Author: SY

Inside Man | What is a “Black Film”?

I thought this question – is Inside Man a “Black film”? – that was raised in class on Thursday, is one worth thinking about.

Lee locates the action of Inside Man squarely in a post-9/11 America, and as with Do the Right Thing the wider social reality that the characters live in is signaled by what is in the background.

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This environment is also home to the new racial landscape of the 21st century. For a Spike Lee movie that is supposedly not about race, one racially-charged incident in particular stands out. A worker in the bank, Vikram Walia, is one of the earliest hostages to be released. As soon as his mask is removed, however, he is met with instinctive suspicion and fear by the police officer with a rifle trained on him:

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“Oh shit, a fucking Arab!” – even as he is a hostage, even as his hands are tied behind his back, even as he is, in fact, a Sikh American, Vikram is visually typed, by his turban and beard, as a Muslim terrorist who inspires fear. Almost immediately, Vikram is tackled to the ground, and his turban, which he wears for religious reasons, is stripped off and taken from him. He later talks with Frazier and the other detectives, and insists on speaking up about his anger at being racially profiled and roughed up, not just in this case, but on a regular basis.

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Chi-Raq | Dolemedes, Narrative, and the Signifying Monkey

The character of Dolemedes functions in the film as a narrator and a one-man Greek chorus, who gives us information about the characters and seems to tell us how we should react to the events unfolding on screen.

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He stands outside the narrative of the film, and his authority to give commentary on the action comes from his extra-narrative abilities, like when he summons up a police officer and a gang member to illustrate the two violence structures that Black communities in Chicago and other cities find themselves trapped in.

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Get on the Bus | Seeing Through Blue

The colour blue in Get on the Bus is closely linked to a way of seeing, and more specifically a way of seeing through.

We first encounter blue through X’s handheld camera. Here, Lee intersperses brief shots of the men on the bus, as X sees them through the lens of his camcorder, into the “normal” film footage. The question X invariably leads with as he sticks his camera in their faces is “why are you going to the Million Man March?” As the men answer, frequently sharing a deeply personal story as they do so, the colour blue becomes associated with this idea of seeing through the men, beyond who they present themselves to be, into an inner space where they reveal intimate memories and experiences.

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The blue of X’s handheld camera introduces us to notions of privacy and vulnerability, and subsequently Lee’s own cinematography becomes tinted with blue during especially vulnerable and intimate moments.

At a rest stop, blue appears when Jeremiah ducks into a bathroom to take a handful of pills:

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Malcolm X | Foreshadowing and Death

The tension in the last half an hour of Malcolm X is palpable. There’s a certain dread about this part of the film, and the anticipation of Malcolm’s death seeps off the screen. Much of this is from the wonderful acting in these final scenes, but I wanted in this post to pick up some of the ways that Spike Lee foreshadows Malcolm’s assassination through film form, especially through the repetition of image-types, sound, and camera movement.

Death – violent death – enters the film as a major theme in an early scene of Malcolm and Shorty playacting cops and gangsters.

Close-up shot of a “dead” Malcolm.

Immediate, jarring cut to his father in his own moment of horrific, impending death:

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Compare these shots, where the camera is close to the ground to the shot of Malcolm’s dead body after his assassination, where the camera looks vertically down at him (from heaven?):

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Tongues Untied | Lover Man, Where Can You Be?


Marlon Riggs tells the story of an encounter from his adolescence with “a white boy with grey-green eyes.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.28.47 PMIn a film I already thought of as sincerely confessional, this scene struck me as even more intimate and private. The tender zooming-in and zooming-out on the photo of this “white boy,” overlain by Riggs’s soft, carefully-rehearsed narration and Roberta Flack’s wistful song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face; these elements allow us to feel the twin affects of pain and primal desire that Riggs associates with this memory. The love of another here is inseparable from a hatred of the self – “What a joy… what a curse.”


Mo’ Better Blues | Phallic Power and the Spinning Camera

The dolly shot is a fairly standard tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal: the camera is mounted on a rig that both stabilises it and allows it to move along an axis or in a circle. In the traditional revolving dolly shot, the camera moves in a circle around a person or object that remains stationary in the middle of the frame.

(Michael Bay, for instance, is really fond of the low angle version of the revolving dolly shot, a.k.a. his “shit just got real” shot – )

The revolving dolly shot in Mo’ Better Blues is a little different. Both times it occurs in the film, the person or people in the middle of the frame that the camera would usually be spinning around are instead spinning along with the camera, so that they appear to stay still while the background spins. The first time we see it is early in the film, when Bleek is fully absorbed in his daily routine of practicing the trumpet in his home:

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Spike Lee uses it again after Clarke arrives and interrupts Bleek’s regimented practice routine, and the two start getting it on:

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The tenor in both of these shots is one of intensity; we are made hyperaware of the fact that the people in the centre of the frame are stable, while everything around them is in flux. This technique takes the viewer out of the normal affect of viewing by calling attention to itself as a filmic technique. We know, of course, that the background around the characters isn’t really moving, but it keeps on spinning and spinning just the same. The revolving dolly shot as Spike Lee uses it here seems to suggest that the background spins even though we know it isn’t spinning because in these shots the people in the middle of the frame are experiencing such intensity that everything around them stops mattering. In the first shot the intensity is that of absolute concentration. In Bleek’s eyes we see his singular obsession with his musician’s craft. We know in this shot that Bleek is in his mind palace; he is focused on his music and nothing else. In the second shot the intensity comes from the passion of Bleek and Clarke’s sexual intoxication (and here I think it’s both amusing and appropriate to mention that Denzel Washington insisted that he should keep his shirt on in this scene).

What grabs me about the use of this camera technique is that both times it pops up, it’s to extravagantly reveal a source of what gives Bleek power in the constitution of his masculine self. Over at Blog 2, bzayatz18 has a post on Bleek’s trumpet as a phallic symbol of masculine power, and I thought a couple of especially hazy and sexually-charged shots from the opening credits support that interpretation rather well:

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On stage, the trumpet stands in for the phallus because it signifies musical aggression, raw expressive power, hardness, and the unleashing of energy by the musician who stands in a position of dominance over the audience. In Bleek’s home, when he practices, the trumpet becomes phallic in a more understated way. Before the phallus can be deployed in a spectacular fashion on stage, it has to be maintained, polished, and meticulously cared for by the man who is preparing to use it.

What the two revolving dolly shots might point us towards is that the source of Bleek’s phallic masculinity does not emanate solely from the trumpet or from his own body, but from both of them together. If Bleek is at his most dominant and masculine when he plays the trumpet on stage (i.e. when he performs the spectacle of his lips touching the trumpet), then these dolly shots break down his masculine power into its two component parts – first, the trumpet itself, and second, his body (and it’s interesting when thinking about exactly what is phallic about Bleek’s body to note that in the second revolving shot, the main body part Bleek is using for sexual arousal is not his penis but his lips).

I think that this reading can be supported by the scene in which all of Bleek’s previous sense of his masculine self is shattered when he is assaulted in the alley – his complete emasculation only comes about when both his trumpet and his body (his lips) are broken.

Do the Right Thing | Straight to the Soul of Man

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“Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cane iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static.” – Radio Raheem, Do the Right Thing (1989)

“Would you like me to tell you the little story of Right Hand, Left Hand – the story of good and evil? H-A-T-E. It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E. You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch and I’ll show you the story of life.” – Reverend Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter (1955)

In the scene where Radio Raheem bumps into Mookie on the way to Sal’s, and tells him the story of his brass knuckles, Spike Lee doesn’t so much make a reference to the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter as directly quote it. (this scene starts at about 50:00) There’s a scene in the older film in which the part-time priest, part-time serial killer Harry Powell explains to two children why he has the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Radio Raheem’s monologue matches this speech word-for-word in some places, even down to the moment where they clasp their fingers together and begin to tell “the story of life.” (see this scene on Youtube here – )  Filmmakers reference older movies all the time, but this kind of extended callback is rare. In The Night of the Hunter the speech isn’t that deep – it shows Harry Powell’s skills at oration, at deceiving the people of the town he’s come to (except for the little boy who sees through him), and it hammers home his homicidally unhinged aura.

Radio Raheem’s monologue is different. Powell puts on a show for the children, and we, the viewers, watch and are unnerved. Radio Raheem talks right to the camera. Does the direct address imply, like the montage of characters hurling ethnic slurs at the camera, that it’s Spike Lee talking to us directly? Is Lee just using Radio Raheem to wink at people who’ve seen The Night of the Hunter? I prefer to think it’s Radio Raheem that’s talking to us, that it’s quiet, untalkative, awkward, angsty Radio Raheem who finally brightens up when asked about his brass knuckles, and gets excited to make a long reference to an old movie he really likes (it’s the only time in the film we see him break into a smile!) even though he knows Mookie won’t get the reference. Maybe no-one on the block knows that he goes to see old movies sometimes.

I appreciated our discussions in class last week about the Love/Hate dichotomy, and how it may or may not apply also to the MLK/Malcolm X contrast in Smiley’s photo and the end credits. A few posts down, sburshteyn draws a link between Radio Raheem’s shadowboxing, love/hate, and the question of violence that runs underneath the whole of the film, and there’s a point she makes beautifully that I want to quote directly – “Violence, then… is not affiliated with either love or hate: rather, violence becomes the vector through which love and hate are expressed.” Radio Raheem is ultimately subjected to senseless, hateful violence; he lives in a world where the act of loving himself is already a violent act, because it strikes back at the face of a world that tells him he cannot be loved.

If we can take the Love-Hate speech to stand in for Radio Raheem’s philosophy of life, I think the film supports the idea that he sticks with it all the way to the end. Yes, he gets angry at Sal and attacks him, but I can’t look at this image below, where he’s lying down with only one of his brass knuckles visible, and not hear him say in my head “left hand Hate KO’d by Love.”

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