Decades of 'Doing' Right - Icon Week

By The Editorial Staff

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Twenty-five years since its release, Do the Right Thing remains a classic.

This summer, Brooklyn’s BAMcinematek hosted a film series called By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective, celebrating the feature’s anniversary. Following the film’s screening on opening night was a Q & A with Lee and several prominent members of the cast.

Do the Right Thing takes place on a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York over the course of one day. However, this particular day is the hottest of the year, causing the bigotry of residents and locals to reach a boiling point and erupt into violence.

The film has been heralded as a catalyst for people to discuss the race relations of the ’80s–specifically those within New York City.

Brooklyn–and New York as a whole–has certainly changed in the past quarter century since the 1989 release date of Do the Right Thing. At the time of its premiere, Roger Ebert determined it “the most controversial film of the year.”

At this point, it’s hard for Millennials to understand such a strong statement. The film is a standard. We’re used to Do the Right Thing references all across the media and in other beloved works of art. Lee is mainstream. Public Enemy is mainstream. We forget that it was ever new.

In Ebert’s first review of the production, he addressed the concerns of other critics regarding the potential for violent outbreak catalyzed by Lee’s overt “militance.” The fear of rioting, he said, is employed to “avoid the central fact of this film, which is that it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.”

Ebert further explained that the film was “confused,” standing at an ambivalent line between middle-class and street values. He encouraged careful viewership.

“Anyone who walks into this film expecting answers is a dreamer or a fool,” he reasoned. “But anyone who leaves with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn’t paying attention.”

Off screen, though, 1989 was a heated time. In April of that year, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam–the group of black and Hispanic teenagers known as the Central Park Five–were falsely accused and convicted of the assault and rape of jogger Trisha Meili. David Dinkins, then a mayoral candidate, was struggling to answer those who felt outraged and terrorized by “wilding” youths as well as those who felt outraged and terrorized by police brutality. It was in the midst of this tension that Do the Right Thing was released.

Since 1989, the convictions against the Central Park Five were vacated and the men released. Ken Burns made a documentary about their false accusation, and the five men received a $40 million settlement. However, we should acknowledge that minority teenagers still face discrimination in today’s society.

Although it seems like common sense, it is hard to imagine a film like Do the Right Thing being produced in the present day. Even if race relations, in New York City at least, are not as all-consuming as they were 25 years ago, they are definitely still present.

Consider the rampant gentrification, for instance, taking place throughout the boroughs, including Bed-Stuy. The social phenomenon is widely discussed in the media, perhaps most famously by Lee himself, whose infamous anti-gentrification rant went viral in February. Deliverance of his rant entailed criticism, and even launched a filmmaker rivalry with Michael Rapaport, who called Lee out for living on the Upper East Side.

Nevertheless, Lee seems to remain an acknowledged celebrity authority regarding problems of gentrification and race relations in New York. He recently released a two-minute video that spliced together footage of Staten Island police brutality–an event that ended local resident, Eric Garner’s life–with the scene of Radio Rahem’s death in Do the Right Thing.

As evidenced by this recent video, the themes and events of Do the Right Thing are still relevant today, though moviegoers would be hard-pressed to find a film with half the poignant audacity on American screens today.