Lee, Aiello, & Others In 'Do The Right Thing'
Portrait of American film director and actor Spike Lee (center) on the set of his film 'Do the Right Thing,' New York, 1989. Among the cast behind him is actor Danny Aiello (left).
Anthony Barboza

10 Life Lessons From Spike Lee's 'Do The Right Thing'

There is a short list of films that have helped capture the reality of the oppression, adversity, and trauma that come as a byproduct of being black in America, and Do The Right Thing is surely among them. Directed by Spike Lee and released in 1989, the film - which followed up Lee's first two efforts, She's Gotta Have It and School Daze - starred Lee himself as Mookie, a delivery man for a local pizza shop in the Bed Stuy section of Brooklyn.

Inspired by an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which included a theory correlating rising temperatures with an increase of the murder rate, Lee reportedly wrote the script - initially titled Heatwave - in two weeks time. Set throughout the course of a scorching hot summer day, along Mookie's travels we get introduced to a number of the local residents, who then bring us along on their own journeys and escapades throughout the neighborhood.

Broaching a number of sociopolitical topics, Do The Right Thing starts off as a light-hearted, feel-good film, but gradually escalates into a referendum on race relations and the friction between law enforcement and the communities they've sworn to serve and protect. Lee's decision to hone in on these dynamics was spurred by a 1986 racial incident in Howard Beach, where a black man was killed after being chased onto a highway by a mob of white youths, as well as the 1984 murder of Eleanor Bumpurs at the hands of New York City policemen.

Boasting a cast of stars talent that includes Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence, Rosie Perez, Robin Harris, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, Frankie Faison, and Danny Aiello, Do The Right Thing has been hailed as one of the greatest and most influential films of the hip hop generation, and in the history of cinema.

With 30 years having passed since this seminal release first hit theaters, VIBE highlights ten lessons we learned from Do The Right Thing that continue to reflect and impact society three decades later.

1. The Prevalence of Sneaker Culture

An endearing character from Do The Right Thing that captured hearts was Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a Brooklyn-bred B-Boy and quasi-activist with an affinity for sneakers of the Air Jordan variety. One memorable moment where Buggin' Out was justified in doing just that was the infamous encounter with a Caucasian cyclist, who bumped into him on the sidewalk, causing him to scuff his brand-new pair of Jordan 4's. The cyclist, who ironically donned a Larry Bird t-shirt in the scene, draws Buggin’ Out and his Stuyvesant Avenue crew's ire, who antagonize him while instigating the heated situation. This wrinkle in the film was a direct reflection of the streets of Brooklyn and elsewhere at the time, when damaging a new pair of sneakers might lead to a beat-down - or worse. While times have changed and the violence surrounding sneaker culture has dissipated, our love for a fresh pair of kicks on hot summer day certainly hasn't.

2. The Arrival of Gentrification

Spike Lee's forecast of the gentrification that would engulf the borough of Brooklyn was coyly conveyed during the stand-off between Buggin' Out and the alleged colonizer, who appears to be new to the neighborhood. Unlike Bed Stuy today, where seeing people of various races roam the streets, the area was predominantly black and Latin during the '80s, with the rare sighting of a Caucasian giving residents cause to pause. While the unnamed outsider claims Brooklyn as his birthplace, his air of entitlement and disregard for longtime residents mirrors the dialogue and power struggles involving gentrification today.

3. The Dichotomy of Sports, Entertainment and Race

Pino's (John Turturro) racist and stereotypical views of African-Americans are put on full display throughout Do The Right Thing, but are proved to be half-baked during an exchange with Mookie. While acknowledging that all of his favorite athletes and entertainers are black, Pino separates his admiration for their talents with his disdain for African-Americans, a sentiment that was examined in the LeBron James-produced 2018 documentary Shut Up and Dribble.

4. The Truth About Racial Stereotypes

The racial antagonists in Do The Right Thing may be of Caucasian and Italian-American descent, but the film also fixates on universal stereotypes that many races and ethnic groups have of one another. A portion of the movie examines this dynamic, as various characters of different backgrounds spew a litany of racial and ethnic slurs into the camera with aplomb. Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) cuts through the madness to insist that cooler heads prevail, but the sentiment that prejudice, stereotypes, and slurs, no matter how minuscule, are prevalent across the board.

