Film Studies

Archive for March 2011

Do the Right Thing

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Do the Right Thing was written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee in 1989.  Unlike many other films released during the early 90s, Do the Right Thing takes a realistic approach to the influence of race relations in New York.  Spike Lee stars as Mookie, the central character who interacts with various characters in the neighborhood as he fulfills his duties as a delivery boy for Sal, an Italian who has owned and operated the local pizzeria for over 15 years.  Do the Right Thing addresses race through blurring binary opposition and cinematic techniques allowing the viewer to leave the film with a better understanding of race relations in America.

One of the major differences in Do the Right Thing compared to other films involving race is that it takes a realistic approach to race relations.  A consequence of this realistic approach is a less distinct binary opposition in the film.  According to a review by Roger Ebert, Do the Right Thing “is not filled with brotherly love, but it is not filled with hate, either. It comes out of a weary, urban cynicism that has settled down around us in recent years.”  Rather than have a clear story with a good character battling a bad character, Do the Right Thing has no clear-cut hero or villain.  Instead, each character in Do the Right Thing has both positive and negative qualities.  An example of a character that exemplifies this quality simply is Da Mayor, played by Ossie Davis, who displays good qualities by saving the child from a speeding car and is one of the few people who attempts to stop the rioting of Sal’s pizza parlor.  Although these are good qualities, Da Mayor is classified as the neighborhood drunk who constantly drinks and stumbles around the neighborhood throughout the film.  This blurriness in binary opposition has its benefits and drawbacks.  It is beneficial because it allows viewers to relate more to characters and creates a realistic picture.  The drawback is that it may be harder to understand since there is no clear-cut person the viewer feels he/she should connect with.  Roger Ebert agrees with this statement as he believes Do The Right Thing “doesn’t ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair.”

Spike Lee addresses race in this film by taking a realistic approach to race relations in America.  In addition to doing this through characters who display have both strengths and faults, he also does this through the formal context.  Roger Ebert states that “Lee’s writing and direction are masterful throughout the movie; he knows exactly where he is taking us, and how to get there, but he holds his cards close to his heart, and so the movie is hard to predict, hard to anticipate. After we get to the end, however, we understand how, and why, everything has happened.”  I believe a major way Spike Lee accomplishes this heightened suspense is through the concept of having characters look straight into the camera when talking about certain ideas.  Below is a clip from Do the Right Thing that accomplishes this feat.

The eye contact directly into the camera engages the viewer into the film, allowing the viewer to feel effects of the rant as if the character was talking directly to you.  This was a goal of Spike Lee; to encourage the viewer to understand the level of race intolerance in America.  Roger Ebert says it excellently in his review when he states “anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn’t paying attention.”

As I viewed Do the Right Thing, I also considered the discussion we had about the film a few class periods ago.  When Do the Right Thing was released, it received sub-par reviews, but it now considered one of the greatest films of all time.  Why this change?  My theory is that the world never experienced the sort of realistic race movie as such.  We are accustomed to movies where there is a clear good vs. evil battle, and expect the conclusion of the movie to provide more answers than questions.  Do the Right Thing “comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.”  As time went on and experts reflected on this film, they saw the potential it has to illustrate race relations.  Roger Ebert agrees with this when he wrote his positve review soon after Do the Right Things release and said: “There will be time, in the extended discussions this movie will inspire, to discuss in detail who does what and why.”

Written by matthewpickle

March 30, 2011 at 6:22 pm

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Shaft (2001) Review

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The 2001 version of Shaft was directed by John Singleton and stars Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft, a New York Police Detective who is determined to lock away the evil and spoiled Walter Wade, Jr.  Christian Bale plays Walter Wade, a person who is responsible for a racially driven murder of an African-American in a upscale lounge in New York City.  Compared to the original Shaft first created in the 1970s, the modern-day version of Shaft illustrates many of the same factors that make up classic blaxploitation films as well as utilizing a post-modernist approach to the make a stand against the dominant ideology of other blaxploitation films.


While viewing this version of Shaft, I couldn’t help but compare it to the original 1970s version.  I noticed many similarities and concepts that factor into many other blaxploitation films.  The first of these similarities is the characteristics and attitude of the central character, John Shaft.  The John Shaft that Richard Roundtree acts as in the original Shaft plays an anti-hero type of role and classifies himself as a badass.  Samuel L. Jackson also acts as a violent anti-hero by quitting the police force and taking matters into his own hands.  Roger Ebert, in his review of Shaft, states “At the center of the tug of war, pulled both ways and enjoying it, is Samuel L. Jackson, as a tough cop who throws his badge back at a judge (literally) and becomes a free-lance vigilante.”  Although the similarities between the two films are helpful in connecting the story, it does lead to part of its downfall.  Roger Ebert continues by saying Shaft is “oo much of it is on automatic pilot, as it must be, to satisfy the fans of the original “Shaft.”


Although it is easy to see the similarities between the two versions of Shaft, there are plenty of differences.  Roger Ebert states this modern-day Shaft is “not just a retread of the old movie, but Shaft as more complicated than before, and with well-observed supporting characters.”  The biggest difference I noticed between the two films is the intensity of racism in each of the films.  The original Shaft does not directly bring up racism in the film.  Where the original Shaft chooses to displace racism, the modern-day Shaft chooses to utilize condensation.  Examples of this racism include the original murder of Trey Howard by Walter Wade Jr. as well as the tension between Wade and Peoples Hernadez.  Another major difference between the two shafts is the amount of sexuality.  Robert Ebert believes “One thing modern about the movie is its low sexual quotient. Blaxploitation came along at a time when American movies were sexy, with lots of nudity and bedroom time.”


Both these similarities and differences prove to how the dominate ideology of blaxploitation films have changed over the past 30 years.  I had difficulty determining whether this version of Shaft challenges or supports the dominant ideology.  Because it has many similarities of previous blaxploitation films, I feel it supports the stereotypical blaxploitation films rather than challenge what is ‘normal.’


Lastly, after viewing the movie and reading the review by Roger Ebert, it seems Shaft’s is a post-modern film.  A major concept of a post-modern film is using scenes from past movies to convery the plot.  Roger Ebert states “The story’s broad outlines are familiar not only from early 1970s black exploitation movies, but also from the early “Dirty Harry” pictures, and when a top cop orders Shaft to get out of his precinct, it’s like he’s reciting dialogue from the classics.”  He continues by saying “The way they talk to each other, the words they choose, the attitudes they strike, the changes they go through, are as subtly menacing as scenes in a film by Lee or Scorsese.”  After reading this, I immediately saw the connection between post-modernism and Shaft.  Overall, I felt like this version of Shaft had a lot of action, which created a lot of excitement, but ultimately the lack of a strong plot made it difficult for me to watch Shaft again.


Written by matthewpickle

March 25, 2011 at 4:14 am

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Shaft Film Review

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The original Shaft was released in 1971 and was directed Gordon Parks and stars Richard Roundtree is John Shaft, a private investigator who sneaks through New York to find the daughter of a black mobster.  The original Shaft is considered one of the pioneering films in the blaxploitation genre.  Shaft displays some of the core foundations that many other blaxploitation films utilize including the anti-hero theme, vulgarity, and strong violence.  Shaft also incorporates numerous camera techniques including the use of the upward tilt to show Shaft as a powerful authority, and utilizing short, fast cuts when violence happens.

After viewing the documentary Badass Cinema is class, I noticed many core blaxploitation concepts in Shaft. The first of these techniques is depicting Shaft as a dark and charismatic anti-hero.  The film Badass Cinema brought up the point that the general tone in movies before the blaxploitation movie expansion was that of a defeatist.  Instead of having a clear hero who feels defeated, the film Shaft portrays John Shaft as a charismatic, smooth-talking figure.  Gordon Parks also hints that John Shaft may not be a clean-cut hero because of his connections to numerous villains and the gangster Bumby Jonas, played by Moses Gunn.  Nonetheless, director Gordon Parks makes it clear John Shaft is the primary hero in the film through the use of the upward tilt camera technique.  Multiple times throughout the film, when Shaft is walking down the street, the camera angle is tilted up making the viewer feel he is looking up to Shaft.  The most notable scene that utilizes this technique is the montage where John Shaft is walking down the street asking people for information about a possible suspect, Ben Buford.  This technique makes it so the viewer feels Shaft is a man of authority and power and the clear badass anti-hero.

The second major idea I saw in Shaft is the amount of vulgarity and the intensity of violence.  The previous films I have seen from the 1970s and 80s did not contain the extreme vulgarity and violence that Shaft did.  I believe this vulgarity and violence helps separate the blaxploitation genre from others.  According to a review by Robert Ebert, “The strength of Parks’s movie is his willingness to let his hero fully inhabit the private-eye genre, with all of its obligatory violence, blood, obscenity, and plot gimmicks.”  Clearly the director Gordon Parks wanted the violence/vulgarity to be a key component of Shaft.  The evidence for this can be seen near the beginning of the movie where one of the police detectives, after talking to Shaft, commented that John Shaft ‘has a lot of mouth’ on him.  This vulgarity/violence helps separate blaxploitation movies from mainstream viewers and attract many people to seeing the film itself.

Although a major part of Shaft is the violence and sex appeal, I agree with Robert Ebert when he states director “Parks isn’t especially good at action direction, but the heart of a private-eye movie is in the mood scenes, anyway, and he supplies a scene in a bar and another one with the Harlem rackets boss that are very nice.”  Near the beginning of the film when Shaft fights two gangsters in his office, I couldn’t help but notice the cuts in this action scene were incredibly short, often causing discontinuity by rapidly changing the view to different angles.  Don’t get me wrong, I felt that action scenes provided a lot of suspense in Shaft and provided excellent entertainment, however, I can’t help but think the suspense level could be increased even further if their were smoother cuts and more continuity.  I also agreed with Robert Ebert in that the mood scenes like the one where Shaft confronts the mobsters in the bar provide some of the most suspenseful moments in the film.

