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.