20 Years Since Spike Lee's 'Do The Right Thing' This summer marks 20 years since the release of the film Do The Right Thing. The 1989 iconic production by director Spike Lee told a tale of racial and ethnic tensions erupting in a multiethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. Why was the popular movie so influential, and does its message still resonate 20 years later?
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20 Years Since Spike Lee's 'Do The Right Thing'

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

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

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, the latest in our series of conversations about things you just should not say to your colleagues of diverse backgrounds. Today, we'll ask our expert what kinds of things you should never say to your white coworkers. That's a little later. But first, we want to talk about an important cultural milestone. Remember this?

(Soundbite of movie clip "Do The Right Thing")

Unidentified Man: I'm a fist (unintelligible) freedom my fist. We got to fight the powers that be. Fight the power.

MARTIN: If you do, then you probably remember it's from Spike Lee's 1989 film, "Do The Right Thing," a tale of racial and ethnic tensions reaching the boiling point in a multiethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. All on the hottest day of the year. When it was released, "Do The Right Thing" won raves from some critics for its unflinching look at race and city life. But it was also panned by others as inflammatory, antisocial and pointlessly bleak. Now as is so often the way of the world, the film is seen as one of the most important of its era.

And as this summer marks the 20th anniversary of the release of "Do The Right Thing" it's time for a new look. In the latest of our series of collaborations with the online publication theroot.com, we pulled together a panel of writers to talk about why the movie was so influential and whether it still resonates today. Joining us are Kai Wright, a senior writer for The Root, Natalie Hopkinson, associate editor for The Root, and author and Professor Mark Anthony Neal, who teaches black popular culture at Duke University and writes the blog "New Black Man." All three contributed essays to a special "Do The Right Thing" series. Welcome, thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. NATALIE HOPKINSON (Associate Editor, Theroot.com): Thanks for having me.

Mr. KAI WRIGHT (Senior Writer, Theroot.com): Thank you.

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Black Popular Culture, Duke University): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Professor Neal, we're going to start with you. What is it that makes this film - first of all, tell us at the time this film emerged. What made it so powerful with the people for whom it's particularly resonated?

Prof. NEAL: It's the end of the late 1980s and, you know, New York City has gone through some things with the killings of Michael Griffith and Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs. Just a couple of months after the film was released, Yusuf Hawkins is killed, you know, so racial tensions are…

MARTIN: These are all people who were killed…

Prof. NEAL: …African-Americans who were either killed by mobs or whites or killed in acts of police brutality. So, you know, black folks in the city of New York are on edge around these kinds of issues. And Spike Lee really puts his lens on some of those tensions. It's also a moment where hip-hop is suddenly getting into its own groove. And there's kind of a seismic shift taking place culturally where you have now large groups of young African-Americans listening to hip-hop. And, you know, he also marks that in the film, the choice of Public Enemy and "Fight the Power" kind of resonates in a powerful way because of that.

MARTIN: Is it considered to be the first film that really made use of hip-hop, for whom it was just utterly indispensable, kind of put hip-hop out there?

Prof. NEAL: In terms of broad mainstream American film, absolutely.

MARTIN: I think we should…

Prof. NEAL: There had been hip-hop films before then. But this is the one that really utilized hip-hop in the way that spoke to where it lived in the world.

MARTIN: Race and the way race was lived, is lived, one might say, at least by some people, essential to this film. I think we're going to go right there to a pivotal moment in the film, where the police kill a young black man while trying to restrain him. And the main character of Mookie, played by Spike Lee, then throws a garbage can through the window of the pizza shop where he worked. Let's play it.

(Soundbite of movie clip "Do The Right Thing")

Unidentified Man #1: They killed him. They killed Radio Rahim.

Unidentified Man #2: Murder.

(Soundbite of child crying)

Unidentified Man #2: They did it again, just like Michael Stewart. Murder.

Unidentified Man #3: Do what you got to do.

