What 'Do The Right Thing' Means 20 Years Later

In 1989, Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing captured the racial tensions of urban America.

Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice explores to what extent the film still portrays the racial divide 20 years after its debut.

20 Years Since Spike Lee's 'Do The Right Thing'

'Do The Right Thing' i i

hide captionSpike Lee (left, with Danny Aiello as Sal) both directs and stars in Do The Right Thing. Lee's character, Mookie, works at Sal's Famous Pizzeria in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Universal
'Do The Right Thing'

Spike Lee (left, with Danny Aiello as Sal) both directs and stars in Do The Right Thing. Lee's character, Mookie, works at Sal's Famous Pizzeria in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Universal

'Fight The Power'

The famous hip-hop song by rap group Public Enemy was released in 1989 as part of the soundtrack for 'Do The Right Thing.'

Twenty years ago, the film Do The Right Thing debuted in theaters and aggressively shifted the focus to the realities of a divided America. The iconic 1989 production by film director Spike Lee told an unflinching tale of racial and ethnic tensions, as experienced in the multiethnic neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, N.Y. — all on the hottest day of the year.

"I sort of read it back then, and now, as a black nationalist manifesto," reflects Natalie Hopkinson, an associate editor for theRoot.com. "[Do The Right Thing portrayed] a purging of elements out of the community that did not respect black people and the black presence in Bed-Stuy."

The movie was seen as both groundbreaking and inflammatory. Memorable characters from the movie brought baggage from their many walks of life, such as Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a towering young black man who leisurely blasts his boombox radio with the early sounds of hip-hop music while strolling the streets; Sal (Danny Aiello), the Italian-American owner of the neighborhood Sal's Famous Pizzeria, whose establishment is also the scene of both cultural collisions and crossroads; and Mookie (Spike Lee), who works as the socially conscious deliveryman at Sal's.

"If you're trying to give a representation of where black cultural nationalism, in particular, was at a particular point in time, I think the film does a wonderful job of that," says blogger Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University.

But Neal is also a critic of the film and suggests that Lee, whose other notable works such as School Daze and Jungle Fever have boldly confronted both intraracial and interracial societal divisions, overloaded the psyche with themes and characters that bordered on excess.

"Part of what [Lee] was challenged with at the time was, 'How much of what I want to think about can I get into this film?' " says Neal.

Still, many sing the film's praises and say that its treatment of race and time-relevant cross-cultural divisions cannot be overlooked.

"I think it's a really quite thoughtful challenge to the way we all view race and interaction across race," says writer Kai Wright, who credits the film's nostalgiclike significance with its "indictment of knee-jerk ideas around race relations."

In a special collaboration with the online magazine theRoot.com, Tell Me More explores why the Do The Right Thing is considered one of the most important films of its era and whether its message still resonates 20 years later.

Hear the full conversation on the 20th anniversary of Do The Right Thing by clicking the "Listen" button in the upper left-hand corner.

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