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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).

Riot Scene Commentary-Katherine Manweiler

by Katherine Manweiler

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing presents a racially charged view of New York through interactions among members of various ethnic groups cohabitating in Brooklyn. Much like the Brooklyn Cha-Cha scene in Wayne Wang’s Blue in the Face, the riot scene in Do the right Thing presents a physical display of the relationship between the different ethnic groups presented in the film. Whereas the Blue in the Face dance scene depicted cohesion and unity among the racially diverse members of main character Auggie’s neighborhood, racial tensions come to a head with the riot in Do the Right Thing. If the cha cha scene can be considered a condensed representation of Wayne Wang’s attitude towards Brooklyn and New York, it would appear as though the filmmaker sees the city as a melting pot for harmony among people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Spike Lee, on the other hand, has an entirely different view of New York City dwellers based on the riot scene specifically. He views racial diversity as cause for conflict and disagreement rather than solidarity. The riot is prefaced by arguing among African American and White members of the community and ends in pure destruction and arson. This speaks to Spike Lee’s attitude towards racial interaction between New Yorkers. The violence and animosity presented by this scene is just an amplification of the hostile conversations among the different racial groups throughout the whole film, which is littered with scenes of ethnic group representatives trash talking each other. Do the Right Thing captures interracial communication among members of a diverse neighborhood in a completely different way than Wang does in Smoke in the Face. Wang emphasizes unity through friendly conversations between different races while Lee presents a continuous turf war in his film. Using New York as a setting, Lee created a neighborhood inhabited by multiple ethnic groups. This racial mix sets the stage for confrontation which ensues throughout the film. Spike Lee also uses New York as part of the identities of each character. Sal and his Italian friends feel connected to the Brooklyn neighborhood they’ve been a part of for over two decades. Mookie and his friends and family also have claims to the neighborhood. Thus, tension arises as both racial groups hold contempt for each other rather than living together peacefully. The riot scene captures these attitudes of hatred. While throwing a trashcan through the window of Sal’s pizza, Mookie yells “hate”, which draws all groups in to the violent act. Mookie’s declaration and destructive act are analogous to the escalating feuds that transpired throughout the day. Immediately after the riot, the black community members exit Sal’s burning pizzeria only to swarm in on Sonny, the Korean market owner, who is swatting a broom at the mass in a feeble attempt to avoid a fate similar to that of Sal and his pizza shop. Again, Lee directly addresses racial tension in a very upfront manner. Sonny repeats “I no white! I no white!” hoping that by pointing out his skin color to the black rioters, he can escape the brutality that was shown to Sal. When tensions seem to be peaking, Sonny asserts that he is “Black..same!” to the leader of the destructive group of rioters. The black man is completely thrown off at first by Sonny’s bold claim, then begins to laugh and calm down as Sonny extends his hand as a symbol of peace and unity. This interaction adds a moment of humor and ease of tension as well as a breakthrough of understanding between quarreling members of different races. This scene makes use of panning and jump shots in medium close up to highlight the reactions of different individuals to the riot and ensuing drama. The frame of most of the shots in this scene display each ethnic group separately, drawing a further divide between all sides of the altercation. In a specific shot, the camera cuts along a wall of framed head shots on display at Sal’s as they melt in flames. This focus on the pictures is in context of a previous argument between Sal and Buggin’ Out, who called the pizzeria owner out for only displaying pictures of famous white people in his restaurant. Buggin’ Out thought that since most of Sal’s patrons were African American, their racial group should be represented inside the establishment. Sal responded by stating that he was the owner of the restaurant and has the right to display his Italian heritage wherever he chooses. This pan serves as a personal insult to Sal from the rioters; the destruction of the Italian American head shots shows disrespect to Sal’s heritage in response to the contemptuous attitude Sal expressed towards the African American community. In this scene as well as throughout the entire film, Spike Lee depicts conflict over intersecting racial identities that flare up as the heat of the day intensifies. It is clear that Lee’s vision of New York and its diverse inhabitants is one of conflict and irresolution.

Katherine Manweiler: Riot Scene Commentary

by Katherine Manweiler

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing presents a racially charged view of New York through interactions among members of various ethnic groups cohabitating in Brooklyn. Much like the Brooklyn Cha-Cha scene in Wayne Wang’s Blue in the Face, the riot scene in Do the right Thing presents a physical display of the relationship between the different ethnic groups presented in the film. Whereas the Blue in the Face dance scene depicted cohesion and unity among the racially diverse members of main character Auggie’s neighborhood, racial tensions come to a head with the riot in Do the Right Thing. If the cha cha scene can be considered a condensed representation of Wayne Wang’s attitude towards Brooklyn and New York, it would appear as though the filmmaker sees the city as a melting pot for harmony among people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Spike Lee, on the other hand, has an entirely different view of New York City dwellers based on the riot scene specifically. He views racial diversity as cause for conflict and disagreement rather than solidarity. The riot is prefaced by arguing among African American and White members of the community and ends in pure destruction and arson. This speaks to Spike Lee’s attitude towards racial interaction among New Yorkers. The violence and animosity presented by this scene is just an amplification of the conversations among the different racial groups throughout the whole film, which is littered with scenes of ethnic group representatives trash talking each other. Do the Right Thing captures interracial communication amongst members of a diverse neighborhood in a completely different way than Wang does in Smoke in the Face. Wang emphasizes unity through friendly conversations between different races while Lee presents a continuous turf war in his film. Using New York as a setting, Lee created a neighborhood inhabited by multiple ethnic groups. This racial mix sets the stage for confrontation which ensues throughout the film. Spike Lee also uses New York as part of the identities of each character. Sal and his Italian friends feel connected to the Brooklyn neighborhood they’ve been a part of for over two decades. Mookie and his friends and family also have claims to the neighborhood. Thus, tension arises as both racial groups hold contempt for each other rather than living together peacefully. The riot scene captures these attitudes of hatred. While throwing a trashcan through the window of Sal’s pizza, Mookie yells “hate”, which draws all groups in to the violent act. Mookie’s declaration and destructive act are analogous to the escalating feuds that transpired throughout the day. Immediately after the riot, the black community members exit Sal’s burning pizzeria only to swarm in on Sonny, the Korean market owner, who is swatting a broom at the mass in a feeble attempt to avoid a fate similar to that of Sal and his pizza shop. Again, Lee directly addresses racial tension in a very upfront manner. Sonny repeats “I no white! I no white!” hoping that by pointing out his skin color to the black rioters, he can escape the brutality that was shown to Sal. When tensions seem to be peaking, Sonny asserts that he is “Black..same!” to the leader of the destructive group of rioters. The black man is completely thrown off at first by Sonny’s bold claim, then begins to laugh and calm down as Sonny extends his hand as a symbol of peace and unity. This interaction adds a moment of humor and ease of tension as well as a breakthrough of understanding between quarreling members of different races. This scene makes use of panning and jump shots in medium close up to highlight the reactions of different individuals to the riot and ensuing drama. The frame of most of the shots in this scene display each ethnic group separately, drawing a further divide between all sides of the altercation. In a specific shot, the camera cuts along a wall of framed headshots on display at Sal’s as they melt in flames. This focus on the pictures is in context of a previous argument between Sal and Buggin’ Out, who called the pizzeria owner out for only displaying pictures of famous white people in his restaurant. Buggin’ Out thought that since most of Sal’s patrons were African American, their racial group should be represented inside the establishment. Sal responded by stating that he was the owner of the restaurant and has the right to display his Italian heritage wherever he chooses. This pan serves as a personal insult to Sal from the rioters; the destruction of the Italian American head shots shows disrespect to Sal’s heritage in response to the contemptuous attitude Sal expressed towards the African American community. In this scene as well as throughout the entire film, Spike Lee depicts conflict over intersecting racial identities that flare up as the heat of the day intensifies. It is clear that Lee’s vision of New York and its diverse inhabitants is one of conflict and irresolution.

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).

Riot Scene - Do the Right Thing

In this scene from director Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, racial tension explodes after one character is killed by the police.

from Do the Right Thing (1989)
Creator: Spike Lee
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Posted by Michelle Robinson
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