Style & Identity in Do the Right Thing | Clothes on Film

Exclusively for Clothes on Film, writer and broadcaster Ashley Clark explores the influential and highly symbolic costume design of Do the Right Thing (1989).

With its explosive mix of comedy, drama and racial politics, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing remains one of the most controversial and powerful films of the 80’s. Much of its enduring popularity can be attributed to an iconic aesthetic achieved through a combination of the writer-director-star’s expansive yet intimate vision, Ernest Dickerson’s glowing cinematography and -Ruth E. Carter’s vibrant, expressive costume work. Carter’s contribution is vital in three key areas: establishing a sense of place and adding depth to the characters, supporting the film’s themes, and contributing to a bold on-screen representation of blackness which, as suggested by Ed Guerrero, “challenges and erodes the skin-colour hierarchy of Hollywood’s classic optical hegemony” (Guerrero 2001, p. 62).

In his journal on the film’s production, Lee stated “the look of the film should be bright… almost blinding AFROCENTRIC bright!” (Jones, Lee 1989. p. 29), and Carter’s work fits the brief with aplomb. The costume palette is loud and the clothes (in the main) are minimal, reflecting and highlighting the sweltering heat and sweat of the long Bedford-Stuyvesant day upon which the film is set. The girls wear tube tops and the guys wear shorts and vests, and there is little cohesion in terms of a colour scheme, echoing the growing mood of disharmony that permeates the film. Reds, pinks, greens, oranges and yellows are par for the course, often on the same garment. However, the colour explosion is largely youthful, with the older characters’ clothes generally more reserved. Take for example the Greek chorus-like corner boys’ muted, light aerated shirts and hats – the casualwear of a different generation – which serve to accentuate the blazing orange-red of the wall behind them.

In addition to the colourful tableaus created by the plentiful extras and minor characters (largely black and Puerto Rican youth), the principal cast are attended to in careful detail by Carter. Much of the action revolves around Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, where lead character Mookie (Spike Lee) works with Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). In contrast to the jaunty Hawaiian shirt of the initially optimistic Sal and the sleeveless vest/shorts combo of the laid-back Vito, the virulently racist Pino first appears clad in jet black shirt and slacks, signifying the negativity of his character and confounding the audience; you would never know he worked in a pizzeria. Though Pino switches to a white t-shirt redolent of his own Italian-American community for work, he swaps into black as soon as the day is done, underlining his disregard for both his work and the neighbourhood, and prefiguring the darkness that envelops the narrative.

When Mookie first arrives at work, he is wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson No. 42 baseball jersey which is jarringly at odds with the Italian-American trio’s work uniform, and holds multivalent meanings. It speaks of an independence in the character, it connects Mookie to a prominent cultural figure from African-American history and it carries deep significance for the filmmaker: Lee had long harboured the ambition to make a film about the trailblazing sportsman. Mookie undergoes a startling costume change an hour into the film when he is suddenly changed into a “Sal’s” uniform. His sartorial independence is replaced by an uneasy conformity which sits at odds with his rather feckless nature and is ultimately exploded in the film’s devastating riot finale, for which he is the trashcan-throwing catalyst.

The supporting cast are all subtly augmented by Carter’s costumes. Street corner sage and alcoholic Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) ambulates the block in a stained, desiccated version of summer Sunday best; a single-breasted light blue seersucker suit with a dirty yellow shirt and straw trilby with black brim. His outfit is a near-parodic reprise of a possible past as a good churchgoing man now reduced to paying youngsters to fetch him beer. On the younger end, imposing Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) wears a white T-Shirt emblazoned with a colourful, boxed-off design and the slogan “Bed Stuy Do Or Die”. The T-shirt was hand painted by a local Brooklyn woman, and roots him squarely within his community. His complementary army camouflage shorts further evince notions of a combative nature within.

The most colourful character of all is the community DJ Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who wears a lurid black-based Hawaiian shirt, pinstriped peaked cap and leopard print-rimmed sunglasses that emphasise his extrovert personality. Ingeniously on Carter’s part, he is also given a range of hats that are first seen laid out across his console. Thusly, playing on the well-known phrase, Love Daddy quite literally wears a succession of different hats throughout the film to connote the variety of important roles he performs within the community; peacemaker, mediator, broadcaster and tribute leader (in the memorably discursive roll-call of black musical artists).

The role of costume in Do The Right Thing is not limited to scene-setting and character substantiation; it also underscores theme and structure. Take the memorable opening credit sequence in which Rosie Perez dances aggressively and seductively to Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’. Within the song’s four minute running time, Perez undergoes no fewer than five costume changes, accentuated by the jagged rhythms of the editing and the artificial red/blue/hot/cold stage lighting; a red dress with red tights and black belt, tight blue dancer’s Lycra without, then with leather jacket, then boxing gloves, silver shorts and black tube top with and without shimmering silver robe. The shifting textures of the film and its themes of violence, music, conflict and provocation are foreshadowed in this sequence.

The idea of sporting allegiance evinced through clothing (as introduced by Mookie’s Bulls and Dodgers jerseys) returns in a key scene freighted with thematic significance. A white cyclist (John Savage) barges past amateur politico Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), seemingly scuffing his brand new Nike Air Jordan 4 Cements. The cyclist is coded as an outsider not only by his waspish pallidity, skimpy shorts and ponytail, but crucially by his deep green Boston Celtics jersey bearing the name and number (33) of one Larry Bird, a (white) player later described by Lee as “the most overrated player in NBA history”.

Buggin’ Out’s damaged shoe is highlighted by a hilariously overwrought reverse crash zoom (revealing subtle green, red and gold above-lace detail) and subsequent low-angle shot of the horrified “victim”, mouth agape. The incident soon provokes an impromptu street-corner symposium on the nuts and bolts of gentrification. Upon the cyclist’s anguished exclamation “…but I was born in Brooklyn!”, Lee cuts to a wide shot of the disbelieving herd with arms aloft, exhibiting Carter’s expressive costumes in a vibrant shoal of blues, oranges, pinks, limes, purples and yellows; clashing yet unified against this green-jerseyed outsider. The image, perhaps more than any other in the film exemplifies the “AFROCENTRIC” brightness desired by Lee, while underpinned by brilliant costume choices; the sequence explores themes of authenticity, community and masculinity.

As well as clothes, Do The Right Thing is notable for its exemplary use of accessories. Radio Raheem – the film’s largest physical presence – is the character who benefits most from accessorisation, given his inarticulacy. According to Lee, his boombox is “his most prized possession. In a way it’s his car, it’s how he gets around” (Jones, Lee 1989. p. 58). His LOVE/HATE knuckle rings – an explicit nod to Robert Mitchum’s character in The Night Of The Hunter – which were designed at the Fulton Street Mall in downtown Brooklyn, are not only very cool and truly iconic, but socio-politically significant. As Lee explains, “He’s lost, like a lot of Black youth. Their value systems are all screwed up. They’re after more gold teeth, gold chains, and gold brass knuckle rings. They don’t understand how worthless that shit is in the long run. They are still BLACK, POOR and UNEDUCATED. Gold won’t change that” (ibid. p.59).

Radio Raheem is one third of a makeshift triumvirate of agitators that call for a boycott of Sal’s pizzeria; the group is completed by mentally slow, salmon pink-shirted and grey-slacked Smiley (Roger Guenvur Smith), who resembles a badly lost churchgoer and carries around a strange Walkman with a radio antenna, and the aforementioned Buggin’ Out. Along with his bright yellow T-shirt and patchwork shorts, Buggin Out’s haywire look is completed by outsize glasses and short, vertical dreads that – when viewed alongside Raheem’s Boombox and Smiley’s radio – could be argued to represent the third prong of some sort of wayward community antennae in competition with the broadcast of Love Daddy.

Another area in which costume is particularly significant is in the promotion of Afrocentric imagery, even when not explicitly referred to in the story. Lee clearly saw the importance of foregrounding diverse elements of African diasporic dress for the benefit of a mainstream audience and the good of black cinema. For example, while the 1980s saw the rapid rise to prominence of Eddie Murphy as a major black “star”, examples of widely-seen, black-authored cinema were few and far between until Lee changed history. For further context, one only has to consider the fact that in 1990, Do The Right Thing was not even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars while politically conservative Driving Miss Daisy took the top award.

Mookie’s sister Jade – in addition to an enormous, wide-brimmed, crownless pink hat – wears a succession of ethnic garments including headwraps, while the object of Da Mayor’s affection Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) also wears a range of light, colourful kanga-like wraps and African print dresses. Furthermore Mookie, Raheem, Jade and Love Daddy all wear African-themed/coloured pendants and bric-a-brac, despite their characters’ differences. Buggin’ Out even wears a pendant bearing the words ‘BLACK POWER’, which ties him to the militant late-60s movement his rhetoric echoes, though interestingly his boycott of Sal’s harks back to the direct economic action of the early days of the American Civil Rights movement in the south. Meanwhile, the multi-hatted Love Daddy dons a stitched kufi emblazoned with the word ‘Afrocentric’ to placate the thrillingly offensive direct-to-camera racial epithet montage; a wonderfully subtle moment of pro-black, pan-African imagery.

Lee’s relationship with consumerism is also framed through fascinating costume choices in the film. Prior to Do The Right Thing, Lee had established himself as a commercial director par excellence as the driving force behind Nike trainers’ ad campaigns of the late 80’s starring himself and Michael Jordan. The very first time we see Mookie, his back is facing the camera revealing a no.23 Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey. Here, Lee is breaking the fourth wall by creating a sartorial bridge between the film’s diegetic content and his own personal business interests as a commercial auteur; their first advert together was for Air Jordan 3 in 1988, a year before the film’s release, and fresh in the pop-culturally plugged-in collective public’s mind.

Critics of Lee have pointed negatively toward his embrace of an aggressively capitalist ethos and the prevalence of product placement in his films, yet his treatment of consumerism is far more complex than this interpretation would suggest. For example Buggin’ Out’s scuffed Jordans are seen foregrounded as their owner attempts to clean them with a toothbrush; here, Lee is simultaneously indulging in product placement and lightly sending up his vainglorious, politically naive character. Later, in the film’s most disturbing image, we see a close-up of Radio Raheem’s feet in Nike hi-tops kicking frantically, then dangling lifeless, suspended above the ground in a chilling rendition of a modern-day lynching. Being choked by a uniformed policeman, his footwear is suddenly, shockingly a raw symbol of America’s terrible racist past. Later still, the very first post-riot image is of a charred, discarded Nike hi-top; in both of these moments, the consumer fetish object is rendered starkly obsolete and even criticised as worthless within the context of the film and modern American history. Yet Mookie’s mantra is “I gots to get paid”, which one suspects echoes Lee’s embrace of commercialism as a route toward black economic agency, the end result of which is his vastly successful career as a promoter and author of black-focused art on a mainstream scale.

Though Carter was supported by local clothing merchants in preparing the costumes, an intriguing quote from Perez casts doubt upon the film’s locational credibility. “I didn’t really think the costumes reflected what people were wearing in Brooklyn”, observed the actress. “Spike wasn’t from Bedford-Stuyvesant or Brownsville… He was in artsy-fartsy Fort Greene [a nearby district where much of his debut She’s Gotta Have It was shot]. Maybe kids in Manhattan were wearing that stuff, but on my block men did not wear biker shorts” (Matloff, Lee 2010, p.14). Mookie is perhaps the worst offender on this score, first wearing red shorts over black Lycra cycling shorts, then yellow over green. However at one point in the film some local youth can be heard to be laughing at him: “you wit’ your red black socks!” suggesting Lee was aware of his rather outré choices. The rub is that although Do The Right Thing deals with a serious topic, it is hardly a realist front-line despatch; it is far too heightened tonally and stylistically for that. Furthermore, Carter counters “I have no doubt Rosie’s outfits were things that she would have really worn at the time. In fact, I even think the red dress she had on during the opening credits was her own!” (ibid.)

Despite the film’s singularity of style, Carter has looked back on her work on the film with mixed feelings, saying “I watched the film fairly recently, and I cringed when I saw some of the outfits” (ibid.), yet the influence of Do The Right Thing’s style upon the emerging wave of African-American popular culture in the following decade is clear to see. Consider Will Smith’s increasingly loud costumes throughout the run of TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the threads and hairstyles of the Hudlin Brothers’ hugely successful House Party trilogy, or the growth of hip-hop fashion embodied by the likes of Public Enemy.

23 Years on from its release, Do The Right Thing is a landmark in visually and politically expressive African-American cinema which retains the power to entertain, shock and provoke thought in equal measure. It is also a masterclass in showing how costume design can dramatically influence the look and feel of a film, and serve to bring us closer to its characters and the contradictions inherent in them. In going for broke on the colours and accessories, Carter very much did the right thing.

By Ashley Clark, creator and editor of Permanent Plastic Helmet and freelance film journalist.

Sources referenced:

Guerrero, Ed, BFI Modern Classics – Do The Right Thing, BFI 2001
Jones, Lisa, Lee, Spike, Do The Right Thing. A Spike Lee Joint, Simon & Schuster 1989
Matloff, Jason and Lee, Spike (ed. Crist, Steve), Spike Lee – Do The Right Thing, AMMO 2010

You can watch Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at LOVEFiLM.com.

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