love Daddy’s efforts to provide a soundtrack for the day that represents all voices in the community shows the unifying power of music and how he works overtime in order to keep the community together.

The absence of music in Do the Right Thing is just as effective as the musical elements of the film. Sal has an ironclad rule that there is no music in his pizzeria. With the exception of six instances in the film , that rule is upheld. It shows how Lee is taking the rules of his world seriously and thus so should the viewer. When this rule is broken for the last time, it has serious consequences. When Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and Smiley confront Sal at the end of the night, “Fight the Power” plays defiantly, louder than before. The frequent cuts to all involved, shouting over the music create a sense of urgency until Sal enforces his rule with violent force. In an instant, it comes with the swing of a bat. When Sal destroys that boombox, all is silent. That silence feels like an eternity.

From that point to the murder of Radio Raheem to the burning of Sal’s Pizzeria, no music is played. Only the diegetic sounds of the block and the characters. This lack of score provides the viewer no detachment from the events in front of them. No escape. The audience becomes a witness to what comes next and sees and hears exactly what everyone else does, with nothing to influence their emotions except their eyes and ears.

“The Double Truth, Ruth”

The reason why most filmmakers relegate worldbuilding to the genres of fantasy or science fiction comes from, ironically, a lack of imagination. They think worldbuilding is solely left to the Replicants and the Wakandans and has no business being discussed in the context of our own world. Instead, they try to represent reality as best as they can, believing that’s what the medium requires. One of the common trends is the increasing use of handheld cinematography in order to give the film a more spontaneous and “realistic approach.” With some films this works, but for others it can feel unnecessary or downright nauseating for the audience. “Most filmmakers believe the medium is a realistic medium and you shouldn’t try to abstract that,” Wynn Thomas notes, but that mode of thinking is inhibitive to artists. What they fail to recognize is the usefulness of abstraction to create a world that can speak closer to the truth than shakey handheld photography ever could.

Spike Lee saw the issues that were plaguing society, specifically New York City. The racial tensions under Mayor Ed Koch during the 1980’s were at an all-time high. Stories of Black youths being harassed and killed filled the headlines every day. Lee saw these issues and chose to explore them in Do the Right Thing. He decided to create a world that seems like an ideal community to explore the darker truths of racial inequality. He chose to shoot in a real-life location and could’ve easily shot it like a documentary to make it feel more natural. Instead Lee decided to follow a more expressionistic approach and tilt the world in order to expose the dirt underneath.

The opening credits immediately show these contradictions. The soft, jazzy refrains of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” play over the Universal logo only to be upended by “Fight the Power.” The opening is harsh, in-your-face, and perfect for the audience to “really get the feel of Brooklyn.” By opening with something more abstract, it grabs the audience’s attention while simultaneously cleansing their palettes in order to be fully immersed in the block. This is immediately contrasted by the slow, methodical introduction of the block itself. By juxtaposing these two contrasting styles, Lee shows us a world full of contradictions, ready to clash at any moment. 

Lee’s style pulls from both theatre and film, two contrasting mediums, to create a complimentary blend of cinematic and theatrical. Lee takes a more theatrical approach to Do the Right Thing than most filmmakers would with the same material. His work has been compared to that of classical dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Their use of modernism “produces a sort of epic drama that paints a wide tableau of social characters” in order to explore social issues and behavior. Much like an audience could reach up and touch an actor onstage the viewers of Do the Right Thing feel the heat as if they are side by side with these characters. The result is a film that’s more expressionistic than it is realistic yet unlocks a deeper truth and reveals the true power of cinema.

The whole concept of film is a sham. It’s an illusion. However, many filmmakers seem to strive for the most realistic presentation of our world. It’s a common impulse. After all, as Wynn Thomas notes “All painters start out painting realistically” in order to get the feel of the medium. However, “as you want to express yourself more, you try to find the abstract within reality.” Paintings by Picasso or Pollack can be just as moving to a viewer as a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio. Spike Lee and his crew on Do the Right Thing sought to find the truth through expressionism and created a world that is not natural, but nonetheless feels authentic.

“Are We Gonna Live Together? Together Are We Gonna Live?”

The end of Do the Right Thing presents a world unsure of its own future. Following the murder of Radio Raheem and the destruction of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, the community wakes up the next morning to survey the damage. The neighborhood has been changed, but the epilogue seems to suggest that all is not lost. Though it is not the “we are the world” ending Paramount may have wanted, it shows that reconciliation is possible. This world may have had a cataclysmic loss the night before, but it has the ability to rise from the ashes stronger than before.

Early in the development stages, Spike Lee noted the effect rioting had on the communities. That most of the uprisings happened in “poor, inner-city neighborhoods,” and ultimately did more harm than good. “The buildings that were hit are still burnt out shells, they were never replaced.” Spike Lee leaves the ending of Do the Right Thing purposefully ambiguous. Mookie and Sal come to some sort of understanding, but the pizzeria still lies in cinders. Mookie then walks down the block as everyone else starts to wake up and go about their lives. No matter what, life continues on in this world.

Do the Right Thing is one of the best examples of worldbuilding because it is a film brimming with detail and most importantly, authenticity. Lee’s adamancy to shoot on location proved integral to present a section of the world unknown to most people as a microcosm of the racial tensions happening in the world at large. This was enhanced by rich sets, next level cinematography, set and costume design, and score to create a world that feels like our own, but is in fact a heightened version of reality in order to expose and explore a larger truth.

Spike Lee was able to create a world that seems idyllic at first glance, but is in fact simmering with racial tension and strife. He crafted a world and society that was a reaction to the violence of the times with the murders of Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers, and Michael Griffith in Howard Beach and still speaks to the violence happening today with George Floyd and Breona Taylor. When these names are shouted, it shows this world’s connection to our own.

Truth is cinema is not necessarily an authentic portrayal of the real world. Oftentimes, truly powerful cinema comes from a more abstract presentation of reality. A canted angle, a more dynamic use of color, or more theatrical set pieces. These are all elements that one must consider when building the world of a film as it can disarm your audience into introspection. As a result, that abstraction of the truth may be more honest than the facts. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. If you play your cards right, the audience will forgive you. And that’s the triple truth, Ruth.

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