Unidentified Man #4: Let's all go home. Somebody's gonna get hurt.

Unidentified Group: Yes, you boy.

Unidentified Man #5: Please don't. Stop this and stop it now. We're going to stop police on the route. (Unintelligible) for the rest of them now. Thousand is going there. Nothing is (unintelligible).

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of crowd)

MARTIN: And you hear the voice of Savasi Davis Junior there who plays one of the characters in the film. Natalie, your essay argues that Mookie's reaction is the wrong thing, was the wrong thing. But you're also very candid about how much you identified at the time with the rage that these characters expressed and the way they behaved. Talk more about that.

Ms. HOPKINSON: Yeah, you know, I talked about it. I sort of read it back then and now as a black nationalist manifesto, you know, sort of a purging of elements out of the community that did not respect black people and respect the black presence in a Bed-Stuy. And, you know, I definitely could identify with the rage. And, you know, I was growing up and going through my own rage in the suburbs…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOPKINSON: And, you know, and it really felt like cathartic to see that happen. Now…

MARTIN: And you're not proud of that actually, now?

Ms. HOPKINSON: No, I just, you know, I was young. And, you know, it's sort of -kind of a shortsighted reaction to something that's really horrible that's going on. And, you know, when you're in the heat of the moment, you understand how these things happen. But looking back and being someone who lives in a community that's had to deal with the aftermath of these fires so many decades later it actually angers me now. Because, you know, you're not realizing that the people who are going have to live with the consequences of that and they're not white. It's us.

MARTIN: You talked about how there are just some moments in the film that are cringe-worthy in retrospect, where you talked about this one character Buggin' Out, who is begging the pizza owner to put a picture of somebody black on his wall. And we have that clip and we'll play it.

(Soundbite of movie clip "Do The Right Thing")

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?

Unidentified Man #2: You want my brother's on the wall? Get your own place. You can do what you want to do. You can put your brothers and uncles and nieces and nephews, your stepfather, your stepmother, whoever you want to see. But this is my pizzeria. American-Italians on the wall only.

Unidentified Man #1: That might be fine, Sal, but you own this. Rarely do I see any American-Italians eating here. All I see is black folks? But since we spend much money here, we do have a say.

MARTIN: What did that say to you?


MARTIN: And what did that say to you then and what does it say to you now?

Ms. HOPKINSON: Again then, you know, like there were a lot of battles over representation and black people getting their recognition in society in general. Now - and, you know, this is all and my essay was definitely looking through 2009 eyes. Today it does feel, you know, like he is begging this white man to put, you know, a black picture on the wall. When I'm just like, why don't you get your own restaurant? Why don't you put your own pictures up on the wall?

You know, what a meaning was gesture to ask someone for, you know. Why don't you ask for jobs? Why don't you ask for better schools? Why don't you ask for something that's a little bit more concrete than having a black picture on the wall?

MARTIN: But I think what may be the most provocative part of the essay, you said, it's time to invite Sal, who was the pizza owner, whose shop was thrashed…

Ms. HOPKINSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …in this pivotal scene in the film. It's time to invite him back into the neighborhood. Tell me about that.

Ms. HOPKINSON: Absolutely. I mean I talk a little bit in the essay about, you know, my experience in Bloomingdale, in Washington, D.C. And we're begging a pizzeria to come in. And we would love Sal to come in. And, you know, we have to drive all the way across town to get decent slice. And we would be very, very happy to have Sal…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOPKINSON: …back in the neighborhood and there actually are remnants of an Italian-American presence in our neighborhood today. And, you know, they've held on over the decades. And they're not very visible and it really is time to welcome them back into the neighborhood and bring them back into the fold. And, you know, for the communities to realize the multicultural, multiethnic place that they were always meant to be or they could be.

