One of the most common traits amongst works of art that are meant to depict or reflect life in impoverished areas is the feeling of inescapability, of invisible walls around the neighborhood closing in and leaving the characters feeling utterly trapped. It’s hard to imagine a work of art — whether it be literature, film, music, or even visual — that doesn’t take this approach to the touchy subject matter of poverty. It’s with good reason, too; particularly in American culture — and African-American culture specifically — there is a subconscious social institution of subjugating the poor to specific areas and, for all intents and purposes, imprisoning them there. The work from Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On all depicts the same uphill battle simply to push back against the walls closing in on the individuals whom have been subjugated to those areas, and it hardly ever ends with anything but permanent entrapment. The tragedy is instilled in stories of impoverished characters to the point that the reader, viewer, or listener cannot be expected to hope for anything more for the characters because they already know how the story goes. We know how the story goes because it’s not a story at all, in the fictional sense at least. Instead they are fictionalized versions of realities going on across all American ghettoes. The feeling of the inescapable reality is stifling, and the works, too, must feel stifling and claustrophobic in order to convey it. Some of the more profound pieces of art doing this work are likening ghettoes to literal hells on earth, whose boundaries are built not only in financial burdens but on the heat of oppression — walls of fire and pain that push the characters to the limits to burst through, no matter if it takes them getting burnt along the way. The heat is not only a device used to show the stifling oppression in all facets, but is used to show the simmering anger of those on the receiving end of that oppression, the subjects of Langston Hughes’ “dream deferred,” who opt to explode rather than dry up like a raisin in the sun.
The play that took titular inspiration from Hughes’ “Harlem,” Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, is actually a good place to start when looking at the ways that stifling circumstances, to the point of almost claustrophobia, can push individuals to finally rise up and fight to escape. Not only is her play’s (and the two filmic adaptations’, most notably the 1961 version starring Sidney Poitier) setting evocative of the actually physical limitations — the majority of A Raisin in the Sun takes place in a cramped tenant apartment on the south side of Chicago — but those physical limitations have a profound emotional and psychological effect on the Younger family. The physical space of the apartment is often one of the family’s main points of contention, with Ruth (played by Ruby Dee in the 1961 version) calling it a “rat trap” and the entire family longing to move on to bigger things in the physical sense. Hansberry adeptly connects the physical restraints of their living situation to the sense of pride that can come with ownership when the matriarch of the family, Lena (Claudia McNeill) pointing out that “it makes a difference to a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him” (51). The simple act of allowing her family to feel prideful about physical dimensions speaks loudly to the fact that living in poverty is as large of an issue of physical spaces as it is mental ones, and that the two are often in congress with one another: if the physical space one occupies is claustrophobic and stifling, the psyche will reflect that in feelings of helplessness and anger.
Obviously, in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the anger that the situation evokes is most prominent in the character of Walter Lee (Poitier). His dream has been deferred to the point of exploding and he sees himself as a “raisin in the sun,” almost pushed to the point of burning the life he and his family could have with an altered physical space in favor of chasing his dreams. For a tale of subjugation and poverty, A Raisin in the Sun is a relatively benign example; the Younger family’s explosion is quiet and subtle, and they are able to escape their “rat trap” for the suburbs, but the play ends with a note of ambiguity as to how they will be received and treated upon arrival there. It’s a play that can be easily read in one of the two ways, but it is important to remember that Walter Lee’s dream stayed deferred, regardless of where his address now is. It’s a story where the death of the familial patriarch is the sole catalyst for the family’s being able to move, a story that begins and ends in death — at least in terms of dreams.
There are other artistic representations of poverty that follow suit with Hansberry, using the physical world, the world of streets and addresses, to show the walls that are truly surrounding the people in impoverished areas. Ann Petry’s seminal novel The Street follows the character of Lutie Johnson to 116th Street in 1940s Harlem, as she tries to make ends meet for her and her young son Bub, working day in and day out just to pay the rent in an apartment in which she doesn’t want to live and doesn’t have any other choice but to live. Her story is more overtly tragic than that of Hansberry’s Youngers; she tries to make a better life for herself by singing and is ultimately faced with the decision to turn to prostitution to fulfill her desperate need for financial support or to kill to protect herself in the physical present. She chooses the latter, which could only result in leaving her poor son motherless, as she has to go on the lam. Petry’s story is tragic for all of the characters involved, most notably Lutie and Bub, as it represents the generational passing down of the physical restraints that poverty imposes. In her inability to escape, and the decision she ultimately has to make, she forces Bub into a life of similar, if not worse circumstances, but the novel presents it as there being no other choice. In fact, the street is filled with individuals whom have lived in lifelong destitution, and Petry shows the effects that those circumstances have on a psyche in profound realism.
One of the most poignant and terrifying characters in The Street is Jones, Lutie’s shadowy and frightening superintendent. Jones is often read as a massive physical threat to Lutie’s safety, a hungry male whom finally can’t resist his urges and attempts to pull her down into the cellar to rape her — in short, a villain. However, Petry takes great pains to show the lifelong hardships that have mutated Jones into who he is at the start of the novel. He is a character who “knew the cellars and the basements in this street better than he knew the outside of streets just a few blocks away. He had fired furnaces and cleaned stairways and put washers in faucets and grown gaunter and lonelier as the years crept past him” (86). Here we have an example of a character both mentally and physically deformed by the physical limitations of his life. He was a shadowy figure because he was relegated to shadows, to furnaces and cellars. Most frighteningly, Petry associates Jones with fire all throughout the novel, to the point where when he finally does snap and attempt to rape Lutie, he does so by trying to pull her down into the furnace, a physical representation of the hellish nature of his circumstances, and the circumstances of poverty overall.
With Jones in particular, the actual psychological effects of the physical realm come alive in a way that is both profound and frightening. Suddenly, actual physical heat has brought a man to hell on earth, and he acts accordingly. This is not unique to Petry’s novel, however, and not unique to art in general.
In fact, it would seem that high temperatures could often be linked to bursts of violence. Psychologist Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State University has done extensive research on the link between climate and the reactions of the brain, and his essay “Heat and Violence” makes interesting claims on the connection between rising temperatures and rising tempers. He posits his “heat hypothesis,” which states that “hot temperatures increase aggressive motivation and (under some conditions) aggressive behavior” (33), and charts the increases throughout his argument. More than simply increased temperatures, Anderson charts positive relations between low socioeconomic status and violence as well as population, indicating a rise in violence in tightly cramped, poor neighborhoods, particularly on hot days. A 1979 study by J. Merrill Carlsmith and Anderson showed interesting findings that might indicate that violence had a window, and once it got too hot (above 85 degrees Fahrenheit), violent acts took a sharp decline. Perhaps people just got too hot to commit acts of violence, but Anderson’s more recent adjustments account for global warming and humankind’s adaptation to generally rising temperatures, which sees acts of murder and violence steadily rising with the temperature.
Even if individual incidents decrease with extreme temperatures, it would seem that moments of civil unrest or group uprising in the face of perceived oppression can be directly linked to high temperatures. In these moments the physical toll of both overbearing oppressors and overbearing heat combine, and explosions tend to occur. A quick look back at some of America’s deadliest riots shows that nearly all occur during the summer months, and those that don’t are still connected to rising temperatures. The connection goes all the way back to the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, where a mob grew in Springfield, Illinois and massive, organized aggression against the black citizens over reported violent crimes against white women resulted in six dead. The riot took place over two days in August. Summer riots extend all across the country and all across time. Twice in Los Angeles, with the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 “Rodney King” riots, the Kent State shootings of 1970, Tulsa riots of 1921, 1943 and 1967 race riots of Detroit, Newark riots of 1967, Chicago race riots of 1919, and even more recently with the Ferguson, Missouri unrest, the events all occurred anytime from late April to August, when the temperatures are at their highest.
It’s no wonder, then, that art draws such a clear correlation between feelings of helplessness and oppression with the simple, relatable feeling of an overbearing hot day. The hot day isn’t an artistic trope used to show a boiling point for a population of subjugated peoples, it actually is a boiling point for a population of subjugated peoples, if what history indicates seems to be correct. The winter months provoke a sense of bundling up and protecting one another, insulating the closing-in walls, while summer burns away any sense of peace as tensions ramp back up. There are two films in particular that capture this sense perhaps better than others: Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do the Right Thing, which shows the events over one day in Brooklyn, New York when race relations run rampant and the hottest day of the year ends in a brutal riot on the streets, and Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, which shows the fictionalized events of a real-life Brooklyn bank robbery taking place on another of the hottest days of the year. Both of these films draw so well on the concept of the claustrophobia of not only setting, but time as well, covering only the events of one location in one city on one day, to elevate the sense of urgency for their characters, but both keenly show the power of heat in bringing people to their point of breaking at the hands of their oppressors, and the different ways in which they choose to fight back.
Do the Right Thing is most overtly addressing issues of class and the ways that the hot day seems to serve as a catalyst for the ultimate events in the film. The film starts on a funny note in addressing the physical climate of the area, with the resident radio DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) announcing, “Today’s temperature’s going to rise up over 100 degrees, so there’s a Jheri curl alert! That’s right, Jheri curl alert. If you have a Jheri curl, stay in the house or you’ll end up with a permanent black helmet on your head forever!” It’s an obviously tongue-in-cheek way to address the weather (which the film’s characters will frequently comment upon), but it actually says a lot more beneath the surface about the racial and political climate of Brooklyn at that time. DJ Mister Senor Love is smartly giving a warning to the black community to stay indoors, to try to keep a cool head on a hot day and not let the heat get to the core of their feelings of oppression in the neighborhood. It’s a smart tie-in by Lee to acknowledge the mental and physical ties of being oppressed and being uncomfortably hot, and one that he frequently draws upon throughout Do the Right Thing.
The story follows many characters in the Brookyln community over the course of that day, from the Italian pizza shop owner Sal Fragione (Danny Aiello) and his two sons Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro) to aged African-American residents whom have seemingly seen the entire neighborhood’s lifespan in Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). The black youth represents a tidal shift in the neighborhood throughout the film, particularly Giarcarlo Esposito’s character of Buggin’ Out, who represents Afro-centric politics and ideals, hoping to start small with Sal’s pizza place and simply see “some brothers on the wall.” Lee himself plays the fairly diplomatic Mookie, who represents a bridge across all of the cultures represented, working for Sal and belonging to the black youth in the city while being able to communicate clearly to the elder population. The film is a melting pot of ideals in more than one way; not only is the generational and cultural divide harped upon very well, but the characters blend into one another and influence one another’s opinions on the topics at hand, seemingly melting into one another at the hands of the oppressive heat.
The film ultimately boils to the point where Buggin’ Out incites a riot at Sal’s over the lack of photographs of African-American patrons on the wall and a destroyed boom box lead him to his tragic death at the hands of the city police (in a scene that is disturbingly prescient, especially today with the death of Eric Garner in almost identical fashion — in fact, Lee himself posted a video on YouTube that splices footage of Buggin’ Out’s death with that of Garner’s and the eerie similarity is haunting) and a small-scale riot, which results in Sal’s being burned to the ground. In one of the film’s more poignant moments, Mookie himself, forever the voice of reason throughout the film, is the first to cause physical damage to the pizzeria by throwing a trashcan through the front window. It’s a perfect microcosm of these ideals melting into one another in the face of oppression, how the group mentality can take over when the conditions are just right.
While not as overtly about class and the manifestation of group ideals taking the form of violence in impoverished neighborhoods, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon certainly touches on many of the same themes. Like Do the Right Thing, Dog Day Afternoon asks the viewer to pay specific attention to both the socioeconomic class of the main character Sonny (Al Pacino) as he attempts to rob a bank in his low-income neighborhood and the climate. The heat of the day physically exacts itself on the characters and Lumet, like Lee, presents the heat of the day as an almost unifying element of the neighborhood's underclass citizens: Sonny repeatedly goes out to the front of the bank and rallies the crowd around him during his negotiations with the cops, and this is on the level of purely peer-to-peer. The crowd that has formed around the bank sees a little of themselves in Sonny, and they hang on his every word. In one of the more famous moments from the film, Sonny repeatedly screams "Attica!" at the crowd, a line that Pacino reportedly improvised, and the mob begins to swell with excitement. The simple evocation of revolution amongst the populist group (Sonny is referring to the Attica Prison riot of 1971, where prisoners seized control of the prison to protest for better living conditions) brings the crowd to a frenzy; Sonny smartly plays upon the crowd's emotions and the widespread neighborhood feeling of having no voice to spark a revolution of his own.
It's easy to see why all of these characters can be driven to extremes in the face of their oppressors. Jones, the frightening superintendent attempting to pull Lutie down into the furnace, is doing more than trying to sexually assault her. He is trying to pull her down into his own personal hell, the heat and the fire and the lifelong relegation that can easily be applied to many low-income populations. The device of the hot day in film is evocative of that hell; it's a smart way for filmmakers to present characters as backed into a corner both physically and mentally. In fact, the device actually attempts to reflect mentality through physical means. Each bead of sweat that the heat causes to fall from Mookie's face in Do the Right Thing is a day in a life of subjugation and oppression; every article of clothing that Sonny sheds over the course of Dog Day Afternoon is a push against the walls closing in around him. In using something as universal as oppressive heat as a metaphorical device for hell, artists make the problem of actual oppression a universal struggle, and showing the pervasiveness of an issue is a huge step in making it better. Perhaps one day we can read a work of art about impoverished characters and have higher expectations than the walls fully closing in around them.