The fundamental question of who will suffer the most from extreme heat, and on a broader scale climate change, is bound to systemic issues of race and class. Through Lee’s storytelling of essential Black experiences, he expertly captures how a given community in Brooklyn might react to heat and drought in the face of injustice. Do the Right Thing is a film that in many ways laid groundwork for issues in climate activism today.
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We often refer to heat as being “oppressive” – but what does that really mean? Sultry summer days can be stifling and repressive in a colloquial sense, but Spike Lee’s hallmark film Do The Right Thing begs us to take this word articulation more literally. Heat itself, in conjunction with other systems, can also be structurally oppressive. To be clear from the outset, Do the Right Thing is a film explicitly about rising racial tensions and police brutality, and this should rightly be the audience’s understanding by the film’s end. However, an environmental angle augments its existing potency, as a lens rendering macroscopic wider phenomena of injustice. The fundamental question of who will suffer the most from extreme heat, and on a broader scale climate change, is bound to systemic issues of race and class. Through Lee’s storytelling of essential Black experiences, he expertly captures how a given community in Brooklyn might react to heat and drought in the face of injustice. Do the Right Thing is a film that in many ways laid groundwork for issues in climate activism today.
Audiences of Spike Lee, whether critical or complimentary, can reliably expect a dual agenda in his work: his unapologetic engagement in politics and his enthusiastic commitment to Black stories. Reeling from a calamity in 1986 at Howard Beach, New York, in which Michael Griffith died from a racially motivated attack, Lee was inspired to tell an elegiac story of Black New York that spoke to his community’s truth. Do the Right Thing takes place in the primarily Black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant within a 24-hour window. Lee immerses the audience in this space by way of cultural vignettes depicting the dynamics between Black residents and the white Italian Americans that run the local pizzeria, with Mookie (played by Lee himself) as our pizza deliverer and de facto guide between these worlds. Sal’s pizzeria’s “Wall of Fame” features Sinatra and other all-white faces – despite a Black clientele – and local Buggin’ Out is the first to point out the hypocrisy. One simple question – “How come you got no brothers on the wall?” – is a catalyst for exposing the racial strife that infests Bed-Stuy. Within these fraught 24 hours is a microcosm of an entire year, an entire decade, and an entire lifetime.
The film’s opening dialogue comes from local radio DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy crooning to his listeners, “I have today’s forecast for you: Hot!,” a sizzle punctuating his sentence. Within the first ten minutes, nearly every character gripes at the scorching weather, their shiny faces gazing toward a blazing sun. As a film brimming with exquisite intentionality, it is far from insignificant that Do the Right Thing takes place on the hottest day of the year. In this film that was originally called Heat Wave, Lee not-so-subtly links the notion of heat to that of rising tension. He remarks in his journal at the time that “It’s been my observation that when the temperature rises beyond a certain point, people lose it. . . . The heat makes everything explosive, including the racial climate of the city.” Lee is referencing historical occurrences, from social uprisings to murder rates, that happen not only in the “heat of the moment” but also in the “heat of the summer.” The hallucinogenic heat in which Lee envelopes us is not merely a metaphor, a gadget in a filmmaker’s artistic arsenal; it illustrates an authentic lived experience of people persisting in urban settings. Would the film’s intense weather have had the same emotional impact in a wealthy, white, suburban neighborhood? Likely not. Extreme weather events inflame existing social concerns including access to water, energy, support, and aid. All throughout the film, Lee’s motif of heat is expertly woven, a blistering textile of heat manifest in each scene that only becomes more apparent as tensions rise to a boiling point.
How do you convey heat on film? In contrast to the paradigmatic – and arguably cliché – emotional trope of rain, heat is materially intangible and thus demands creative solutions. Lee began with the premise that “The film should look hot. The audience should feel like it’s suffocating.” Accordingly, accompanying Lee’s provocative story is a revolutionary use of visual techniques including color, lighting, production design, and costume design. From the first second onward, Do the Right Thing vibrates with saturated hues of red and orange that leap off the screen. The camera’s filter infuses the entire frame with a palette as if from a glowing heat lamp. Sets incorporate red-stone buildings and golden lamps. Costumes dress characters in vivid, colorful outfits representative of a summer in the late ’80s – all but the Italian Americans, that is, who don muted neutrals and drive a white car. Close, intimate shots highlight beads of perspiration on brilliantly lit, luminescent skin – in many ways, a radical innovation in a time when cameras typically calibrated skin tones based on white skin, thereby mis-lighting Black skin. Certain scenes are shot as if their light source comes from behind the oscillating blade of a fan, with shadows bouncing rhythmically around the space. Perhaps most inventive is the use of a heat bar physically set in front of the camera to create waves that visually distort the image. Like a radiator held in front of our face, the viewer has no choice but to endure the 100+ degree heat of Bed-Stuy through palpable visuals that make us sweat.
As the audience’s fever rises, so too does the tension spread like a heat rash, provoked as much by Lee’s choices as a filmmaker as by the characters. Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem act as a “heat gauge,” Lee explains, as they seek to boycott Sal’s pizzeria. As Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power” blasts with increasing frequency on Radio Raheem’s boombox, the audience surges ever closer to the film’s explosive conclusion. Close-ups become overwhelmingly confrontational, often shot straight-on or looking-up toward a character, diminishing and overpowering the audience. The use of tilted Dutch shots psychologically creates an uneasy, unstable environment. As hot pressure builds in the film’s final argument, not a single shot is filmed levelly, warning us of the chaos about to ensue through framing alone.
Another classic, recurring shot presents three men in front of a red wall glowing with neon intensity. Acting as a Greek chorus, the trio wear cool colors, reinforcing the figurative fire of the surrounding atmosphere. Dabbing sweat from his chest, ML proclaims, “Well gentleman, the way I see it, if this hot weather continues it’s going to melt the polar caps and the whole wide world. All those parts there ain’t water already will surely be flooded,” to which the other gentleman scoff. Remembering Lee filmed this in 1988, it’s unclear quite how literal he intended the audience to take this line; it could simply be a metaphor foreshadowing the film’s fiery finish, or alternatively, an inkling of Lee’s forthcoming climate advocacy. Regardless of authorial intent, the line feels eerily prophetic to a present-day audience. ML follows up his statement declaring he will buy a boat to survive the impending flood, to which Sweet Dick Willie says, “Fool, you 30 cents away from a quarter. How you gonna get a boat?” His jest in fact epitomizes a central question of climate justice: who has the means to escape the effects of extreme weather events? Lee’s film underscores that the communities being gentrified are those same communities most vulnerable in times of climate crisis. The scene ends with a question that feels like a harbinger of the inevitable: “So when is all this goddamn polar ice gonna melt?” Indeed, polar ice is already melting, and the poor and people of color are already experiencing consequent drastic effects of flooding.
In another scene, Lee completely suspends the narrative to remind the audience that – make no mistake – Brooklyn is unquestionably sweltering. As the band Still Pulse croons “can’t stand the heat,” characters dunk their faces in melting ice water, douse themselves with a dribbling shower head, or crack open frothing beers, cooling and cleansing the city that sticks to their skin. A montage of headlines tells us: “Yes, it’s hotter, it’s muggier, and, yes, you’re going crazy” and “¡Que Calor! Nuevo record” and “Helter Swelter – Power Fails. 98° Record Breaker.” These headlines recall a real-life headline printed in the LA Times: “1988 Was Hottest Year on Record as Global Warming Trend Continues.” Indeed, as Lee was filming in 1988, America grappled in the throes of one of its most severe droughts on record, which killed between 5,000 and 17,000 people and kindled many wildfires across the West. Authorities “officially” attributed the drought to the La Niña effect, but renowned climate scientist James Hansen’s now famous 1988 testimony to Congress made it abundantly clear: “[Global warming] is already happening now.” Knowledge of climate change subsequently grew to 68 percent among the general population. Weather and climate are indeed distinct; nonetheless, extreme heat events are a nagging symptom of climate change. Do the Right Thing may have taken place on the hottest day on record, but the hottest days only keep getting hotter, the records broken many times over. While one of the film’s newspapers informs us that there’s a power outage, Mister Senor Love Daddy cautions his listeners that “there’s also a water shortage so keep those showers down to one minute.” It is unsurprising the residents of Bed-Stuy have a water shortage, as Black communities are among the most likely to experience negative effects of drought. By centering extreme heat in a film about racial tension, Lee indicates just how intricately connected these themes of justice are.
