Two For The Price of One: The Double Openings in Spike Lee’s Films
Friday, February 27, 2009
Author: Bryan Ghingold
Every Spike Lee film I have encountered so far has utilized the artistic technique of having two openings. The first opening, which plays over the opening credits, would in most other narrative Hollywood films be a part of the main narrative. In Lee’s films, these are usually only loosely tied to the film’s narrative, if at all, and serve as a symbolic representation of the tone his film will take. The second opening is the start of his narrative. By utilizing this technique, Lee is able to clue us, his viewers, in to how we should read some of the conflict in the film. He is suggesting, but not demanding, we gear ourselves toward a certain emotional disposition. In this essay, I will discuss the dual openings of Do The Right Thing (1989), paying special attention to the “what” and “why” of Lee’s stylistic choices, how the two openings are connected, and what the consistent use of this “signature” says about Lee as a filmmaker.
The film opens up with a slow jazz saxophone solo. The bluesy riff over a black screen (later populated by the name of Lee’s production company, “40 Acres and a Mule” and the name of the film surrounded by shapes and colors evocative of African pride) sets the tone of racial disparage and oppression. At the conclusion of the jazz riff, the tempo speeds up and the solemn moment is broken, as the soundtrack becomes “Fight the Power” by rap group Public Enemy (a song Lee commissioned be made for the film, and itself plays a major role in the film). The black screen is exchanged for what looks like a caricaturized set of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn where the film takes place. A single female dancer dances to the beat under red lighting. At the first mention of the chorus (Fight the power! Fight the powers that be!), Lee hard cuts to the dancer, now dressed as a boxer, dancing in front of a flat, black and white backdrop representing a boxing match. The opening makes heavy use of close up, jarring cuts and non-continuity editing (at the onset of the film, our introduction to the dancer is as she erratically “pops” in and out of various parts of her stage). It is also of crucial importance to examine the dancer herself; throughout most of the opening, she is furrowing her brow or fiercely clenching her teeth, particularly when she has the boxing gloves on, though not exclusively. She makes liberal use of a body/pelvic thrust dance move, but it never seems sexually motivated. It is no mistake that she comes across as angry, and the song is spouting lyrics such as
“Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain/Mother fuck him and John Wayne/Cause I’m black and I’m proud/I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped/Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps/Sample a look back you look and find/Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check/“Don’t Worry Be Happy”/Was a number one jam/Damn if I say it you can slap me right here/(get it) lets get this party started right/Right on, c’mon/What we got to say/Power to the people no delay/To make everybody see/In order to fight the powers that be” (Ridenhour, Sadler, et al)
Lee’s intended effect by all this angry imagery; an angry woman punching and thrusting the air, sets that feel just a tad too fake, bathed in red light, and a rap song protesting placation and humoring of “the powers that be”, is to make us angry at these invisible powers. He wants us to feel the black struggle, and in so doing, align ourselves with certain characters in the film. As a whole, the first opening feels like a music video, which is a perfect way Lee can bring us to feel for the characters we are about to meet without feeling like he is bashing us over the head with a message (a common complaint people have of Lee’s films).
In stark contrast, the narrative opening of the film does want to bash us over the head with a message. The first image of the narrative is a close up on an alarm clock being held into a microphone. As the alarm goes off, Radio DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) repeats the phrase “wake up” several times, and in many different creative ways into the microphone. This in itself serves two purposes; one for the narrative (Jackson is the morning DJ announcing the start of his/the day), and it is meant to remind us of Dap’s (Laurence Fishburne) last line in Lee’s previous film, School Daze (1988), when he directly addressed the camera and instructed the audience to wake up and fight hatred and disunity. The framing of Senñor Love Daddy in his booth causes a reflection of the microphone to appear as giant eyeballs in the lenses of his sunglasses, giving him a cartoonish, otherworldly appearance. This is also intentional, as Mister Señor Love Daddy serves as something of a one man Greek Chorus throughout the film; at the same time in the narrative world and apart from it, able to comment on it. As the camera cranes away from him, we see his radio booth is directly in front of a large window facing the neighborhood, further establishing Jackson’s character as both a narrative element and a commentator for our benefit.
Lee cuts next to Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), who wakes up listening to Señor Love Daddy’s program. Da Mayor’s bedroom is darkly lit and sepia toned to drive home the narrative notion of how hot it is. The heat that Jackson and Davis’ characters mention in the opening sequence plays a major role in the film, creating conflict and raising tension. Lee’s next cut is to a low angle shot of Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), a mentally retarded man who is standing in front of a red-brick church holding a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands. Smiley is wearing a red shirt, and the film seems to be tinted or color corrected in favor of red or another warm color, driving home the notion of heat. The photograph of the two men shaking hands makes a very strong statement about Lee’s understanding of their two very different ideologies (and indeed, he closes the film with a quote from each of them). His next cut introduces us to Mookie (Spike Lee), one of the film’s protagonists. Mookie is counting his money, and then has a conversation with his sleeping sister about how he’s “gotta get paid!” The final shot of the narrative’s opening sequence shows Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons driving up to their pizza shop. Sal has a conversation with his two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), which reveals Pino’s racism, and hints at Sal’s work ethic.
The two openings serve the film in very distinct but different ways. While the narrative opening does what any good film should and establishes the characters we will come to know in the film, the opening credit sequence works on an entirely symbolic level. As I have mentioned earlier, it serves to gear us up for emotions Lee wants us to feel, and philosophies Lee wants to present for our consideration. Its music-video style also serves as a callback since we hear the song several times throughout the film, from the boom box of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). Lee’s consistent use of this style in all his films I have seen so far makes a very strong statement about him as a filmmaker and an auteur. Lee is the only filmmaker I have encountered who so deliberately and obviously uses the opening sequence of a film to make a symbolic statement about the film to follow.
Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit