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The Melting Pot that Got Too Hot: Wayne Wang's and Spike Lee's Portrayals of Race in New York City

by Michelle Robinson

This student project compares how directors Wayne Wang and Spike Lee use the City of New York as a setting as well as a collective characterization of its inhabitants. We will analyze how the two filmmakers address race relations amongst the New Yorkers in each film and how that represents Wang's and Lee's attitudes toward the City. Additional commentaries will be provided by students in the course “The Film Director as Public Intellectual” at UNC Chapel Hill (Spring 2014).

The Melting Pot that Got Too Hot: Wayne Wang's and Spike Lee's Portrayals of Race in New York City

by Michelle Robinson

This student project compares how directors Wayne Wang and Spike Lee use the City of New York as a setting as well as a collective characterization of its inhabitants. We will analyze how the two filmmakers address race relations amongst the New Yorkers in each film and how that represents Wang's and Lee's attitudes toward the City. Additional commentaries will be provided by students in the course “The Film Director as Public Intellectual” at UNC Chapel Hill (Spring 2014).

Wayne Wang's Portrayal of Crime and Race: A Comparison With Spike Lee

by Matt Payne

Blue In The Face presents a celebration of Brooklyn through depicting a couple of days on one city corner at Auggie Wren’s cigar shop. “I’m Not Scared In New York” is an early scene from the film that sets up the common trope of presenting the many conflicts that occur on a day-to-day basis alongside a celebration of the diverse people and unique personalities in Brooklyn. The opening sequence of the scene is encompassed in a single medium-full shot without any cuts or camera movement besides a small break that reveals the directors’ names, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster. This minimalist editing approach provides a realistic feel for the scene and highlights the fact that this confrontation is an everyday occurrence that could happen in any number of locations in Brooklyn. The first sequence ends when the woman claims that she was trying to do an act of kindness for the boy who stole her purse to teach him a “lesson of clemency.” Auggie then retorts this claim by exclaiming, “this is New York!” At this moment, the scene cuts to a medium shot of Lou Reed who is standing behind a counter at a different cigar shop. Wang’s minimalist directing continues as the scene is without cuts or camera movement to interrupt Reed’s monologue about why he “is not scared in New York.” The final sequence of the scene returns to the original medium-full shot outside of Auggie’s store where everyday citizens perform direct addresses to the camera. These people recite different statistics about subjects such Brooklyn’s population, diversity, and crime rates. By ending with statistics about the robberies, felonious assaults, and murders in Brooklyn and by beginning with the theft of a purse, Wang provides bookends for this scene that both have to do with crime in the city. Wang then sandwiches in between these examinations of crime Lou Reed claiming that he is “not afraid in New York”. This narrative composition highlights the fact that even though there is crime present in New York its citizens do not fear living in the city. Lou Reed’s opening statement is seemingly contradictory when he says, “I’m scared in my own apartment. I’m scared 24 hours a day, but not necessarily in New York. I actually feel pretty comfortable in New York.” The reason for this contradiction is made clear when Reed goes on to explain that he is scared “in Sweden” because “everything works.” This statement reveals a different conception of being afraid in a place that stems not from fear of one’s life but from the discomfort of being in an unfamiliar location. This distinction makes it clear why the citizens of New York feel comfortable in a city that boasts “30,973 robberies” and “720 murders” in a year. Wang’s treatment of race relations in New York through lies in contrast to Spike Lee’s take on race as seen in the montage scene of Do The Right Thing entitled “Racial Tensions In New York.” Both scenes from Blue In The Face and Do The Right Thing open with a scene of conflict in New York, and both end with members of different ethnic groups providing a direct address to the camera. In Do The Right Thing, this conflict stems directly from racial tensions between Italian Americans and African Americans and therefore the direct addresses that follow highlight the tensions between other racial groups that are in opposition to each other. Blue In The Face presents a conflict between two white people and in so doing does not target race as the catalyst for the argument. The direct addresses follow in this vein as they simply present members of different ethnic groups in order to visually represent the diversity of the city that is noted in the statistics. These statistics not only highlight ethnic diversity, but also the diversity of religions, businesses, and even crimes that are present in Brooklyn. Wang’s approach in this scene reveals race as just one of many types of diversities in Brooklyn, and does not place race as a source of conflict in the way that Spike Lee does. This strategy positions the dispute between Auggie and the woman as an argument between two individuals rather than a clash of races as is seen in Do The Right Thing. By Matt Payne

I'm Not Scared in New York

This section from Wayne Wang's Blue in the Face consists of dramatic scenes, interviews, and statistics about New York.

from Blue in the Face (1995)
Creator: Wayne Wang; Paul Auster
Distributor: Miramax
Posted by Michelle Robinson
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