The problem of water is best illustrated in the second part of this scene, when two men unscrew a fire hydrant and spray water throughout the street, creating a do-it-yourself water park. Spraying fire hydrants was and is a common summer pastime for Black youth, in part because they have often been prohibited from or unwelcome in predominantly white spaces such as pools and beaches. With childlike exuberance, residents of all ages refresh their vitality – but the fire burns on. A white man in a convertible tries to barrel through, predictably gets soaked, and calls the attention of the cops who threaten, “This hydrant better not come back on again, or there’s going to be hell to pay,” snidely adding “If you want to swim, go to Coney Island.” When water is a precious resource, who gets access to it? This becomes particularly relevant when considering Bed-Stuy, like most of New York, is an urban heat island. Due to human-made projects including blacktop roads and dark buildings, as well as a lack of greenery, urban areas absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat. The EPA states that this makes them about “1-7 degrees F higher than temperatures in outlying areas.” The resulting implications on water quality and access, energy costs and outages, elevated pollutants and air quality, and heat-related health effects cannot be understated. Urban communities such as Bed-Stuy become victims of exacerbating climate issues. Material experiences of systemic racism, including the police in this particular scene, further prevent these residents from openly accessing water and its necessary relief.
In the film’s finale, the community gains momentary control of the heat through a fire of their own making. The victors are vibrantly illuminated as they chant “Howard Beach,” a powerful moment of pathos inducing goosebumps in a receptive viewer. However, once again the film stresses the critical question of water access and use. The firefighters soon arrive onsite, one of whom cruelly proposes to unleash the hose on the crowd. In a trope evoking the 1963 Birmingham Alabama protest, water becomes both a physical weapon and an institutional one, as a scarce resource is wasted in the face of the disenfranchised.
Contingencies pervade Do the Right Thing. Seemingly negligible actions lead to an explosive situation. Ironically, Sal’s refusal to represent pictures of the very community that funds his business triggers the loss of his pizzeria and, horrifyingly, the life of a community member. This movie is a slow burn much in the same way that climate change is a slow violence. Apathy and inaction are insidiously dangerous. Sal, while happy to employ Mookie, is complicit in gentrification and eventually police brutality. Ultimately, he values his business over a person’s life, following the smothering credence of capitalism. In the final scene, Mister Senor Love Daddy forecasts our societal outlook: “No end in sight for this heat wave.” How much progress has been made toward racism since 1989? Gentrification? Climate change? Inevitably obtuse, always white, audiences often debate whether Mookie did the right thing by inciting the riot – but are we doing the right thing for our communities? For the climate? The title of the film, derived from a quote to Mookie by Da Mayor, becomes an admonition to those who watch it. “Do the right thing,” Spike Lee implores of us. As we look to an impending future as rife with racial and climate violence as it was in 1989, like Mookie, we have critical decisions to make. In this future, where we might be mobilizing our communities for the environment and voting for climate legislation, we must ask ourselves who and what our solutions ultimately help.
“1988 Was Hottest Year on Record as Global Warming Trend Continues.” LA Times, 4 Feb 1989. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-02-04-mn-1524-story.html
“Heat Island Effect.” EPA.gov, Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/heatislands
Lee, Spike, and Lisa Jones. “The Journal.” Do the Right Thing: A Spike Lee Joint, Fireside, 1989.
Shabecoff, Philip. “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.” New York Times, 24 June 1988. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html