Today marks the 20th anniversary of Spike Lee's seminal 1989 film Do The Right Thing. Tell Me More has teamed up with theRoot.com to take a look back at the film and discuss its relevance and legacy today. Listen here.
Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in 1989, tells the story of urban racial tensions over the course of one sweltering hot summer day.
Several key characters paint a scene of a diverse neighborhood with underlying tensions. Still, there's a sense of community, and most of the personalities unfold around their attempts to stay cool in the summer heat. The token neighborhood drunk, Da Mayor, played by Ossie Davis, repeatedly tries to win the affections of Ruby Dee's character, Mother Sister.
The Bed-Stuy neighborhood has become predominantly black, but there's still Sal's Famous Pizzeria, run by a long-standing Italian family, as well as the Korean food stand. Mookie, played by Lee, works at the pizzeria with Sal (Danny Aiello), the owner, and Sal's sons. In the background, Sal's Italian "Wall of Fame" becomes a source of contention with local black patrons.
Radio Raheem, (Bill Nunn), who makes his presence known with a monolithic boombox blaring Public Enemy's "Fight The Power," provokes the film's climax. He and Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) protest Sal's Wall of Fame, which leads Sal to smash Radio's boombox. This prompts a riot, and Radio is ultimately killed by the police. As a result, the pizzeria is burned to the ground.
Samuel L. Jackson's character, Mister Senor Love Daddy, the local disc jockey, provides running commentary throughout the film. The issue of urban violence is raised but not really resolved. Do The Right Thing ends on an ambivalent note with two contradictory quotations about violence from Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In his 1989 review, Roger Ebert wrote, "Anyone who walks into this film expecting answers is a dreamer or a fool. But anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn't paying attention." At left, Rosie Perez as Mookie's girlfriend, Tina.
Today, some question the relevance of the film's message. Natalie Hopkinson, associate editor of The Root, argues that some of the black-power aggression in the film today seems futile. She points to the White House as evidence of some fundamental change that has happened between 1989 and now. In contemporary urban society, she argues, Sal's Pizzeria should be able to stand.
Regardless of its ambiguous messages or potentially irrelevant legacy, Do The Right Thing was truly original stylistically, aesthetically and narratively. Lee's message may have been unclear, but it provoked dialogue, which is ultimately what mattered most.
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