MARTIN: Kai Wright, your essay is a - how can I put it - it's not exactly an answer to Natalie's but it kind of compliments or it speaks to Natalie's perspective here. You're from Bed-Stuy and the headline of your piece is "Still Do or Die in Bed-Stuy." And you say that it captured something very real. And it's - there's things that are still that way. Talk to me about that if you would. And by the way, I'm also from Bed-Stuy. Forgot to mention that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: Well…

MARTIN: So, I can check you on your facts but…

Mr. WRIGHT: …well I'm actually not from Bed-Stuy, lived there now for the last several years. I grew up like Natalie in the suburbs, having my little bit of rage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: One of the things that's striking I think that I was trying to get out in the piece is that what was enduring about Spike's film is his portrait of the neighborhood as something more than a flashpoint of rage, right? So, the film culminates in that moment but throughout it is really quite a loving portrait of this quintessentially black neighborhood. And all of this sort of push and pull that goes on inside it, the mix across classes and across lifestyles and across ages that you find in a place like Bed-Stuy. And that's still there today. And that's the positive part of it.

And one of the things that I noticed, you know, coming from this suburban rage to make a life as an adult in a place like Bed-Stuy is how much living there defies some of those stereotypes about what a black neighborhood is. And so I think that was one of, for me, one of the most enduring parts about the film. That said, there is a bubbling tension in a place like Bed-Stuy that still exists today. And that will always exist when you create these walled-off ghettos that are robbed of economic opportunity. And when you get a time like we're in now, where the economy is again turning up to heat, you start to see the tensions rise as well.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Mark Anthony Neal, Kai Wright and Natalie Hopkinson. They've all contributed essay to theroot.com special commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the release of "Do the Right Thing." Kai Wright, you say in the piece: I defy anyone to find three square miles with an equal density of hotness, whether it's Sunday-morning fashion - I swear I saw a dude on Easter with a red-and-purple suit that actually looked good - or a Saturday afternoon tank tops. I'm with Estelle(ph), don't like them baggy jeans, but I like what's underneath them.

Mr. KAI WRIGHT (theRoot.com): That's right. It's a beautiful mélange. It's just a beautiful place where everyone is figuring out how to get along with each other.

MARTIN: Are they, though? Are they, though? One of the points you make in the piece is that when times get tough, love and hate can feel like the same passion. Are people really trying to get along, or are they just there all in the same place?

Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, no, I think they're trying to get along, and I think again, that's one of the things that was great about the movie is that it showed, again, up until when things broke down, up until the point when love and hate get confused, everyone's actually working at being on the same page.

People, they're trying to be neighbors and lovers and friends, and you know, it doesn't always look good. That little dance that the street-corner wino was going with the Asian-America bodega owner doesn't always come out right, but they're doing a dance together, and they're trying to figure out how to deal with each other. That's what community's about is figuring it out.

MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neal, I wanted to ask about one of the other essays in the piece - you didn't write it - it talks about the women characters in Spike Lee's films overall and in this film in particular. Any thoughts you have about that? As significant as this film is, one of the things that some critics talk about is just the - what's up with these women characters that sort of exist to be kind of naked and shrill?

Mr. MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Blogger): I mean, that's been the most enduring critique of Spike Lee's films is inability, really, to draw full portraits of women and little girls in these films, and "Do the Right Thing," you know, in that regard is just as bad or problematic as some of the other films are.

When you think about, you know, Mookie's partner, she's not fully developed. We get no sense of even the reason why they're together except for the fact that they have a child, and you know, the relationship between Sal and Mookie's sister, also it's very, very uncomfortable. You know, here you have a 50-plus, Italian-American white man, and you're dealing with an African-American female, and while the fact that it's black and white is not as problematic, particularly in 2009, you do get the sense that this is a man who's harbored emotions for this young woman since she was a little girl. I mean, there's just something very comfortable about that.

In the opening himself, when Mookie himself is with Jade, his sister, and you know, for a couple of moments you're not quite sure what the nature of their relationship is, even as this point in time, you know that's Sharada(ph) Lee and you know that's Spike Lee, you know that they're brother and sister, and it's just really an uncomfortable moment in that context of the film, and in the way that…

MARTIN: But given Natalie's point, that this is kind of a black nationalist manifesto in some ways, is there is some larger issue around the relationships between African-American men and women that this film brings out?

