police violence

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 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcTv-BEwabk )  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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Bamboozled | Posing the Question

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The scene in which the police shoot and kill all but one of the Mau Maus happens almost exactly at the 2 hour mark of the film. It opens just like many of the scenes in Bamboozled do: innocently enough, but with that disorienting undercurrent created by many of the techniques Spike Lee uses in the film – Dutch angles, cutting in the middle of action/dialogue, the graininess of the digital camera, the liberal use of fuzzy shadows.

Lee employs this close-up of Mos Def at the same time as he introduces a new source of light into the shot (the harsh white lights of the police cars). Here there is a tension between stability (zooming into Mos Def’s face, lingering on it, allowing it to anchor the frame) and instability (the suddenness of the lights and the arrival of the police). It’s a reaction shot (“Shit.”) that by standard rules of editing should be followed by a shot of what Mos Def is looking at, from his point of view. Instead, on the cut the camera moves down to the feet of the Mau Maus, and the horrific shooting unfolds in a series of frantic cuts. Mostly because of the placement of the police lights there is enough spatial coherence that we can tell where the Mau Maus are, but when the camera is placed across the street the police are indistinct shadows, anonymous in the frame just as they are made anonymous (i.e. permitted to kill Black people, “just doing their job”, “upholding law and order”) by their uniforms. The close-up here is a brief moment of realisation, where the viewer and the characters suddenly become aware of the horror that is about to come. In this way it’s the other side of the coin from another major close-up in the film. That final shot of Manray in blackface – eyes wide and haunted, mouth contorted into an exaggerated smile – that’s a different kind of horror, the horror of what has already happened.

A large part of this scene revolved around the white member of the Mau Maus, “One-Sixteenth Blak”, demanding to know “Yo, why didn’t you kill me?!” I remember someone in class bringing up this moment as one that made him hyperconscious of not being able to laugh as it played out. I felt a very similar way. This sequence reminded me eerily of a quote from Frank Wilderson: “The most ridiculous question a black person can ask a cop is, ‘why did you shoot me?’ How does one account for the gratuitous? The cop is at a disadvantage: ‘I shot you because you are black; you are black because I shot you.’” In other words, the white Mau Mau has the power to pose the question to the police because for him being shot would have been one experience among many in his white social existence; it could happen or it could not happen, and in no way would it constitute his identity. On the other hand, it would be ridiculous for the Black Mau Maus to get up from the pavement and pose the question to the police of why they had been shot, especially at this point in a film that reminds us again and again that violence (cultural, aesthetic, and physical) against Black people is not a faraway possibility or a distant memory but a concrete, present reality. This moment along with the final shot (“always keep ’em laughing”) are for me the most pessimistic moments in a deeply pessimistic film.