5. The Power of Love & Hate

The topic of love and hate gets contextualized by Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the neighborhood blast-master with a cordial, yet imposing, aura. Sporting a pair of gold-plated four-finger rings, before running off to Sal's Pizza to get a slice, Raheem breaks down the story of "Left Hand, Right Hand" to illustrate the balance of life, in which love and hate are in a constant power struggle. The moral of the story is that love conquers all and is the common thread that connects black people in Brooklyn and the world as a whole.

6. The Power of The Booming System

One constant throughout Do The Right Thing is the presence of "Fight The Power," Public Enemy's contribution to the soundtrack and the theme song for the movie. But in addition to the anthemic call-to-arms foreboding the film's tragic climax, it is also a microcosm of the importance of the booming system in urban communities. During the '80s, the boombox was essential to creating the ambiance of the neighborhood, particularly in the summer, when the songs and sounds coming out of the speakers served as the soundtrack for the season. While the evolution of technology has caused portable speakers and smartphones to replace the boombox, the sound of music emanating from countless avenues and boulevards is proof that Radio Raheem's own ghetto blaster continues to live, in spirit.

7. The Drama A Heat Wave Creates

Set during the hottest day of the summer in New York City, Do The Right Thing captures the experience that is braving a heat wave, which is not for the faint of heart. Open fire hydrants, cold cloths, ice cubes, and other cooling agents are used to help alleviate the sweltering humidity and create moments of joy, but are little match for the beaming sunrays descending upon Bed Stuy. This manifests itself in the form of short tempers, which flare up throughout the film in a number of instances and on various levels.

8. Persistence Is Key

The overarching sociopolitical themes of the film powers the conversation around it, but the underlying romances between key characters in Do The Right Thing add to its rich fabric. Mookie, who is in the midst of a hot-and-cold relationship with the mother of his child, Tina (Rosie Perez), appears to put his responsibilities as a father on the back burner as he attempts to get his life and financial situation back on track. However, the love between the two is evident, as they play a game of cat and mouse that involves ice cubes and was the inspiration for a particular rap lyric from Kanye West. Elsewhere, real-life couple Ossie Davis (Da Mayor) and Ruby Dee (Mother Sister) begin the film on opposite ends of the spectrum, but ultimately draw closer together. These two scenarios are a reminder that persistence is key when it comes to courtship with that potential significant other.

9. The Intensity of Black Rage

The crux of this Spike Lee classic is undoubtedly the showdown at Sal's Pizza shop, which stemmed from Buggin' Out's protest for photos of black entertainers to be on the restaurants' Wall of Fame. Crashing the scene with Radio Raheem and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), the rage spewing from all three men in light of Sal's (Danny Aiello) refusal to accommodate their calls for inclusion and representation fall on deaf and dismissive ears is palpable and sets off a chain of events that result in total chaos. This anger also engulfs Mookie and his neighbors, who add to the hostility by inciting a riot and calling for the damnation and destruction of the pizza shop and its owner. These deep-seated feelings of resentment have played out on countless occasions, including the L.A. riots in 1992, and Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

10. The Harsh Realities of Police Brutality

While the oppression law enforcement directed towards minorities has been in play for centuries, police brutality became a hot button during the '80s, as various creatives from the black and Latino communities addressed the issue through their art. The murder of Radio Raheem at the hands of police has gone down as one of the tragic moments in modern cinema and brought awareness of the divide between law enforcement and urban communities. However, it also reflects how so little has changed, as young black men continue to be slain in cold blood without probable cause, and the cops involved continue to avoid fully paying the price for their actions in many instances.

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Kobe Bryant sits alone on the bench before a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center on Sunday, April 4, 2010 in Los Angeles.
Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

Where Have You Gone, Kobe Bean Bryant?

I am in shock and I am traumatized. Any death hurts you, if you have any sense of humanity, and especially if it is not expected, out of the blue, and clocks you with a ferocious uppercut, between the eyes, in such a way that the tempo of your day, month, year, is completely concussed, knowing that you will never—never—forget this particular passing of a life. It was the Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who said, like the prophet he was, “Sometimes I hear death knockin’ at my front door.” It was the English poet John Donne who said, like the church cleric he was, “death diminishes me...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Well, as we used to say in hip-hop, let the poppers pop and let the breakers break and, my Lord, let the grievers swoon and let the choirs sing sad spirituals because the bell is tolling for Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, into hilly, rough terrain, after trying to steer its way through a syrupy fog on a West Coast Sunday morning. When I awoke home in New York, I did what I normally do: I scanned both my cell phone and my laptop for news of the day. It was amazing to see that LeBron James had just passed Kobe to become the third-highest scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association—after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at number one and Karl Malone at number two. It was doubly amazing to note that the top four scorers in NBA history had all played, at some point, with the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe’s the longest tenure, at 20 years, from his debut in 1996 to his retirement in 2016. I next read Kobe Bryant’s tweet congratulating LBJ publicly for surpassing him. Little did I know, little did any of us know, that that would be his last tweet ever. I assumed it would be just another mundane Sunday until the evening when I was set to watch Lizzo and Billie Eilish and others at the Grammys.

