Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing: A Tale Told in Editing

By  · Published on November 30th, 2016

Techniques the director used and avoided to craft his masterpiece.

Spike Lee is a great director, one of the best of his time; this isn’t up for debate. Spike Lee is also one of the greatest screenwriters of his generation, and certainly one of the most important; this is another thing that doesn’t bear discussion, as it’s fact. But there’s another facet of Spike Lee’s filmmaking talent that isn’t discussed nearly enough nor given enough credit, though in many ways it’s more important that both those mentioned above: Spike Lee has a real knack for editing.

That’s not to say he does the editing himself – mostly that’s been Barry Alexander Brown, who isn’t the only editor Lee has ever worked with, but he has cut more than a dozen of Lee’s features – but Lee is very hands-on in the process, directing his staff as he would his actors and as a result putting his indelible and undeniable stamp on things.

6 Filmmaking Tips from Spike Lee

Just what editing techniques Lee utilizes and the personal twists he gives them are the subject of the following video essay from Nick Coleman (that we saw first over at No Film School), who takes his examples from Lee’s breakthrough film Do The Right Thing, which is a masterpiece of American independent cinema in part because of how Lee arranges, navigates, and manipulates his story of racial tensions erupting on the hottest day of the year. Coleman specifically looks at how Lee uses transitions in the film, including the “match on cut,” which is when the camera moves in a way that imitates the move just before it, like how Lee zooms away from one character then zooms in on another. Then, to round it all out, Coleman segues into, of all things, Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to show how these transitions and cuts of continuity can be misused, most often as “cheat cuts,” or cuts that are supposed to maintain continuity but which instead mismatch the positions of the subjects within the frame from shot to shot.

It might sound complicated, but in the hands of Spike Lee, as Coleman deftly demonstrates, these tricks appear effortless and seamless on screen. This is a fascinating look at the “hidden” talent of one of our most unique filmmakers, as well as a valuable lesson in storytelling for other filmmakers and audiences alike.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist