Idea of Conflict Versus Peace in the Film 'Do the Right Thing'

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Spike Lee’s 1989 film ‘Do the Right Thing’ confronts the impossible nature of resolving racism in a society that is so divided by differences in ethnicities. Inspired by the Howard Beach incident in 1986, in which Michael Griffith is hit by a car while fleeing from his racist attacker, the film shows the breaking down of a community under pressure. ‘Do the Right Thing’ takes place predominately over a single day on a single block in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Spike Lee uses several stylistic techniques to develop tension and conflict throughout the film by pinning peace and conflict against each other; he juxtaposes characters representing multiples stances on both of those sides as well as using formal techniques of filmmaking to further enhance the dichotomy of his film. The film focuses on emotional and visual communication to create the sense of a ticking time bomb, in which the result will be a clashing of the conflicting activist arguments of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Lee seeks to show that violence begets violence but poses the question of how one should respond to senseless death and systematic racism.

Lee is constantly developing the tension in the film through his stylistic choices, keeping the viewer on edge from the opening credits of the film until the last radio broadcast. The film opens with Rosie Perez aggressively dancing in a boxing outfit to Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ - an important song to the film. This would immediately set an intense and violent tone for the film, but Lee juxtaposes this with a radio broadcast from Senor Love Daddy that conveys a peaceful and accepting tone. This sets up the main idea of peace versus conflict for the film and is the first example of juxtaposed characters used. The film relies heavily on camera angles to develop tension between the characters, with frequent use of high and low angle shots to show power dynamics, as well as canted angles to show conflict between characters. These camera angles give the film its nerve-wracking and intense nature. Implementation of high and low angle shots can be highlighted in the scene where Radio Raheem tries to buy a slice of pizza from Sal but because of his loud music, Sal refuses due to his distaste for the culture that the music represents, resulting in a yelling match between the two. Low shots are used on Radio Raheem, which make him take up most of the frame while also looking larger than his counterpart in the argument, this serves to show that he holds the power rather than Sal who is framed in high angle shots that make him appear smaller. Dutch or canted angles are essential to the film’s developing conflict, they serve to show the discomfort and anger in the neighborhood and highlights the confrontational nature of the film. Canted angles are a clear break from realism, one of several Brechtian techniques that Lee implements; the use of alienation by unnaturally slanting the shot reminds the audience they are watching a film. His use of canted angles reflects the fragmented atmosphere that develops throughout the plot. The camera angles become more aggressively tilted leading up to the riot. This gives the world of the film an unsteady feeling, as though it is ready to come undone with each subsequent conflict. The world seems wrong and off-balance because of the racial conflicts that seem to reach no resolution.

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Lee is constantly showing a juxtaposition between characters in the community. From Mother Sister versus Da Mayor who serve to represent racial tensions in the neighborhood - as Da Mayor tries to be accepting while Mother Sister chooses to hold onto her prejudices- to Vito versus Pino- who are symbolic of the two sides of Sal. There is Radio Raheem loud and violent with his music as he imposes it onto others versus Senor Love Daddy who takes a more peaceful approach and often tries to ease tensions with his music. This juxtaposition relates back to the film’s main idea of conflict versus peace as the two characters have taken opposing sides. Radio Raheem’s position here is contradictory though, as he had previously stated in his monologue about love versus hate that love is the one to triumph which would appear to have him align with the side of peace rather than conflict. Lee chooses to create this contradiction because it serves his purpose of people not being black or white, rather as shades of gray; this is why there is no true hero of ‘Do the Right Thing’ and an inconclusive ending to the film - just as there is no answer as to align with peace or conflict.

Lee consistently encourages viewers to recognize the confrontational nature of the film. This is exemplified in the film’s infamous mid-film rant in which Lee uses another Brechtian technique, breaking the fourth wall, which forces the audience to remember that the film is a work of fiction meant to make them question their own reality. The scene is a visual and auditory way to draw even more attention to the developing tension in the community. It also adds another element to the idea of community that Lee has been developing- while on the surface the community may seem harmonious, when you explore further past the facade, the community is fractured beyond repair. This is mirrored in scenes where mood and tone change rapidly- often from light-hearted and funny to being on the edge of your chair tense. This shift most often comes from character interactions as a combination of their dialogue and body language. Camera movement is also used to highlight this, when tensions ease for a moment, like that of the scene where the neighborhood kids are playing in the water from an open fire hydrant, the camera moves freely simply capturing the action as it happens and mirroring the freedom of the characters. This is in strong contrast to many of the other scenes where choreography is carefully crafted; it is this contrast that highlights the tension of other scenes. That same scene of the fire hydrant quickly changes tone as the white man in his fancy convertible starts an argument. The return of tension is marked by the camera no longer being free, rather it is locked down in its position and back to the confrontational shot/reverse-shot editing style. The shifting tone plays a large part in the creation of tension, keeping the viewer on edge as to which encounters are going to result in a fight and which are going to pass by in unresolved conflict. Almost all of the interactions in the film end in unresolved conflict between the different races in the neighborhood. One scene that highlights this is when Radio Raheem goes to buy batteries from the Korean store. Lee uses canted angles again, as he usually does to show the tension between the characters in a conversation, but there is no outburst aside from a moderate amount of cursing. Radio Raheem buys his batteries and leaves with the racial tensions left unresolved. Lee does this in almost every racial conflict interaction in the film; he teases the viewer with conflict only to have it go unresolved. The constant repetition of the song ‘Fight the Power’ lets the viewer know the all the rising tension will lead to a conflict that does result in a fight but because of Lee’s constant teasing, the viewer does not know when. This echoes back to the main theme of the film: peace versus conflict. Whereby letting all the conflict end with no resolution, tensions only continue to rise but as seen in the climax of the film, violence also does not bring a clear resolution. Lee does not give a definitive answer of which side to be on because it is unclear which side is the ‘right’ side.

Lee ends the film with an inconclusive conclusion, where there are no answers to the questions posed in the film. The day ended in conflict and yet tensions did not ease, just as they did not ease when handled with peace; conflicts will continue to arise in the neighborhood because there was no resolution. Lee’s building of tension and conflict served to show that there is no definitive way to respond to racism except to continue to confront it. He implements stylistic techniques such as camera angles and Brechtian aesthetics to build tension and conflict in ‘Do the Right Thing’ to draw attention to the confrontational nature of the film’s story.

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Idea of Conflict Versus Peace in the Film ‘Do the Right Thing’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“Idea of Conflict Versus Peace in the Film ‘Do the Right Thing’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
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