These movies are about heat. Taking place on the hottest day of the year in New York City, they put their characters under a microscope to see how they respond to the oppressive discomfort. On a more personal level, these movies are about race — prejudice, conflict, the whole bloody American saga. The heat is a metaphor, and a catalyst for bringing racial tensions to a head. It strips away pretense and politeness to get at fundamental truth. It quietly provides momentum for each story. There are many excellent qualities to be found in both 12 Angry Men and Do the Right Thing, but what they have in common is that each is, in its own way — one in crisp black and white, the other in fulsome color — a palpable, cinematic portrayal of heat.
Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is the story of a jury. Famously set almost entirely within the confines of the deliberations room, the film captures the long struggle to reach a unanimous verdict in the case of a Puerto Rican teenager accused of killing his father. The entire group is ready to declare the young man guilty and go home, with one exception. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), knowing that the boy faces the death penalty, wants to be sure that the others have at least considered the possibility of the boy’s innocence before they make a rash judgment. “He’s fighting not only their preconceptions, but their physical discomfort” due to the heat, as the blogger Farran Smith Nehme points out. Slowly and methodically, he begins to poke holes in the prosecution’s case. As the critic Mike D’Angelo shrewdly observed, the case for acquittal ultimately doesn’t hold much water, depending as it does on some huge coincidences. This isn’t really a deal-breaker, however, because the film isn’t about the accused. It’s about uncovering the capacity for empathy in each of the title characters.
This is a film of close-ups — understandably so, considering the confined space. Under the direction of the legendary cinematographer Boris Kaufman, the camera relentlessly pushes in on exasperated faces, accusatory faces, nervous faces. Over ninety minutes, the film documents with unblinking intimacy the accumulation of sweat and the growing shadows of evening. The scenario allows for the actors to build performances off of each other, and the results are spectacular. Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, and E.G. Marshall play the most important characters — the latter two opposing #8 the longest. But even the less-developed characters are fleshed out enough both by script and performance to make their distinct reasons for voting the way they do easy to grasp. They don’t simply assume the boy is guilty because they’re racists. Well, one of them does, and in my opinion the worst part of the film is when he gets called out for his prejudice in a moment of self-righteous and clunky theatricality. For the others, there are more subtle factors involved, but the boy’s “background” is certainly one of them. Reginald Rose’s script decisively tears down the distinction between “us” and “them.” One juror can empathize with the boy’s experience living in a slum; another is a fellow immigrant. And thus the tide begins to turn.
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a relatively expansive film, with a much more diverse gallery of characters and multiple plot threads. But it’s still confined to a small time frame (24 hours) and a localized setting (the Bedford-Stuyvesant community in Brooklyn). Within this milieu exist several ethnic groups trying to live in peace but finding reasons to mistrust one another. Crisscrossing disputes converge at Sal’s Pizzeria, where our de facto protagonist, Mookie (played by Lee), works. These disputes concern personal expression and the recognition of cultural value. The film praises black athletes, black musicians, and, most crucially, the martyred civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. These two men’s deaths hang over the entire film — a buried rage pulled to the surface by the heat.
The color palette by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson is appropriately warm, with lots of reds, oranges, and yellows. As Ashley Clark points out in an appreciation of the film, Dickerson “was tasked with making the results of an eight-week, often-rainy shoot look convincingly like one scorching day, and he succeeded beautifully.” Water on flesh is a recurring image — showers, a fire hydrant, and finally the historically fraught image of a firefighter’s hose turned away from a burning building and onto a crowd of black people. Like in 12 Angry Men, the heat serves to make an already uncomfortable situation even more tense. The grime of sweat can bring out the worst in people. They can still be polite, but the hotter it gets, the less likely they are to go out of their way to be polite when other people challenge them. This idea is the source of the film’s tragic finale. It’s not about bad people ruining the lives of good people. There are no easy villains here (not even the cops, I’d argue). It’s about complicated people who lose the will to forgive each other. Marvelous characterizations abound in Do the Right Thing. “Lee paints the people with love for detail,” in Roger Ebert’s words. Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn, Giancarlo Esposito, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and John Turturro all give wonderful performances. Lee himself does some fine work in front of the camera, guiding us through the film’s tapestry with good humor.
Do the Right Thing is such an aggressive piece of work that it even reaches back three decades to challenge 12 Angry Men. Watching the two back-to-back, I find that the gap between thirty-two years of American history is pretty staggering. On one end, we see a group of white men in suits deciding the fate of a minority character. On the other end, we see a different minority asserting its own agency in this world — eloquently, fiercely, and yes, violently. I see that as progress, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that the later film has the more ambivalent ending. 12 Angry Men never claimed to “solve” racism; I don’t want to drag that film down, because it is astonishingly good. But it’s essentially a peek through the keyhole of a door that Do the Right Thing would smash into splinters. As a nation, we needed (and still need) the heat to keep coming back, year after year. There is something purifying in it.