Thirty years ago this week the Spike Lee Joint Do the Right Thing opened in theatres. At the time of its release it was competing with summer blockbusters such as Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters II, it even opened the same day as Batman. The little indie film made for a pittance compared to other Hollywood fare, by a director with only two indies under his belt, would go on to be the launching pad for many of the most respected actors and artists in Hollywood today and receive numerous accolades from the film and cultural world. Yet, perhaps more than anything provide a snap shot on the state of race relations in urban America.
The film focuses upon a neighborhood in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn and its many distinct personalities during the hottest day of the year. With a heat wave as the back drop, a young delivery man named Mookie, played by Spike Lee, juggles his job at the local pizzeria, living in cramped quarters with his sister, and his relationship with girlfriend Tina and their infant son. The local pizzeria is “Sal’s”, owned by an Italian-American of the same name, played by Danny Aiello who runs the store with his sons Vito and Pino, the latter of which is not the most liberal when it comes to issues of race.
When Mookie’s friend questions Sal about his “Wall of Fame”. A wall decorated with photos of famous Italian-Americans and demands that he put up pictures of black celebrities since the pizzeria is in a black neighborhood Sal refuses. His position is that it is his business, and that he can run it the way he pleases. We now have the moth that feeds the flame of conflict.
As the heat rises throughout the day, so do the tensions, whether it be questioning a gentrifier’s Larry Bird Jersey, having one’s Air Jordan’s stepped on, or being ushered out of an Asian bodega due to fear of theft. It all culminates in a violent encounter at Sal’s, resulting in questionable use of police force, one neighborhood local dead, a riot and the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria. In the end, when the smoke literally clears Sal and Mookie reach a cautious yet mutual understanding of the others perspective.
At the time, Lee cast the film with a combination of family, such as his sister, industry character actors such as Danny Aiello, Rubie Dee and Ossie Davis and slew of young up and comers. A look at the film will show a then unknown Rosie Perez, playing Tina, Mookie’s girlfriend. Perez would go on to become a star in her own right. Appearing in numerous Hollywood hits, such as White Men Can’t Jump, Pineapple Express and Fearless, which would garner a Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Nick Fury himself Samuel Jackson, appeared as the neighborhood disc jockey, Mister Senor Love Daddy, Giancarlo Esposito was antagonist Buggin’ Out. Esposito would go on to become the infamous Gus Fring on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul the infamous chicken proprietor of Los Pollos Hermanos by day/lethal drug lord by night.
John Turturro who played Sal’s sun Pino has been in both popcorn blockbusters such as the Transformers franchise and indie darlings such as Barton Fink. Do the Right Thing also serves as the big screen debut for then unknown comedian named Martin Lawrence. If you didn’t know it then, you know now that Spike Lee and his casting crew clearly had an eye for talent.
At the time of its release the film garnered mostly positive reviews, however, due to certain imagery and dialogue, Lee’s character of Mookie throwing a garbage can through a window at film’s climax and the use of racial epithets from it characters, many criticized Lee and the film of race baiting. The negative reviews were in the minority as the film went on to garner two Oscar nods. One for Lee for Best Screenplay and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Danny Aiello. Ironically enough it took Lee 30 years to finally win an Oscar (he won this year for Blackkklansman). In 1999, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” in its first year of eligibility by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Many have dubbed it a timeless classic.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the film was and is its social commentary. The day-in-the-life street block setting, the raw dialogue, the modern-day symbolism provided a microcosm of the racial tensions in urban America. Most impressive is it sought out all perspectives – black, brown and white.
Moreover, if one doubts the believability of the events portrayed in the film, simply compare the climactic scene in which Radio Raheem is choked to death by police, despite bystanders pleading for mercy. It is eerily reminiscent of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officers for selling loose cigarettes.
Of the social commentary, Lee told the New York Daily News “We had the crystal ball…There was global warming, gentrification. The film, you could say, is ripped from the headlines presently.”
Unfortunately, you could also invoke the old phrase coined by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. Translated means “the, more things change, the more they stay the same”.