But then I got an urgent text from a trusted friend and fellow journalist, asking me if I had heard about Kobe. I gasped; I was speechless; the tears came, and I wanted to shove them back into my eye sockets. I did not dare believe Kobe Bryant, born on August 23, 1978, was dead, at the still tender age of 41. My first social media post could not utter the words; I simply said I had heard distressing news about him. Then I texted back and forth with several others, hoping, praying, for some sort of miracle. It is not that I am celebrity-obsessed. I am not. But the reality is that stars, be they entertainers or athletes or politicians or “The Royals,” take up space in our collective mental, in our collective soul—if they are around long enough—like blood relatives, like a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. They become parts of us, and we are a part of them. Be they James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Dr. King or John Lennon or Natalie Wood or Princess Diana or Aaliyah or Amy Winehouse or Kobe Bean Bryant, when they go, pieces of us go with them. We rise and fall with them, we laugh and cry with them, we win and lose with them. So when a person with the level of global recognition of a Kobe Bryant dies and dies so tragically, we feel as if we have lost a beloved family member. We are immediately in mourning, as everything about us has faded to black, as black as the lethal Black Mamba snake Kobe channeled as his alter-ego on the court. We are there at the funeral or memorial service, a-hootin' and a-hollerin’, as parts of our being attempt to climb into the coffin, the way Kobe climbed into the heads and over the outstretched hands of helpless opponents. We double over in pain as our bodies slump to the floor, the way Kobe’s did when he shredded his Achilles near the end of his career.

And what a career it was. I first learned of Kobe Bryant when he was a high school phenomenon in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1995, 1996. I learned that his father was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a journeyman athlete who once played with the legendary Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-1970s. I learned that Joe never became a star player, so he bounced around a lot, in Philly, where Kobe was born, to places like Italy, where the only boy of three Bryant children would pick up Italian and other languages along the way. I learned that he was named after the famous beef in Kobe, Japan, and his middle name, a cosmic chopping of his Dad’s nickname. I learned that Kobe worshipped NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who was then in the middle of his six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Kobe fanned out on MJ so much that he would stick out his tongue in a similar manner when going for a shot, and also wore a wrist band high up on a bicep just like Mike, too.

It was hard to say what Kobe Bryant would become in those first years, particularly since he was only 17 and straight outta high school when drafted. Kobe took soul-pop princess Brandy to his senior prom and even made a hip-hop record that did not do much. He was a teen idol project of Mr. NBA logo himself, Jerry West, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets on draft day, pairing Kobe with the league’s reigning big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and eventually Michael Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson.

As Kobe morphed from close-cropped hair to a wild and angled afro to nearly bald during his 20-year career, I cannot say that I always understood or appreciated him, at least not in the beginning. It was obvious he was a gifted natural scorer, but there were also his nasty feuds with Shaq and Coach Jackson, and allegations that he was a selfish, just-give-me-the-damn-ball player in a team sport. No matter, because first came three straight championships with Shaq, then two more with Pau Gasol, proving the point that Kobe, the most dominant alpha male hoopster of his times, could win without O’Neal. Wedged in there are two Olympic gold medals with Lebron and company in 2008 and 2012; a regular-season MVP; two scoring titles; the second-most points in an NBA game ever (81); four All-Star game MVP awards; a slam dunk contest title; 18 All-star game appearances in his 20 years; and the dizzying epilogue to it all: 60 points in his very last game.

