Why the colour red means everything in The Get Down

The colour is the visual lifeblood of the series and on close inspection communicates a lot about characters’ intentions and the social fabric of The Bronx

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In episode two of new Netflix series The Get Down, Grandmaster Flash agrees to teach former graffiti superstar Shaolin Fantastic how to DJ. His first challenge for his pupil? To figure out why a single purple crayon holds “the key to (his) quick-mix theory.”  “What if Flash just straight played us?” shouts crew member Ra-Ra after Grandmaster Flash departs. Nope. Shaolin stays firm, adamant that “this crayon’s real” and is proved right when protagonist Ezekiel figures out Grandmaster Flash uses it to mark his place on the record for the get down.

But the crayon isn’t just a lesson for Ezekiel and Shaolin, but for the audience at home: keep your eyes on the crayon. Attentive viewers will note this is the second scene in which Luhrmann obliquely instructs his fans to watch out for colour. 1977 Ezekiel’s opening line is some seriously emo poetry he’s written in tribute to his love interest Mylene: “When you sing, it’s like…how red velvet feels.” Colour is more than just pretty visuals here, it’s a code for emotions and intentions.

Long before we see Shaolin Fantastic’s face, we see his feet clad in immaculate red Pumas, which the camera trails in spellbound close-up as he hightails it around the Bronx. We can sympathise with the camera’s fascination: those are some seriously nice shoes. But even north of his ankles, Shaolin is awash with scarlet. The aspiring DJ spends most of the series peacocking in a red jacket, a red cap, and when we see him in post-coital repose with Fat Annie, we discover — obviously — that even under his clothes, he keeps things caliente in red Y-fronts. So when Shaolin Fantastic starts to transform Eke’s life in all sorts of ways, with his influence shaping Ezekiel into a more morally ambiguous protagonist who goes from writing soppy poetry to stealing turntables and helping to hide stiffs, the colour coding seems pointed: is Shaolin Fantastic the devil on Ezekiel’s shoulder? We all know what colour Lucifer likes to rock.

Ezekiel’s love interest Mylene would certainly agree. She’s unusually cool in tone when she first meets Shaolin (“Nice to meet you Shao, but me and Zeke got to get going now”) and, the worst of it? This marks the high point of Mylene and Shaolin’s relationship, which deteriorates rapidly as they descend into a game of tug of war over Ezekiel and his morals. Unlike Shaolin, Mylene has limited interest in the colour red. Every major moment for Mylene is marked out by putting her in another ivory coloured dress. The night she goes to Inferno; the Sunday she performs a song in church in front of record producer Jackie Moreno; the day she takes Ezekiel to Papa Fuerte for his interview for a potential internship and her performance at Ed Koch’s Bronx community meeting all show her in white.

If the choice of colour for Mylene’s most important outfits suggest that we’re meant to interpret her as the angel on Ezekiel’s other shoulder, her behaviour seems to support that. So much of Mylene’s screentime shows her trying to exert her considerable influence over Ezekiel for good: don’t backtalk to your teacher, read your poem out in front of the class and celebrate your skill with words instead. Don’t steal, not even during a blackout. If you’re going to attempt to escape your circumstances, do it via talent, not crime. Go for the prestigious internship. Become a leader in your community.

But this is all a little simplistic. While the angel/devil thematic seems too obvious to be unintended, Luhrmann’s relationship with red in The Get Down is a little similar to Maggie Nelson’s to blue in her 112-page opus, Bluets: the colour contains multitudes for him. Red is more than just moral ambiguity. Red also signals something bigger and more essential for thriving in the Bronx: unbridled ambition.

“Red is more than just moral ambiguity. Red also signals something bigger and more essential for thriving in the Bronx: unbridled ambition”

Consider, if you will, the one thing that unites the two places we see our protagonists in most outside of their homes: Mylene’s father’s church and nightspot Les Inferno. The interior of the church is a dull, chalky red, while the exterior of Les Inferno and its checkerboard dancefloor are a bright scarlet. Inferno’s proprietor Fat Annie and Mylene’s father Pastor Ramon Cruz may seem like they’re on the opposite sides of the moral register, but they share one key characteristic: steely ambition. Fat Annie is consumed by wanting to take down a dangerous rival druglord while Ramon Cruz wants to simultaneously drum up more attendance at his church and stamp out any immorality around him, whether embodied by his daughter’s wayward disco music tastes or his brother’s shady political activity.

Both Fat Annie and Ramon believe in their ability to exercise control and influence over vast swathes of people and both rule with an iron fist — despite his holy profession, Ramon’s reaction to finding his daughter has sneaked out to a disco club is wholly lacking in Christian kindness. He goes through Mylene’s things, bans her from singing, argues she will “never leave this house” and beats her. His ambition is one that expresses itself in holy terms, whether it’s increased attendance at his cavernous church or shaping his daughter into a Christian as devoted as himself.

We see this same visual coding for ambition at play in the mid-season finale, when The Get Down Brothers go head to head in a DJ battle with the Notorious 3. Once Ezekiel bounds onto the stage, the show signals the boys are in it to win it by a quick wardrobe change: the five musketeers zip up red bomber jackets over their blue t-shirts and rap their way into first place.

But red isn’t just about people or place. Red can speak volumes about things, too. Writer Odie Henderson has noted: “One of the more intriguing aspects of The Get Down is how it applies Shaw Brothers–esque mythical qualities to objects”. What Henderson doesn’t mention though, is how often these same objects that exert quasi-magical effects are highlighted onscreen for the viewer by their colour. The most obvious example of this is the record in the first episode that arguably triggers everything that follows. Ezekiel knows that Mylene is obsessed with disco star Misty Holloway, so with the touching belief in objects that only a cash-strapped teenager could possess, he decides if he manages to gift her a priceless copy of a remix of Misty Holloway’s Far, Far Away, she’ll finally fall for him. Shaolin Fantastic is similarly fixated on the same rare disco record, but for different reasons: his mentor Grandmaster Flash has set him the challenge of finding the record to prove himself. Given how much this record means to both of them, is it any great surprise when we first see what colour the record cover is?

But the record means a lot more than Mylene’s love or Grandmaster Flash’s respect. It’s the reason these two become best friends, when Shaolin swipes the record out of Ezekiel’s hands, Ezekiel steals it back and the pair reach an uneasy truce that blossoms into real affection for each other. Henderson is right, objects possess a strange alchemy in the Get Down universe, arguably in two specific ways: allowing our heroes to bypass the social order and making mystical connections happen. Ezekiel’s a nobody at this point, but the combination of him, Shaolin and the record is an explosive one: Ezekiel finds he’s now permitted entry to the club thanks to Shaolin’s accompaniment, they persuade the DJ to play the track and while the song playing, Mylene is charmed enough to kiss him. Grandmaster Flash is every bit as impressed with Shaolin and promises he’ll fulfil Shaolin’s most improbable dream and teach him how to DJ.

It’s a similar story with Fat Annie’s son Cadillac and his scarlet-lined car of the same name. Cadillac resents Shaolin for obvious reasons: Shaolin Fantastic is younger than him and hooks up with his mother. It’s weird and Freudian and Cadillac probably doesn’t want to see his mother making out with anyone, least of all some nobody who’s gone from the streets to the top of the Les Inferno pecking order thanks, at least in part, to his skill between the sheets. But Cadillac and Shaolin reach some sort of fragile peace thanks to one object: Cadillac’s car. Shaolin doesn’t know the real reason why Cadillac wants him to get rid of his stunning automobile until they’re ready to push it into the water and discover the corpse concealed within it.

Later in the series, Ezekiel will sarcastically ask a politician if he became wealthy "with hard work and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps?". This is the exact same American Dream model of poverty-to-wealth these objects subvert. Despite Annie’s praise for Shaolin’s work ethic, Shaolin Fantastic’s knack for hard graft is surpassed by his knack for gaming the system. These objects act as shortcuts: Shaolin Fantastic wins Grandmaster Flash’s trust not through years of hanging out with him, but via the record (and thus a shot at the same intense levels of fame Grandmaster Flash will come to enjoy), while getting rid of the Cadillac means he’s able to get on with the formerly borderline physically-abusive Cadillac and makes his position in the drug-dealing circle of Les Inferno more secure.

Despite the magical-realism vibes surrounding the way these objects are presented in The Get Down, it should be noted that this use of red rings true for the hip-hop community of the time. Objects really were everything: according to the documentary Fresh Dressed, if you successfully beat up a rival gang member at that time in the Bronx, you would often hang their jacket over a fire escape to signal your dominance over the gang to the world (different gangs sewed on different patches and fur onto their denim jackets). Clothes were also a way of demonstrating what neighbourhood you represented: “A guy from Brooklyn would wear Clarks, sharkskin trousers, Cazal glasses without any lenses in and the Kangol crease hat. A guy from Harlem would dress in a velour sweatsuit paired with sneakers of a matching brand.” In a climate where institutionalized racism meant people of colour had limited access to the same opportunities as white people, objects wielded more power.

Is any of this really a surprise? After all, The Get Down showrunner Baz Luhrmann marketed and sold his first three films, Strictly Ballroom (1992), William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) as “The Red Curtain Trilogy,” ostensibly because of the connection all three shared with the world of theatre, but this connection is pretty clear visually, too.

But while in the films above, red seems to foreground the connection we can see between love and theatre and the ways we perform to each other, in The Get Down, Luhrmann’s use of red is, for the first time, nuanced and complicated, far more tied up with the social fabric of the Bronx than it is with romance or passion. Luhrmann’s attitude to the colour is best summed up in Dizzee’s defence of graffiti: “For all of us, when we see our names on these trains only for a fleeting moment, we can say I was here.”

For Dizzee, tags are "constellations, breadcrumbs, trails of sparks that tell a story.” Graffiti is a form of resistance and a way of making oneself visible in a world that’s constantly trying to whitewash over the experience of marginalized communities. Shaolin Fantastic’s moral ambiguity may not always be pretty, but it’s a way of resisting this erasure: he will become a famous DJ no matter what it takes, his experience will become visible (or, OK, audible). We see this same striving to escape the social fabric time and again in The Get Down highlighted by red, whether it’s via drugs and glamour (Fat Annie), a blistering team performance (The Get Down Boys) or the magic of objects. We’re now midway through the first season and Netflix plans to drop the second half in 2017. So bear one thing in mind for part 2: if you want to really understand the world of The Get Down, keep your eyes on the red. It’ll tell you so much more than you’d ever expected.

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