Mr. NEAL: Well I think absolutely. I mean, to think that we should expect Spike Lee to carry, you know, the blood-stained banner, if you will, for full representations of black women, I mean, he's obviously not capable of doing it, at least on a consistent basis.

The beauty of the film in this particular moment is that, you know, his success does, in fact, open up a space, you know, for the Julie Dash's of the world and folks like that to come in and really draw more fuller portraits of black women.

MARTIN: I want to ask each of you. Does the film hold up for you? Natalie, I think you were grappling with this most acutely and sort of checking your reactions then with your reactions now. Does the film hold up? Does it still tell us something important about today, or is it most sort of accurate as a picture of then and that particular era?

Ms. HOPKINSON: Probably both. Sorry to be on the fence about that. You know, in some ways, some of the scenes, particularly the tensions between the Korean-American shop owners and the residents and, you know, the shop keepers who are a different ethnicity than the people in the neighborhoods, those things still happen.

The scene with Radio Raheem and Jonny get his 20 DD batteries, you know, that happens, I promise, every day. And so, you know, it does hold up in that sense. There are many of these depictions that do, but the overall message, no, not at all for me, anyway.

I don't - you know, it's a much more complicated world that we live in, even back then.

MARTIN: Kai Wright, does the film hold up?

Mr. WRIGHT: I think it does. I have to disagree with Natalie. I think it matters - the question is: What do you consider the film's message? And I don't actually agree that the film is a black nationalist manifesto. I think it's a critique of black nationalism. I think it's a really quite facile challenge to the way we all view race and interaction across race. And I think that while part of it is a black nationalist manifesto, part of it is an indictment of knee-jerk ideas around race relations.

The thing that I feel the most at the end of the film is regret. And I say that everyone seems to feel that regret and doesn't know what to do with it now because it's already - you've made the mess, and now we made it, and now we've got to wallow in it, and so we'll wallow for it in time. And I think we have continued to wallow for it in time around our knee-jerk ideas of race relations. And so in that sense, I think it holds up quite well.

MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neal, does the film hold up? And I must put you on the spot on the person who teaches black popular culture. Do you teach the film, and what do you teach about it?

Mr. NEAL: I'm actually teaching a Spike Lee course in the fall, here at Duke, and I think it's a period piece. There's no question about that. And if you're trying really 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. But I'm with Kai on this, and I think that Spike Lee is really offering a much more complex critique.

I think part of what he was challenged with at the time, you know, this is his third feature film, and he's really at this mode: How much of what I want to think about can I get into this film, not knowing that there may be 12 or 13 more films down the road? And that kind of sense of urgency that Spike Lee had as a filmmaker had, at that point in time, I think the fact that the film is pregnant with so many ideas, many of them contradictory, speaks to the fact that he was just trying to get his message out there as effectively as he could.

MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neal teaches black popular culture, among other things, at Duke University, and he writes a blog called New Black Man. He joined us from Durham. Kai Wright. Is a senior writer for theRoot.com. He joined us from our New York bureau, and Natalie Hopkinson is the associate editor for the Root.com. She joined us in our Washington, D.C., studio.

And we'll have a link to the Root's commemorative Web feature marking the 20th anniversary of "Do the Right Thing" on our Web site. There you'll find links to all of the essays, including those we just discussed. Plus for the hip-hop junkies out there, check out NPR's online tribute to the iconic boom box. That's all on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE, and I thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you.

Ms. HOPKINSON: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. NEAL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Still to come, the buzz over women's professional tennis reaches a new pitch, and some find it annoying.

Unidentified Woman: We are talking about an incessant, non-stop, active grunting that's almost a squeaking.

(Soundbite of tennis match)

MARTIN: We'll talk about the grunt and sportsmanship. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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