Indeed, there is an ancestral baton-passing from Dr. J, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. Unbelievable and unapologetic work ethic, stunningly fearless leadership, and a charisma coupled with a killer instinct that defined each of their eras. While Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, fact is Kobe Bryant is the bridge from MJ to LeBron, a top-3 to top-5 player, easily, and also the player most like Mike that NBA players of recent times have seen, as many were too young to have witnessed Jordan, and regard MJ as an unreachable and mythical God. While Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retrieved basketball from the trash-bin of late-night tv reruns, and Michael Jordan made it crazy, sexy, and cool and an international religion in that Jesus sort of way, I would argue that Kobe Bryant took the sport to the promised land of becoming the national past-time that baseball once was, paralleling the sped-up society America was becoming because of the tech revolution. Put another way, Michael Jordan was crisp, after-work R&B with massive pop appeal while Kobe was defiantly hip-hop, a Negro with an attitude and a gigantic boulder on his shoulder.

He came into the league the same year as Allen Iverson, who was selected number one overall, and of the twelve picks ahead of Kobe at number thirteen, it’s only Iverson and Ray Allen that are Hall of Fame level, like Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant simply outworked and out-hustled every single player of his class, stretching his mandate from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, from Tupac and Biggie to Drake and Meek Mill, from SkyPagers to iPhones, from CDs to Spotify, from MTV to Netflix.

Scrape and strip away all of that, and there Kobe Bryant was, the Black Mamba I saw play in person on more than a few occasions: a six-foot-six specimen of a humanoid who came into the NBA as a teenager, tall and lanky and wide-eyed, and left it muscled and statesman-like, having willed his frame from every manner of finger and hand and shoulders injuries, including his miraculous return from that torn Achilles. He had the encyclopedic IQ of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Cirque du Soleil flexibility of Michael Jordan and Dr. J, and the insatiable appetite to win of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap and contort and leap through the most brilliant dance routine in film history in “Stormy Weather,” defying gravity and common sense in spite of the many ways Black men had been told to stay in their place. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like being there when Langston Hughes spit blood poetry from his Harlem veins, putting to words what the eyes and heart done seen, carrying the dreams of an entire people across rivers, with no shame. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like James Brown live on stage singing, scatting, screaming, dancing, splitting, freestyling his Blackness in mid-movement as if he were an ordained Yoruba priest refusing to be stuck at the bottom of a slave ship. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching African ballet, except with a basketball and baggy shorts, where Black male minds and Black male bodies like Kobe Bryant’s acted as if they, not a White man, had invented this game, cutting, slashing, hanging on rims, up on their toes, back on the heels of their feet, basketball representing a freedom for Kobe that could not even be explained by a Langston Hughes poem.

I saw Kobe drive past people for lay-ups. I saw Kobe dunk. I saw Kobe shoot mid-range jumpers. I saw Kobe hit three-point daggers. No matter what you, I, anyone thought of Kobe’s way of playing basketball, you simply could never take your eyes from him. He whipped his chiseled body, the way we colored folks were whipped on those steamy Southern plantations, except he had full control of his brain, and his body, and understood that he was going to be a different kind of man, a different kind of Black man, one where sports was merely a means to the prize, not the prize itself. And the big prize for Kobe Bryant was to be his own boss for the rest of his life—

But, if there is one major blemish on his public record, it is the sexual assault allegation by a young woman who worked at a resort in Eagle, Colorado in the summer of 2003. Kobe had at this point been married a few years to Vanessa and was the father of a daughter. The case damaged his reputation at the time badly, ended several corporate endorsement deals, soured many from him, and foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. But, interestingly enough, Kobe Bryant remains one of the only famous accused men to say words like these in the aftermath of such an allegation, and after the accuser had refused to testify:

"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

The accuser filed a separate civil lawsuit against Bryant, which the two sides settled privately, and Kobe apologized, something which is rare for most men to do, particularly with that kind of allegation. But I thought of the incident when, two years after he had retired, his movie, “Dear Basketball,” was both nominated for and won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Was Kobe Bryant given a pass because of his celebrity and status and long allegiance to the Los Angeles community, which included Hollywood? Or did someone take note of that admission and apology made around the sexual assault case and believed Kobe had learned from that horrible mistake?

I do not know, I am not here to judge, and I think about the fact that Gianna and two other daughters would be born to Vanessa and Kobe after that incident. I think about the ultimate alpha male living in a female-centered household and what that must have done for him, for his growth as a man, as a father, as a husband. And I think about the many photos I have seen of Gianna and Kobe at basketball games, the obviously beautiful and effortless love between father and daughter, and what it must have meant to Kobe to be able to mentor Gianna’s clear passion for the sport that had made her Dad a world-wide superstar, a filmmaker, an author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a millionaire several times over, an ex-athlete who was sprinting full speed ahead into the second act of his life. A mentorship that led to their being on that helicopter together when it crashed.

I ache for this loss, for our loss, for Kobe, for Gianna, for the seven other human beings on that ill-fated copter ride. Ash is to ash and dust is to dust, and the physical being of Kobe Bryant has been snatched from us, forever. I ache for his wife, Vanessa, I ache for his three remaining daughters, Natalia, age 17, Bianka, age 3, and Capri, not yet 1, and whose middle name happens to be Kobe. Forget what Kobe Bean Bryant means to us as a champion athlete. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, in such a cruel and barbaric way. There is just something very perverted about experiencing this in real-time. There is just something very maddening about the fact that there is nothing we can do to bring him, her, them, back.

View this post on Instagram

Merry Christmas 🙏🏾🎄🎁

A post shared by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on Dec 25, 2019 at 11:20am PST

Finally, I think of a song Simon & Garfunkel wrote long ago called “Mrs. Robinson,” where they ask whatever happened to a once-great athlete who represented the spirit of an entire people. As America and the planet mourns the passing of Kobe, as we cry tears for a person who was trying to do the right thing in a time of many doing wrong, I reimagine those lyrics for the Black Mamba and I end it here because I have no other words—

Where have you gone, Kobe Bean Bryant

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Woo, woo, woo

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Kobe Bean has left and gone away

Hey, hey, hey 

Hey, hey, hey

 

Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and author of 14 books, including his autobiography, 'The Education of Kevin Powell.'

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Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks for an open man during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on June 4, 2000 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Tom Hauck

NEXT: Kobe Bryant

This story appeared in the April 2000 issue of VIBE, months before he won his first of five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. Written by Isaac Paris

Okay, Sherlock, we know Kobe Bryant is way past the verge of stardom. As an all-star shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, he gets thousands of fans screaming with excitement every other night. Bryant's baseline drives are as smooth as Nate Dogg's vocals, and his slam dunks bump like a gritty bass line from a DJ Premier track.

Now, with his debut rap album, Visions (Columbia), due in March, the 21-year-old is poised to follow in the footsteps of teammate Shaquille O'Neal (who he occasionally exchanges verses with in the locker room) and prove that his skills aren't limited to flying above the rim. Although Bryant realizes that being the man on the hardwood is no guarantee that you can actually hold it down in the studio (NBA stars/inept MCs like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd can attest to that), Visions proves his wordsmith capabilities are ample enough to allow him to play with the big dogs.

"People are gonna be surprised," Bryant says self-assuredly. "Toward the latter stages [of recording], I was real comfortable. I was like, 'I got this sh*t!'" In fact, tonight in his Milwaukee hotel room––on the eve of a game against the Bucks––Bryant's more pressed with defending the unproven mike skills of his homegirl that he is his own.

"Tyra can sing," he says of supermodel Tyra Banks, who makes her singing debut on Visions' first single, the buoyant "K.O.B.E." Destiny's Child, the Roots' Black Thought, 50 Cent, and Beanie Sigel also support the hoopster on the CD.

"The album is pretty hard. People expect me to come a little more commercial than I did," says Bryant. "At first it was all battle raps, but I really wanted to give the total picture of what was going on around me, like money, jewelry, women, and trust issues."

Nevertheless, money, hoes, and clothes aren't the only things this player knows. He also knows how to win. The following night, after No. 8 scores 22 points as the Lakers thrash the Bucks, he's convinced he'll be just as successful rapping as he is playing on his championship-contending team. "[On the mic] you want respect. If I want something I'm gonna get it. Just buy the album and see for yourself."

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Tyler the Creator attends the 62nd annual GRAMMY Awards on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

11 Takeaways From The 2020 Grammys

There are many factors that go into winning a Grammy, the most coveted music prize of the industry. It’s more than “is the song good?” Sometimes it’s based on campaigning, other times it’s based on what voters feel should be the industry standard. However, the fun doesn’t come until after the ceremony, where all the winners have been revealed and it’s time to process what it all means for the larger picture and the future of recording.

The 62nd Annual Grammy Awards was met with controversy this year thanks to a lawsuit against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences from ousted CEO, Deborah Dugan. Through her explosive claims and allegations, the voting process has gotten even less transparent— and we’re left with more questions and mysteries than answers. Still, artists and media moved forward, and the focus has temporarily shifted back to the music and the awards.

Here are 11 takeaways from VIBE that capture the essence of key wins (and snubs) at the Grammy Awards.

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