Fight The Power

City Paper

Do the Right Thing

Directed by Spike Lee

Plays at the Charles TheateR Aug. 23, 25, and 28

It’s been 25 years since Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” hit screens, ignited debate, and solidified Lee as a major filmmaker. Even a quarter century later, the film itself remains one of cinema’s great cultural touchstones and discussion pieces. Frankly, running a review didn’t make much sense. But getting two local writers—a 50-year-old white film critic and a 33-year-old black cultural critic—to have a dialogue about one of the most important films ever made? Now you’re talking.

Lee Gardner: My memories of exactly where I first saw “Do the Right Thing” are foggy, but my memories of the movie itself always snap to sharp focus. It was during its first run in theaters in 1989, and I know that for sure because I remember the impact of the opening credits—a 20-foot-high Rosie Perez snarling, punching the air, and jacking her hips to booming Public Enemy. It galvanized me then, and I’ve revisited it on video since several times, though I hadn’t seen it in many years until recently. And I was surprised to find that my familiarity with it, and the vividness of my memories of it, left me unprepared for it to be even more powerful now than it was then. And I found myself surprised in other ways, too.

D. Watkins: “Do The Right Thing” dropped way back when I was in elementary school. A 20-foot-high Rosie Perez sounds amazing but that revolutionary intro didn’t catch my lusty adolescent eyes until ’90-something over at my homie Fat Tay’s crib. He’d been buzzing about that intro all day. A pack of us piled up in his unit in front of a bubbly 32-inch that sat on top of a huge broken 32-inch. Some of us were on the couch, some of us on the floor, and a few of us decorated the wall, anxiously waiting for Tay to pop the VHS in. Lost in the excitement, none of us realized that his power was off again—but that wasn’t an issue because Tay’s uncle Git ran a mile-long extension cord into their neighbor’s house. Git gave us the OK, Tay flicked the switch, and our eyes bugged as we all drooled over an amped-up Rosie in low-def bouncing across the screen. I never saw anything like it. 

Gardner: Well, at the time, it definitely had a new vibe—a swagger, if you will. And really, that’s one of the things that jumped out at me when watching it again. Not only does Spike Lee try to give us a Brooklyn block on “the hottest day of the summer,” as a title card tells us, he tries to give us all of it. All the characters, all the trifles and concerns, everything. And he does it with such verve. In addition to Spike Lee’s usual repertoire of flourishes, it’s surprising how many scenes involve conversations that unfold during a long tracking shot, say, or which pass from inside Sal’s Pizzeria, out into the street, and back inside Sal’s, all in one carefully staged take. Shots like those help tie together the neighborhood, and the film’s story, too. And for all the ground covered, there’s so much richness and impromptu feel. Something I never noticed before: In one scene, John Turturro’s character, racist pizza chef Pino, casually kicks a can on the sidewalk right over the camera. It’s the kind of thing you kinda couldn’t plan—it had to have happened in the moment, which is amazing for a movie with this many moving parts.

Of course, one of the things that’s more sobering about my recent rewatch is how little has changed in 25 years. The film’s central drama, the death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) at the hands of police, rings out in headlines about Mike Brown and Eric Garner.

Watkins: Unfortunately the most negative layer of the film—police brutality—hasn’t left and probably won’t. A new batch of cops like the ones who killed Radio Raheem, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, plus many more, are popping out of police academies every year.  

I grew up in a black neighborhood, went to all-black schools, and other than some teachers and housing police, only knew black people; as a result my perspective on everything was pretty black. I understood why Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) flipped when the white guy stepped on his kicks and when Radio Raheem leaned on the Asian dude for not understanding his order and when Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) and his boys watch as the cops say “What a waste.” All of those events in the film looked like snapshots of my neighborhood. Now,  what makes “Do the Right Thing” so special is that it took elements of my story and paired it with a White, Latin, and Asian perspective—something a preteen me had never considered. Pino cared what his friends thought, Sal (Danny Aiello) was proud of his business, and the Puerto Ricans loved their music as much as we did. I learned that all of these different races could occupy the same neighborhood and see it in a different way. I probably never would’ve picked that up if the main characters didn’t look and dress like me. 

Even though the film had been out years before I initially saw it, the same styles were still relevant. We all had parted-box fades and loved to mix and match baseball jerseys and Air Jordans with Mother Africa necklaces and ankle weights. I flipped through an Urban Outfitters magazine the other day and saw “Do the Right Thing.” All of the Nikes from that film are heavily retroed, some of those styles of clothes have since come back—and the bulk of them never left. 

Gardner: You’re really getting at one of the reasons that it’s still so powerful: It’s tragic, but also sympathetic. As much as Pino and Buggin’ Out are assholes in their respective ways, you spend enough time with them to understand where they’re coming from a bit, even in a two-hour film crammed with characters. And as much as tensions build and explode between pizzamaker Sal and pizza delivery man/protagonist Mookie (Lee), they’re not enemies at the outset, and really they’re not enemies in the end. They’re caught up in the racial dynamic of the neighborhood, and of the story’s events, but they’ve clearly known each other a long time, too long to not see the good in each other no matter what else happens. The scene in which characters representing the various ethnic groups spit racial slurs at the camera is designed to offend everybody, but on the other hand, it doesn’t leave anyone out.

Watkins: With all of the reasons that allowed me to be a part of that film and caused my perspectives to expand, I still must say that “Do the Right Thing” was a dream in comparison to the neighborhood where I first witnessed the film. “Do the Right Thing” had no crack, no dealers, no automatic weapons, and zero junkies—just Ossie Davis’ drunk ass, “Da Mayor!” Other than those racist cops, the streets were as safe as Bolton Hill and looked like it too, making the film a pleasant escape for a kid like me. 

The absence of violence doesn’t take away from “Do the Right Thing’s” overall message and the long-term impact that the film has had, like the ability for Lee and me to collaborate on this article. Two people in the same city, from two different walks of life, trading history and ideas because we share the same space just like the people in the film. Brilliantly, Spike Lee advanced racial relations through art in a way that’s rarely happening in films today. “Do the Right Thing” will forever be relevant to me and hopefully we can follow in his footsteps. 

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