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Revisiting Do The Right Thing: 25 Years Later

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By Craig Carpenter and Dominic Fowler

The Polish journalist and war correspondent, Ryszard Kapuściński describes in his masterpiece 1976 book, Another Day of Life, the looming transition in Angola from Portuguese colonization to independence. Prior to the civil war that would follow, the exiting colonists exhibited a silent, paralyzing dread in consideration of the impending native hordes coming from the countryside to enact revenge and retribution after almost exactly 400 years of European subjugation. The regime was such that a starkly divided society was created, with all of the riches and benefits being denied to the African population in toto. The fear accompanying the exodus was part of a bundle of emotions and feelings -- not the least of which could be described as White guilt. The Bedford-Stuyvesant that Spike Lee portrayed in his seminal film, Do The Right Thing, is not entirely dissimilar from Kapuściński's Angola. The final days of David Dinkin's administration, as New York City's first African American mayor, included the beginning of a fiercely acrimonious re-election campaign versus the ascendant Rudy Giuliani, a race riot in Crown Heights, the travesty that was the Central Park Rape case, and 17-year-old Yusef Hawkins, murdered by an angry mob of White youths from Bensonhurst. It is an understatement to suggest that race relations in the city were at a low ebb.

The forceful baritone of Public Enemy's Chuck D opens the film with the lines from their now anthemic song, "Fight The Power," while the then unknown Rosie Perez shadowboxes in silhouette. It was as if Lee, in his third feature, was challenging the film industry, American society, and New York City itself, to a street fight. And perhaps he was. By then, widely acknowledged as a talented filmmaker, Spike Lee had begun to earn the reputation of a provocateur, often said to lob controversial bombs into his interview appearances, and being accused of "reverse racism". The lighting rod topic of race was so entwined in the national popular dialogue, yet the much needed race conversation was never fulfilled. Mr. Lee's film, though lauded at Sundance, received criticism and raised alarms due to fears that the film's fiery end would result in conflagrations across the cities where it would subsequently screen. Watching the film again, 25 years later, it is in the opinions of these writers that Do The Right Thing was the most well realized attempt at such a conversation; one in which, unfortunately, too many people chose not to advance or take part in.

Instead, the focus was as misplaced then as it is now. Perceived as inflammatory and inciting, many critics missed (or dodged) the point. In the video of the film's theme song mentioned above, "Fight the Power" when Chuck D gives his unapologetic opinion of cultural icons; "Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant s#% to me as a straight-up racist, the sucka was simple and plain," with Flava Flav adding, "Mutha%^! him and John Wayne!" there is an almost orgasmic reaction from the crowd. Observed closely, it is not the joy of insulting Elvis Presley that ignites the crowd. It is the happiness of being heard. It is the Black barbershop being brought to the big stage and it is electrifying in its conspicuousness. If one would have only asked, "why the diss?" instead of reacting to a sacred cow being slaughtered, we could have found ourselves opening the door of that elusive race conversation. Spike Lee, through this film, tried to open that door.

In many ways he was profoundly successful. Do The Right Thing correctly and prophetically described what was happening. That accurate portrayal created a bridge for urban youth from coast to coast. On the West Coast, the Bed-Stuy, Bensonhurst and Central Park challenges and atrocities, widely reported, were well known, but the sting - much like the miles between Cali and New York City, was distant. Yet the themes within the film hit so very close to every home, were also evidenced in the lyrics delivered by proto-gangsta rap group, N.W.A.'s Ice Cube in "How To Survive In South Central": "now, if you're White you can trust tha police, but if you're Black they ain't nothin' but beast. Watch out for the kill, don't make a false move, and keep your hands on the steering wheel." These stories echoed in every hood, from coast to coast. There would be other attempts to bear fruit from Spike's rich soil. John Singleton's 1995 film Higher Learning comes to mind. Having had the good fortune of joining the party six years later, you will notice the film is decidedly more, "on the nose", in its tone than that of its predecessor. That is by no means a slight. It is simply an observation. If Do The Right Thing was the prophetic voice of warning, then Higher Learning was the all caps version, screaming to the masses, "it's getting worse", while the Hughes Brothers' 1993 anti-social narrative, Menace II Society had already scared middle America to death. The latent anger and discontent in certain communities was no longer a secret.

Spike Lee is an extremely confident filmmaker, surrounding his most obvious thematic statements with brilliant subtleties. The character "Smiley," played by Roger Guenveur Smith, is reminiscent of a character most city dwellers are familiar with: marginally indigent and suffering an unnamed affliction, yet, very much a part of the neighborhood. In this case, Smiley weaves throughout the film trying to sell postcards bearing a famous image of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, hands clasped, the photo adorned in the style of fellow Brooklynite, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Speaking in a halting stutter, Smiley solicits each passerby to buy one of his cards for a dollar. The cards themselves, an updated visual on the dueling philosophies between the two slain Civil Rights leaders, were flatly refused by everyone they were offered to, with Spike's character, Mookie, firmly interrupting him, "Smiley, not now!" The allegory here seems to be the aforementioned conversation, never had -- avoided, or put off, with Smiley being unable to adequately articulate his frustration; a mirror of our society. Lee is more obvious with the character, Radio Raheem, played with a controlled and measured menace by Bill Nunn. His soliloquy about love versus hate further places into perspective the forces threatening to rend apart Bed-Stuy, as well as these United States. The final showdown, the long simmering boil-over on the hottest day of the summer, comes when Radio Raheem squares off with the owner of Sal's Famous, his and the long suffering masses' anger represented by Chuck D's missive booming from the oversized radio which Sal proceeds to destroy -- once again silencing the now shouted conversation -- only this time for good. Lee presents a sad, heartbreaking outcome with no solutions, as if echoing the Ghandi quote, "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Without giving answers, Lee, once again offers the audience the chance to talk about it -- to figure out what is the right thing to do.

Each character in the film represents a different segment of society, each with their own valid points and agendas. Do The Right Thing, taking place in a Brooklyn of 25 years ago, was prophetic in that it showed how, in proximity, everyone must learn to live together, if not necessarily in love. That Brooklyn is no longer there, but the events nationwide, from then to now, show that, as a society, we still have a lot to talk about. Just three years after the film, we'd see the aftermath of the trial and acquittal of the officers charged in beating Rodney King, as well as the nation's split decision on the not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

There has been some progress since then, on many fronts. Barack Obama, the nation's first and only African-American elected president, faces, along with some of the most virulent opposition seen in generations, more than thirty death threats daily. Obviously, many things haven't changed enough; also evidenced by the tragic deaths of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, respectively. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year awarded to 12 Years A Slave, a narrative of Solomon Northrup, revisiting a story set at the early part of this nation's history, the Best Supporting Actress to Lupita N'yongo and Best Achievement in Direction to Steve McQueen, both of African descent. It seems that in 2014, the nation was ready for that conversation. Do The Right Thing was, by many accounts, snubbed by the Academy in it's selection for Best Picture. Still, these years later, the city of New York, under newly elected Mayor Bill De Blasio (himself married to a Black woman, with whom he has two children), recognized the importance and significance of the film by renaming the street on which it was filmed, "Do The Right Thing Way." Spike deserves this honor, and more. Twenty-five years is indeed a long time.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host 25th Anniversary screenings and live discussions of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing on June 27th in Los Angeles at the Bing Theater, and on June 29th in Brooklyn at the BAM Harvey Theater