Meeting Climate Change with Art: Turning up the Heat

Heat has been used in many stories for many different reasons. When it comes to films, a beating sun and sweaty costume design aren’t always as simple as staging some setting in a desert or showing some survivor getting beaten down by the sun on a life raft.

Hot weather – and the many ways we’ve learned to communicate it – has come to play many important roles in our stories. We often use Heat to build a juxtaposition of worlds, communicate a character’s disorientation, or symbolize an unavoidable reality demanding our attention.

Understanding these uses can certainly expand an artist’s toolbox for speaking to climate change, but I also believe that taking a deeper look at these uses of Heat can provide us with informative metaphors for climate change itself. They used to call it Global Warming after all.

Here are a couple of rapid-fire examples of the 3 common uses I mentioned above:

Juxtaposition

Florida Project gives us an example of Heat’s visual juxtaposition turned towards the film’s larger class critique. In Florida Project, we spend the whole movie focused on a motel community caked in constant Florida-style sweat, all while living next to the dream-like Disney World.

The one time I distinctly remember characters without such apparent sweat is when a couple accidentally ends up at the motel during their honeymoon to Disney World. The couple was truly of some other world than our main characters, and it’s self-evident that ending up in this motel is a big problem for them. So, as quickly as they enter the film they get the heck out of that motel.

However, no one does class critique better than Parasite, and Heat plays an important role in communicating the juxtaposition of Parasite’s upper and lower class worlds. The rich are well dressed and picturesque with AC shielding them from sweat, but the poor do not have such luxuries. Instead, they wear noticeably old sweat-stained clothes as they huddle next to loud ineffective fans, using pizza boxes to fan themselves off.


Disorientation

I tend to focus heavily on movies (It’s a blessing and a curse), but Heat has also been used in written stories. One of my first and most memorable experiences thinking of Heat in a story comes from reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger in a high school English class.

Heat (and the baking sun) builds on the book’s larger existential themes as it displays a disorienting reality for The Stranger’s main character Meursault.

The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows.

It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations—especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin.


Unavoidable Reality

One of the most compelling uses of Heat I’ve seen recently is to symbolize an unavoidable reality. In this way, the Heat runs parallel to something else in the narrative which demands the characters’ attention.

In a very physical sense, Heat is often a hard thing to avoid. I’ve experienced my fair share of scorching hot days, and if you don’t have AC, there’s just no avoiding the fact that you are going to be HOT when the planet says so. In this way, Heat serves as a very effective symbol to run parallel to all those other things our characters can’t escape either.

Sydney Lumet’s film 12 Angry Men is a prime example of this. The story follows 12 jurors stuck in a deliberation room as they come to a unanimous decision regarding the guilt or innocence of a young kid charged with the murder of his father. All the while, each character becomes caked in more and more sweat as New York City sees a truly scorching day.

Occasionally their debate pauses as the characters are exhausted by the tension. Some jurors turn to small open windows for some breeze or go to the bathroom to wash off their face, but any attempt to find relief from the heat and tension of the deliberation room can only last for a short second.

There’s no escaping the deliberation room and its oppressive Heat until every member faces the conflicting facts of their case and comes to a unanimous decision.


Connecting to Climate Change

In truth, all of these interpretations for Heat can be used in meaningful ways as we create art that addresses climate change. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that climate change will hit people on the lower ends of class and racial divides much harder than others. As the Heat turns up, some people won’t have the metaphorical AC as in Parasite to shield themselves from the effects of climate change.

Heat as disorientation works as well. Like Camus’s The Stranger, the social and political climate around climate change can truly be existentially disorienting. I mean, God knows how many elected officials consider climate science to be non-conclusive.

And for obvious reasons, Heat as a symbol for unavoidable reality can also speak truth into our experience of climate change. Just like in 12 Angry Men, we’re all stuck here on this planet as climate change begins to worsen and worsen. This isn’t something that will just disappear on its own and we can’t just get up and leave. Ditching our planet for another might work in Interstellar or a tech billionaire’s daydream, but there’s no running away from how much we need Earth and how big of a threat climate change poses towards us.


Making it Specific

The last few sections were pretty quick and kept things relatively general, but that’s not what I want the bulk of this post to focus on. Now that we got a bird’s eye view of the breadth of uses for Heat, I’d like to really dive deep into one film specifically.

You may have guessed it if your eyes snuck past and read the next section’s title. I’d like to talk about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

The entire narrative follows one small multi-racial, multi-generational community over the course of New York City’s hottest day of the year.

To be clear, Do the Right Thing is NOT a film about climate change nor should it be, but it may have accidentally gone the farthest to provide us a comprehensive climate change metaphor, and Heat takes center stage.

Do the Right Thing is most famous for its handling of race relations in the United States and its almost prophetic predictions of moments like the Rodney King riots animated out of reaction to police brutality. In a broader sense, however, Do the Right Thing is about community.

Specifically, it’s about a community pushed to the breaking point by escalating race relations – and no matter what they do today – it’s a community that has to wake up tomorrow, face those same racial tensions, and live with every action they took the day before.

The title spurs a lot of questions to think about after the end credits roll, “Who did the right thing? Did anyone do the right thing? Who did the wrong thing? What would have been the ‘right’ thing?“, but Spike Lee doesn’t hand us any easy answers. Instead, our characters are complicated, subtle, and often sympathetic.

A lot of oversimplified films address racial divides with a neat and pedantic bow tied at the end. Do the Right Thing is no such film.


The Story

The film takes a particular focus on following Mookie (played by Spike Lee), but it would be hard to consider Mookie the “main” character. Instead, we follow him meander through the community on his pizza delivery routes in a motion that introduces us to most other characters and drives the similarly meandering narrative forward.

If we can sum up the narrative with any structure it’s Do the Right Thing’s rhythm from moments when tension builds and moments when characters walk away, try to cool things down, or just laugh it all off.

The best example of this build-up and cool-down structure is when an argument between Mookie and Pino (played by John Turturro) erupts into a montage of characters hurling racial slurs at the camera – ending with Samuel Jackson sliding towards the camera as “Mister Señor Love Daddy” with this truly fantastic line:

Yo! Hold up! Time out! TIME OUT! Y’all take a chill! Ya need to cool that shit out!

And that’s the double truth, Ruth!

In the context of the film, this scene is even more tense as it builds on Pino’s antagonism towards Mookie. Spike Lee doesn’t pull any punches with this scene. So, don’t watch it if you aren’t comfortable hearing truly horrible racial slurs.

I also included a clip of just Samuel L. Jackson’s line for good measure. The clip is truly universal in its applications and it skips the racial slurs if that’s a problem for you.

Let’s be real. We all have moments when we need Samuel L. Jackson to yell at us like this.


Back to the Heat

Heat plays a central role throughout this film and I’ll go more into the meanings below, but Do the Right Thing also provides us with a great case study for actually communicating Heat.

Spike Lee can be given a lot of credit here, but we can’t forget the film’s cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.

Despite shooting during 8 often-rainy weeks, Ernest Dickerson still found a way to create Heat on camera. Most notably, he utilized an almost exclusively bright warm color palette and even went as far as to set heat lamps below the lens to give the sense of one blistering hot day.

In addition, one of the most effective ways to communicate Heat seems to be showing people trying to avoid that Heat. Spike Lee constantly incorporates moments of refuge from the Heat. 3 old men spend most of the film under an umbrella, young people in the neighborhood play around after opening up a fire hydrant, and cold showers provide a truly satisfying shelter from the oppression outside.


The Usual Intepretation

The most popular interpretation of Heat’s role in Do the Right Thing aligns with uses similar to Sydney Lumet’s earlier mentioned 12 Angry Men. In this case, Heat is interpreted to represents an unavoidability reality that needs to be addressed.

In the case of Do the Right Thing, this unavoidable reality is racial tensions in the United States. The sweltering New York City Heat lays Spike Lee’s characters bare and provides them no shelter from things we might prefer to kick down the road for someone else or some other time.

As much as we might like to beat racism in one day and wake up with it gone, or save dealing with it for another time, racism has a long persistent history and those types of things don’t go away easily.

Sal’s last interaction with Mookie nails in this fact:

Well, they say it’s even gonna get hotter today?

What’re you gonna do with yourself?

– Sal to Mookie

When Mookie woke up the scene before this you start with a sense of calm that didn’t exist the day before, but Spike Lee quickly reminds of everything that happened the day before. Waiting for a cooler tomorrow provides no relief. There are some things that we can’t avoid.


Another Interpretation

If we take the story at its surface, however, there is another meaningful way that we can interpret the role of Heat in Do the Right Thing. I like to call this frame of interpretation “Turning up the Heat”.

This interpretation shies away from symbolism and treats Heat in a very physical way. The Heat isn’t some analogy running parallel to something deeper. Instead, we’re watching people who are just surrounded by Heat and reacting to that fact in the context of their pre-existing world.

In this interpretation (and in real life), Heat can bring out the worst in people. Heat pushes previous tensions and inequalities to the max. These tensions then build and build until they finally erupt.

Those tensions were all there when the weather was good. The Heat itself never creates the conflict. Racism and inequality didn’t just pop up on one hot day in Do the Right Thing, but previous rifts and community tensions skyrocket when the community gets enveloped with that oppressive heat.

People are just much less patient when they’re covered in sweat, and as someone once described Do the Right Thing, “It’s about complicated people who lose the will to forgive each other” (link).

The prime example is Danny Aiello’s character, Sal. He can be a compassionate person who confronts the overt anger and racism in his son, but at the end of a long HOT day peppered with conflict, Sal reacts on a hair-trigger, and the subtle racism inside of him bolts to the surface, overflowing into slurs, threats, and violence.

Eruptions like these have to come from somewhere. So, we can’t say that Sal “isn’t a racist” by judging him at his best. We need to be critical of how people react at their worst too. Heat can never be the primary reason Sal erupts, but Heat accelerates this movement and we need to be cognizant of that.


Connecting it Back to Climate Change.

Climate change literally and metaphorically “Turns up the Heat”. Race relations, classism, food security, food deserts, and drought are already massive problems and as climate change continues to build we’ll see even more famine, disease, and natural disasters get thrown on top of it all.

Much like a brutal day of sweat can reduce people’s capacity for forgiveness, famine would make it a lot harder for us to navigate race relations. Climate change has the power to amplify every historical issue of inequality that we already live with.

For instance, most places, if not all, will be hit by natural disasters, but not everyone can recover equally. Many places simply don’t have the cash, debt ceiling, or generational wealth to quickly rebuild after major or minor natural disasters… and that inequality will be compounded if those same disasters become frequent.

Furthermore, this metaphorical “Turning up the Heat” can be associated with things not necessarily associated with literal heat. Parasite offers us another great visual to this. When the rain in Parasite sets in, the poor family must flee downhill as their below-ground apartment is flooded and they frantically try to save their home.

We wake up with the family huddled in a sort of convention center with other displaced people. After this, we see the rich enjoying the clear and sunny post-rain atmosphere, set to kick off a very pleasant birthday party.

In this sense, Heat is an exacerbating force that touches all aspects of life. Racism and classism are already bad enough. Now imagine we start throwing some food insecurity on top of it? If you look hard enough you may even see that climate change is already starting to hit those people on the far lower ends of class and racial divides.


Wrapping it Up?

I know this post takes on a lot of different ideas, but I hope it spurs some thought and discussion. As I said in the beginning, exploring these examples of Heat’s symbolic meaning can definitely expand an artist’s toolbox. There are many ways those symbolic uses for Heat may be applied to climate change, but there’s always room for new uses as well.

However, there are few things as powerful as a good metaphor. We should work to take up multiple metaphors that give us tools to make sense in this often chaotic world, but I think Do the Right Thing and the metaphor of climate change as “Turning up the Heat” push us in a really good direction.

When we see climate change through a lens of “Turning up the Heat” we can tell that it isn’t just a problem for the “Environmentalist” bubble. Climate change is a problem that touches all other problems.

Connecting it to the Moment:

Ok, I know “wrapping it up” is supposed to come last, but there are some things that just ought to be added to the end of this post.

I started planning this a long time ago, but I know that I’m now publishing it in the middle of global protests against police violence and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

As I read back over what I wrote about Do the Right Thing I can’t ignore that it speaks a lot to our present moment. I may be pulling on it for inspiration regarding climate change, but the fact is that Do the Right Thing is a film about race in the United States – and it’s a damn good one at that.

Some people have been responding to the protests by watching movies with friends and families to spur conversation on race and criminal justice reform. Popular titles are often examples like Netflix’s 13th or the recent film adaptation of Just Mercy. All of those are great, but there are few films I would recommend more for this moment than Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

The moment I saw the first video of the Minneapolis police precinct burning I thought about Do the Right Thing. Watch this film if you get the change, and better yet, watch it with other people.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that there is one scene with some brief nudity and the entire film is saturated in racial slurs (so it might not be a perfect family flick if you got young kids… that’s your call), but if you want to start a mature conversation around race and what we should do about it, this is your film.

I rented it recently from Youtube for $3.99 but it’s also available for rent on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon Prime (all for $3.99).


(This post has since been edited and re-published on Medium as ‘Turning up the Heat’ A Story Device for Addressing Climate Change and serves as the basis for Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’: An always relevant portrait of racism in America).

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