Spike Lee is one of the most well known living filmmakers for a number of reasons. His controversial nature, the taboo subject matter of his films, his prolific filmography, and so on. But one thing that is discussed far too rarely is Lee’s technical style. This includes his penchant for changing aspect ratios, fluctuating film stocks, morphing color tones, and, of course, his signature double dolly shot.
|Denzel and Spike prepping for a double dolly shot on Inside Man|
In my research, I found that many people hate Lee’s double dolly shot, because it takes them out of the story, and forces them to instead focus on the technique. Fair criticism, but I’d argue that is precisely Lee’s intention. The man uses cinematic flourishes (double cutting when people embrace, breaking the fourth wall, mixing in documentary footage; in addition to the ones listed above) to remind the viewer that, yes, you are indeed watching a movie. I don’t think that takes away from the story at hand, but rather, if done properly, only heightens the overall experience.
So with that, here is a breakdown of every occurrence of the Spike Lee double dolly shot. Please note that while many argue that Lee’s School Daze (1988) and Do the Right Thing (1989) contain this shot, they simply do not. As Lee has said previously, he discovered the technique while filming Mo’ Better Blues (1990). In fact, since 1990, he’s only not included the shot in three of his narrative films. Here’s where he’s used the shots previously, and how effective they’ve been.
Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Lee said the idea to have his character, Giant, sitting on a dolly and gliding along was a random thought he and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson came up with on the spot. In the shot, Giant is walking toward an angry bookie that Giant is indebted to. Once Giant sees the bookie, it’s as if the shot is attempting to predict the horror that may come. Giant floats on, cautious and scared. When he spots the bookie, he turns and floats away. While on the dolly, Lee can be seen moving his shoulders up and down, as if he was trying to mirror what it would look like if he was walking. He admits that technique was “really just show-offy, student film stuff,” and has since kept his characters more or less still when imploring the technique.
Effectiveness of shot: B+
Jungle Fever (1991)
For Jungle Fever, Lee used the shot twice, but in similar situations. The first instance is when Annabella Sciorra and John Turturro are walking to go on a date, and Turturro playfully pokes fun at the fact that her overprotective brothers may be retarded.
Secondly, we see Wesley Snipes and Spike Lee gliding down a quiet street, as the two argue about how much information Lee shares with his wife.
Both scenes look decent, but there’s one annoying trait: you can hear the very false-sounding noise of heels clanking on the sidewalk, as if to mimic the sound of the characters walking. But, much like Lee’s walking in the Mo’ Better shot, feet would not be heard again in a Lee double dolly.
Effectiveness of both shots: C
Malcolm X (1992)
The best, most iconic use of the Spike Lee double dolly is the hauntingly beautiful shot of Malcolm X knowing he’s walking to certain death. With the camera positioned a little low, the sky overcast, and the soundtrack crooning Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” this shot represents the best that Spike Lee’s cinematic flourishes have to offer.
Effectiveness of shot: A+
Two double dollies in Crooklyn. The first takes place within a dream, where young Troy (Zelda Harris) is being chased by two dope fiends. The dopers catch up to her, force her to sniff glue and she slowly floats high into the air. Technically, this is the most proficient double dolly of Lee’s career. One that involved two dollies, a large crane, a great deal of choreography, and tons of mood lighting. The shot dips in and out of focus, the dolly is moved at various speeds and we’re whisked away, casting a perfectly dreary spell over the viewer.
The second shot is far more basic, and involves two kids running toward their stoop. To be honest, given how expert the first Crooklyn double dolly shot is, this one feels rather unneeded.
Effectiveness of dream/drug shot: A
Effectiveness of running to stoop shot: B-
Toward the end of Lee’s Clockers, we’re privy to a handful double dollies that add serious weight to the drama. The first shows an emotionally drained Strike (Mekhi Phifer) walking outside along his housing project. He looks up and sees a no-good, doped out gangster waiting at the end of the street, and we cut to:
Shorty (Pee Wee Love) riding on his bike, paper bag-covered pistol in hand, ready to take the gangster out.
Later, when police detective Rocco (Harvey Keitel) is reenacting the crime for Shorty, Lee fills the screen with broken fourth wall tirades, including a brief moment when Keitel is on the dolly with Shorty, as Shorty rides on.
The first shot of Phifer is perfect at echoing despair, and Shorty’s slow bike ride compliments it well. The Keitel/Shorty shot, while fun to look at, is completely unnecessary.
