Riots in American Suburbs in the Cinema: From Spike Lee to Kathryn Bigelow

By Ayrton Aubry.

How can film accurately represent a riot in a Black suburb? This is the question Spike Lee and Kathryn Bigelow have been asking themselves, in two movies that will continue to shape cinema in the future. Two schools, two times, two places, two directors, and two ways of portraying racial riots in the United States. Do The Right Thing was showed at the Forum des Images, during the film festival « L’état du monde » from November 17th to the 26th, 2017, and Detroit has been out since its release in October 2017 in France.

In Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee plunges us in the everyday life of an American neighborhood in Brooklyn. It follows the progression of everyday life under the blazing sun, and ends with the burning of a pizzeria, the consequence of the murder of an unarmed civilian by the police. The main character, Mookie (played by Spike Lee), goes through the neighborhood to deliver pizzas. The spectator can see the organization of the place through his eyes. Detroit, a story told with documentary-like features (from archived images, and reconstitutions from actors’ narratives), covers the most destructive and worst series of riots in US history, that happened in Detroit’s suburbs in 1967 that resulted in the assassination of three Black men by White police officers. The illegal and violent questioning of the Algier’s motel’s clients, that led to this tragedy, is the core of the movie. Both films take place in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

Spike Lee spends 24 hours in a neighborhood, alternating between two points of view. The street, when the camera stands on the ground and records on a low-angle, it’s as if the pavement was a character in itself. The sky: the camera is on a grue, and records a whole boulevard. Movement and centrality are key elements: the pizzeria is like a pillar, on which leans the life of the suburb, and around which the whole population crawls. It is a heart from which the arteries (the pizza men) are delivering blood (pizzas) to vital organs. The camera follows the characters, stops and moves accordingly to the interactions. The movie goes on at the rhythm of the back and forth trips between mobile or immobile places of the neighborhood. In Detroit, if the camera goes around at first in the whole area, it stabilizes itself then in the Algier’s motel. Time slow down, to allow the director to expose us in details the tragic events that took place during the night.

In Do The Right Thing, the confrontation is constant and daily. It is an everlasting equilibrium on the edge of breaking down which is described, where conflict is systematically narrowly avoided. One overflow is enough though to bring up all the tensions and to make the situation explosive. The intervention of a foreign actor is the last straw, because this actor doesn’t master the rules in such a conflict situation, which were introduced to the spectator since the beginning of the movie. The idea is crystal clear: the everlasting equilibrium, built during dozens of years of daily confrontations (symbolized here by the manager of the pizzeria), can be teared apart in one night because of the intrusion of a foreign actor. The perspective stays positive, if not optimistic: the two protagonists finish by shaking their hands in front of the pizzeria’s ruins.

In Detroit, on the contrary, the organizing frame of the suburb is completely marginalized, given that the purpose of the film is to highlight how an exogenous, white supremacist order imposes itself on a neighbourhood as a whole (as opposed to a precise geographical place, as it is presented in Do The Right Thing). The opening scene, when the police interrupt the welcoming party for two soldiers back from Vietnam, represents this idea clearly.

Colors are a key element of Spike Lee’s film, whether it is streets, clothes, etc. The main part of the action actually takes place in a beautiful (and hot) day, which improves the luminosity, and contrasts all the more with the scenes of violence during the night, that follow a « mistake » by the police. In Detroit by contrast, colors are much less shiny and confirm the bias of realism chosen by the director. It is actually a weakness of the film, which commits itself to use a low light from the beginning to the end: it weakens the difference between the time before the riot, the riot itself, and the period afterward. At the same time, this process can illustrate the racist and unequal structure of the state, which imposes itself before, during, and after the events narrated.

The ambition of Kathryn Bigelow in Detroit is to be profoundly accurate. She uses a lot of archived images, which stop the narrative of the events of the terrible night in 1967. The film carries the most possible realism and pushes the fiction aside, which was neatly illustrated by the short animation at the beginning of the film that gave insight to the historic Great Migration of the Black population from the South of the United States during the 40s-70s. Kathryn Bigelow’s touch, which has been highly criticized, is deeply present: the expression « on steroids » has been used countless times by other critics to describe her editing style. The editing makes the spectator uneasy through fast cuts and extremely quick camera movements, which illustrate the confusion of the action of the characters: as spectators, we are drained into actions which happen very fast and violently, without giving us (or the characters) time to think and to analyze the situation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we find Spike Lee. The color scheme reinforces the non-realism, even if it is not the purpose of the movie. The frequent « camera poses » actively involves the spectator in the film. The style of the French New Wave is actually also a part of Spike Lee’s films as Lee himself advises his cinema class students to watch some of the founders of the movement, such as Godard or Truffaut. Some written texts are present in Do The Right Thing, which is another hint to the New Wave, especially to Godard, and expresses the spirit of the neighborhood.

Both films begin from two different starting points in their way of portraying the story of systemic racism, outrage, and action. If Detroit shows both the civilians and the police, Do The Right Thing takes the opportunity to mainly explore the dynamics of the former. The police are also present, but it is a foreign actor from the perspective of the suburb, and only occasionally intervenes. The larger place of the police in Detroit serves the purpose of the movie: to highlight the gap and the opposition between the police force that upholds and is favored by White supremacy, and civilians that are abused by their power.

Both films take place in their own context: Do The Right Thing fully belongs to the time it was released (the end of the 1980’s), whereas Detroit describes a series of events that took place half a century before, while being influenced by the present Black Lives Matter movement. In both films, this inscription in a historical context is illustrated by cultural references. In Kathryn Bigelow’s movie, it takes the form of boy bands, present and cited throughout the film. It is all the more the case in Spike Lee’s movie with the epic introduction, in which the character, Tina, dances to « Fight The Power » by Public Enemy.

With two different methods, both films present the universality of the racist state. From a precise geographic place in Do The Right Thing, without identification that can potentially be applicable everywhere. From travels in different neighborhoods (except the Algier’s motel) without particular identity in Detroit, to shed the light on institutional racism and its effects in 1960’s America. Two methods, for one theme. Spike Lee’s honor is that he looks beyond the usual perspective, as early as the 1980’s, by firmly deciding to let the inhabitants of the suburbs express themselves (Menace II Society will do the same thing in 1993). This aspect is less important in Kathryn Bigelow. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, and ongoing race relations in America, cinema has its words to say about comprehending and apprehending suburbs riots as they have been taking place in the US since yesterday, today and the years to come.


Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse de messagerie ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *