For the Love of “Do The Right Thing”
On June 30, 1989, Spike Lee released what is arguably his greatest film: “Do The Right Thing.” Ahead of its time and yet timeless, this film was an underdog at the time of its release. It faced Tim Burton’s “Batman,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” and “The Karate Kid III.” 30 years later, this movie stands above them all.
I watched this movie at least once a week during my freshman year of college. While I was homesick in the south, “Do The Right Thing” made me feel like I was back in Brooklyn. This was before there was a coffee shop on every corner and rent wasn’t so crazy—the Brooklyn I loved.
A Day In The Life
It all takes place on a single block in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. Spike Lee plays the main character, Mookie, a young man trying to make his way in this world. He works at the local pizza joint, Sal’s Pizzeria, which is owned by the eponymous Sal and his two sons Vito and Pino. This movie centers around a typical day in Mookie’s life.
The thing that makes this day different is that it’s the hottest day of the year. In the torturous heat, Mookie navigates relationships with his boss, girlfriend, sister, friends, and the random cast of characters on the block.
One of these characters is Da Mayor. He was the neighborhood drunk who has seen some things and probably requires more sympathy than we are often willing to give. We all had one growing up in Brooklyn. When arguing with a group of local kids, Punchy and his crew, they give him the normal youthful energy of what they would have done if they were in his position, a stance easy to take when you’re speaking in hypotheticals.
Things boil over on the block when Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) tries to lead a boycott of Sal’s Pizzeria for not featuring any Black people on his wall of fame. This leads to an altercation with Sal and Radio Raheem. Radio was a neighborhood staple, a big man known for carrying a big boombox and blasting Public Enemy wherever he went.
Once the cops arrive, Radio Raheem is tragically killed by a cop using a chokehold.
It’s rare that you come across a film with this level of rewatchability. It’s also rare to come across one that ages this well or has this level of impact. When this movie came out, Martin Lawrence was just a young comedian but career quickly ascended after this movie. The same can be said for Rosie Perez who was a back up dancer before this. We also can’t forget about all of the legends featured in this movie: Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, Samuel L. Jackson (just Sam Jackson back then)—a true cornucopia of Black excellence.
On the Bill Simmons Podcast, Spike said he didn’t realize how much the film would forecast at the time he made it. “Do The Right Thing” hits on so many of the topics we are still discussing and fighting about today:
Gentrification: The guy in the Larry Bird jersey is told to go back to Boston after stepping on Buggin Out’s crisp Cement 4s. They asked him why he would even want to live in Black neighborhood?
Climate Change: It is the hottest day of the year and all of the newspaper headlines were asking the question: what’s causing this temperature spike?
The Value of Black Athletes: Mookie talked to Vito about why Dwight Gooden was better than Roger Clemens.
The Acceptable Negro: Mookie talked to Pino (an open racist) about how all of his favorite people were black: Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince to which Pino replies: “They’re Black but they’re not really Black…They’re more than Black, it’s different.”
Black Ownership: This is highlighted in the conversation between Willie, ML, and Sid remarking on the Koreans opening up businesses in their neighborhood. They were trying to drive home the point that we need to use our resources to be owners as well.
Police Brutality: Our first glimpse of this is when Officer Long threatens children for opening a fire hydrant. We see it come full circle when he murders Radio Raheem using a chokehold.
This movie stands the test of time because in many ways, it feels as though Mookie’s story takes place today. All of these are issues we still face, they are conversations we are still having. Sadly, for some of the issues, it feels as though no progress has been made at all in the last 30 years.
Gentrification is running rampant in this country. Every major to mid-major city can tell you the story of urban development pushing Black and Brown people out of the only homes they’ve known. The news on climate change keeps getting worse with many scientists believing the southern half of the world will be inhabitable by 2050.
The stories of police brutality and our unjust system never seem to stop. Black athletes are told to just shut up and dribble. Black people navigating white spaces know exactly what it means to have to behave a certain way in order to be accepted. Income equality is at an all-time high, hurting the rate of Black ownership in this country.
This is the true sadness of this movie. 30 years later, it feels too relevant. Spike had no clue his voice would be so prophetic. It leads me to wonder: 30 years from now, will this movie still feel so fresh? Are we going to be telling the same stories with updated features?
“Do The Right Thing” ends with a list of people murdered by the police: Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and a “Tawana Was Right” graffiti.
We have our own list today: Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan Mcdonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Terence Crutcher, Stephon Clark….
No matter how much things change, they also stay the same. Radio’s death caused a riot that ended with Sal’s Pizzeria being burned down. The following morning, Da Mayor has a conversation with the block matriarch, Mother Sister, in which he says:
Da Mayor: I hope the block’s still standing.
Mother Sister: We’re still standing.
And she’s right; we are still standing. I believe more than anything, this is a film about Black resilience. No matter how many times we are knocked down, pushed down, or beaten down, we still stand. We still have joy. We still have community. We still have love.
“Do The Right Thing” may take place in Brooklyn but it speaks to the universal Black experience. It speaks to the fact that even in tragedy, we still have hope and we still have each other.
And that’s the truth, Ruth.
2 thoughts on “For the Love of “Do The Right Thing””
I love this movie! It’s truly timeless and prophetic in a way. While I believe a lot of this is going on today, I believe we’re more aware and people are working towards solutions.
This is good!!!! You’re a great writer brother!!!!
“Sadly, for some of the issues, it feels as though no progress has been made at all in the last 30 years. ”
It’s hard to feel like there is progress when we’re saturated in this narrative. For instance, the news keys on controversy and negativity for their own benefit as much of culture across the world for whatever reason, watches more of that than good things that are happening.
Thus, we feel like nothing has changed if we’re not coming up to take a look around.
For instance, “Income equality is at an all-time high, hurting the rate of Black ownership in this country”, comes from 2016, but since then black ownership of business jumped 400% after 2017/18. Unemployment for minorities is at an all time low.
For gentrification, I’ve sat in on some Brownfield seminars where the concern was how to redevelop impacted neighborhoods without pushing out the current residents entirely because people are far more aware than they used to be. That’s tricky. Even under good intentions and not racism, gentrification can happen as when you make a neighborhood more valuable, the cost of living there goes up.
But I will encourage that if you want the perception and reality to change, you have to promote being there already. You have to celebrate the positives, even when others won’t because it shows that it’s not all gloom and doom.
Things have changed in the last 30 years. And they’ll keep changing, because we’ll keep working at them together.