Effectiveness of Mekhi Phifer shot: A-
Effectiveness of bike shot: A-
Effectiveness of Keitel/bike shot: B-
Girl 6 (1996)
The first double dolly in Lee’s little seen Girl 6 is one of my favorites. On the cusp of a having a mental breakdown from working for a phone sex hotline, Judy (Theresa Randle) engages in a phone sex fantasy with a scary stalker, in which Judy glides back and forth, up and down the hallways of her apartment. The walls are bathed in dark blues, bright pinks, and eerie greens, while Randle’s sensual-if-not-horrified demeanor seriously benefits the dreariness.
Later, Judy walks down the street with her ex-husband (Isaiah Washington), and… not much more. Like most second or third double dolly occurrences in one film, this one is rather superfluous.
Effectiveness of Judy/stalker shot: A
Effectiveness of Judy/ex-husband shot: C
He Got Game (1998)
He Got Game is one of my all time favorite Spike Lee films. I think it is masterwork of American filmmaking that only deserves more recognition. Its wasted double dolly shot during the film’s back-in-time credits, however, does not.
Effectiveness of shot: C-
Summer of Sam (1999)
Until researching this post, I honestly had no idea there even was a double dolly shot in Summer of Sam, which proves how subtle it is. As the film nears its end, lead character Vinny (John Leguizamo) is so continually stoned and drugged out, that he’ll believe almost anything, like neighborhood thug, Joey (Michael Rispoli) saying that the Son of Sam serial killer is indeed Vinny’s best friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody). Vinny and Joey slowly dolly toward us, before Joey walks out of frame, leaving Vinney in a drug-fueled panic. The camera bends and shifts and whirls upside down, and we know that it’s all downhill from here.
Effectiveness of shot: A-
In one of Bamboozled’s first scenes, we are introduced to television executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) by having him look straight into the camera and tell us who he is. As he does this, he glides around his apartment in a crazy eight configuration, with the sun occasionally lens flaring in our faces. Nothing more than mildly amusing.
Effectiveness of shot: B-
25th Hour (2002)
Three stellar double dolly shots take place in close succession in Spike Lee’s masterpiece, 25th Hour.
First, we follow Monty (Edward Burns) into the VIP section of a club. The camera follows him from behind, before craning up to take it all in.
Second, we witness an extended and brilliant shot of Anna Paquin, sweaty from dancing and high on ecstasy, slowly make her way to a VIP booth. Paquin’s convincingly stoned-out acting helps immensely, but this is precisely what Spike Lee’s double dolly is all about. Perfect in its tone.
Now, most every instance of a repeated double dolly shot within the same film has merited negative results from me. 25th Hour is the rare exception in which every one of its double shots actually gets better. Shortly after high school teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has drunkenly kissed his student (played by Paquin) he leaves the bathroom and looks right into the camera as the dolly carefully takes him away. Again, acting is a great help here, but more so than Paquin’s dolly shot, this shot perfectly encapsulates the frustration, fear and utter isolation of the man on screen.
Effectiveness of Norton shot: B+
Effectiveness of Paquin shot: A
Effectiveness of Hoffman shot: A+
Inside Man (2006)
One of the most discussed double dolly shots of Lee’s career is this frenzied execution in Inside Man. Seconds after thief Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) kills a bank hostage in cold blood, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) races on a dolly toward the bank’s front door. The camera shakes rapidly, Denzel’s face gets more and more pissed, and we’re left with a feeling of utter disarray. This shot is very stylistic, but certainly no less fun.
Effectiveness of shot: A-
Red Hook Summer (2012)
I’m not the biggest fan of Red Hook Summer. It is, simply put, mediocre filmmaking from a remarkable auteur. However. Right around the time you may have completely checked out of the movie, a character named Blessing Rowe (Colman Domingo) enters the small church of Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) and slowly glides his way up the alley, growing angrier and angrier with each passing second. This shot (and Domingo’s fearless acting) launches Red Hook Summer in a completely new direction, where it manages to gain newfound emotional intensity. In short, it’s the finest moment of an otherwise forgettable film.
Effectiveness of shot: A+
My breakdown of Lee’s entire career can be found here
And now for a treat. To view every one of these shots (and a few more single dolly shots for good measure) watch this amazing super cut video by Richard Cruz.