Overall, I enjoyed Shaft immensely.  While viewing it, I noticed many of the themes Quentin Tarantino and other experts discussed in the documentary Badass Cinema.  I also enjoyed analyzing the cinematic techniques used to depict Shaft as a powerful and charismatic anti-hero.  The violence, vulgarity, and action scenes provided many entertaining scenes and an extremely enjoyable experience overall.  I can’t wait to watch the re-make!


Written by matthewpickle

March 10, 2011 at 1:14 am

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Faat Kine

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Faat Kine is a Senegalese film written and directed by Ousmane Sembene and takes a critical look at the effects of modern colonialism had on Senegal.  Faat Kine’s storyline revolves around Faat Kine as she struggles to maintain and manage a local gas station while providing for her two kids as a single mother.  Watching Faat Kine provided a unique experience by allowing me to see a film that didn’t originate from Hollywood.  Although having to follow along with subtitles made it difficult and the quality of the film made it appear it was released in the late 80s rather than 2000, Faat Kine provided the audience with some interesting ideas a critical view on the social issues prevalent in Senegal today.

The first major concept I found interesting in Faat Kine was the way the story was presented.  Although the story begins in the present time and primarily focuses on Faat Kine’s life, we obtain a deeper understanding of Faat Kine’s past through flashbacks.  These flashbacks allow the viewer to experience the hardships Faat Kine encountered on a deeper level.  According to a review by Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times, Ousmane Sembene “allows us to take in the moments and hold them as closely as we need to while he moves on to the next part of his narrative, because he knows it all has to add up.”  Flashbacks allow the viewer to connect to Faat Kine on a deeper level as opposed to simply hearing it through the dialogue.  Flashbacks allow us to have visual of Faat Kine’s experiences.  Additionally, the flashback technique allows the viewer to gain more detail of the event.  Elvis Mitchell agrees with this by stating the flashback scenes “could be whipped up into a tempest of tear-jerking, but Mr. Sembène is a far more adroit and elegant storyteller than many may be accustomed to seeing. For him, it’s the accretion of detail that adds up to a satisfying story.”  If the viewer were to understand Faat Kine’s past through dialogue, they would not receive the same amount of detail a flashback would provide.

Another concept in Faat Kine that I found interesting was the use of music.  Unlike many films produced in Hollywood, USA, Faat Kine lacked a large amount of background music.  Nonetheless, the music enabled me to follow the story.  The majority of the time the viewer hears the thematic music in Faat Kine is when a flashback occurs.  The music signifying a flashback helps the film stay organized and allows the viewer to understand the film clearly rather than be confused on what is or what isn’t a flashback.  Because I rarely see foreign films like Faat Kine, the music truly helped me understand what was happening in the film.  Although it seemed the music queued a flashback, it also was used for two other reasons.  First, the music helped transition discontinuity.  For example, in one scene we see Faat Kine in her gas station while the next scene we see her at a bank.  The same ‘flashback type’ music played to help create a sense of smoothness from one scene to the next.  The other way music was used was to create suspense.  In the scene we see where Faat Kine’s father attempts to attack her with a stock of fire, loud and suspense music supplements the action on-screen.  Although it seemed like music was lacking in some scenes where there was some awkward silences, the music helped signify what is a flashback and what isn’t and add to the suspense and fear in some scenes.

The film Faat Kine takes a critical look at post-colonial Senegal and the social issues surrounding its people.  According to Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times, Mr. Sembene’s “blithe naturalism — his films seem to coast into view and before you know it you’re hooked — draws the audience slowly into the rhythms of another world.”  The director accomplishes this by focusing on many social issues affecting the people of Senegal.  In Faat Kine, there is a general conflict between what is considered traditional and modern.  The scene where Djip confronts Faat Kine’s previous partners, we can see the conflict of tradition and modern clearly.  Other issues Faat Kine brings up is women’s rights and conflict between Christianity and Muslim religion.  The issue of religion can be seen through the difficulty in whether Uncle Jean, a Catholic, and Faat Kine, a Muslin, should become involved.

Overall, Faat Kine was an interesting film that provided a glimpse of what life in Senegal is like and the issues surrounding the people.  The use of flashbacks and music help the viewer to follow the clear story while simultaneously obtaining a deeper understanding of Faat Kine.   I felt the film lacked strong acting and felt some scenes were awkward.  This judgment may be attributed to the fact I have only seen a handful of foreign films and had to rely on subtitles.  Nonetheless, I felt Faat Kine was a great experience in understanding what life in Senegal is truly like.

Written by matthewpickle

March 2, 2011 at 2:32 am

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