Although Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) is packed full of memorable and meaningful sequences, Radio Raheem’s speech on the relationship between love and hate stands out for how it uses camera work to bring up complex issues of racial antagonism, belonging, property, and identity.
Mookie leaves Sal’s Pizzeria on a delivery and runs into Radio Raheem on the street. He’s showing off his new knuckle rings: “HATE” on his left hand, and “LOVE” on the other. He says to Mookie, “Let me tell you the story of right hand, left hand; the story of good and evil…the story of life is this, static. One hand is always fighting the other hand.” Raheem still believes that love will always conquer hate.
Raheem’s speech is a re-enactment of a famous scene from Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). In Laughton’s film, the protagonist is Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a corrupt, self-proclaimed clergyman who is also a serial killer. Instead of Raheem’s knuckle rings, the reverend has tattooed the words “L-O-V-E” on his right hand and “H-A-T-E” on his left, which he uses as props in spontaneous sermons to the townspeople he acquaints. Powell is the definition of sinister, which is interesting when compared to the characterization of Raheem in the love and hate sequence. Raheem becomes a kind of street preacher, sharing a biblical story with Mookie and giving his own spin on it. In his version, “Cain iced his brother.” The scene begs the question of whether Raheem is purposefully quoting from Night of the Hunter or his speech is coincidental (though, the existence of this question is unfair to Raheem, as it belittles his intellect, making the viewer question his or her own preconceived notions of class, race, and education).
Even though here Powell’s tattoos have transformed into possibly harmful knuckle rings, and Raheem performs the monologue directly to the camera, punching at the audience, the sequence actually has the effect of making Raheem seem innocuous. Raheem’s fists cover his face and take up most of the shot, which could be intimidating, but the way he acts out his story and how he embraces Mookie is endearing. The fact that Raheem constantly has to cloak himself in speeches, a boom box, and a provoking t-shirt actually serves to highlight his insecurity. Mookie’s lukewarm reaction to the speech further illustrates how nobody takes Raheem’s proselytizing seriously. Raheem could be anyone if he didn’t have his controversial boom box by his side. Yet, Raheem’s boom box can also be viewed as a metaphorical cross, both the object of his downfall and a figure others rally around after he dies.
After his impromptu sermon, Raheem goes to Sal’s and orders two slices of pizza. Sal asks him to turn his music off, and the two have a shouting match until Raheem acquiesces. At first, Sal addresses Raheem with some respect when he calls him, “Mr. Radio Raheem,” but Sal doesn’t realize what it is to ask Raheem to turn down his radio. It would mean for Raheem to have to renounce his whole culture and concede to the white man’s wishes. Sal also makes a pejorative distinction between rap and music when he says, “You come into Sal’s, there’s no music. No rap, no music, no music, no music.” He is classifying Raheem’s rap as “other”, something that doesn’t belong in his category of music. By the end of the encounter, Raheem has no patience for pleasantries and says, “Put some extra mozzarella on that motherfucker and shit.” Sal gets the last word when he responds, “Extra cheese is two dollars.”
When Raheem first enters the pizzeria, the camera tracks-in while zooming out, which alters the focus of the image but keeps it the same size. This is also called the Vertigo Effect or dolly zoom. The shot has an ominous and disorienting effect, and also shows how Raheem’s presence causes the space to change. Subsequently, the camera becomes tilted in what is called a canted frame, which shows Raheem and Sal as centered but with their backgrounds slightly sideways. As the story progresses, characters are filmed at increasingly canted angles, which reflects the building agitation. The characters’ worlds are shifting and becoming askew, which is mirrored in the unconventional filming. When Raheem is on screen, he takes up almost the entire shot, which creates a claustrophobic effect. This, combined with the blaring music and the shouts of the characters, overwhelms the viewer in a way that parallels the feeling in the onscreen environment. Raheem’s extreme close-ups show his lack of control over the situation and make him appear much less capable of checking his temper than Sal.
Because the love and hate scene is directly followed by the encounter at the pizzeria, the scenes’ many differences impact the effect of the sequence as a whole. The spatial dynamics of the two scenes are completely different. The love and hate sequence takes place outside in the wide expanse of the street, whereas the confrontation at Sal’s is set in the crowded steam box of a pizzeria. The juxtaposition of the colorful, open outdoors with the walled, wallpapered, and cluttered pizzeria that has ceiling fans whirring in the background that create a constant movement and the blaring soundtrack of “Fight the Power” (which is much quieter in the first half of the sequence) makes the total effect of those two scenes more potent when put together.
The two scenes in this particular sequence are joined by the motif of opposing forces. The way the camera films characters and objects brings this motif to the forefront of our attention. Sal and Raheem are in direct contrast to each other through the use of two-shot; as opposed to typical form, the back of Raheem is not shown in the shot of Sal, and vice versa. Raheem is displayed closer to the camera than Sal, which provides a further distinction between their images. The love and hate knuckle rings are obvious opposites, but Raheem highlights their close relation in his speech. The camera gives them equal attention in the scene, focusing on them both while also evenly giving each ring a spotlight.
The framing, composition, and angles of shots included in this particular sequence simultaneously characterize Raheem, elucidate and emphasize his relationships with Mookie and Sal, and build tension. When taken together, the differences in how each scene is filmed add to their overall effectiveness, as they provide a fruitful comparison of encounters across racial and cultural lines. Likewise, the mise-en-scène of the sequence, including the disparate sets of the two scenes (outdoors vs. indoors, claustrophobic vs. expansive), solidify the characters’ relationships to each other, and in summation give the scene rich textual meaning.