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.
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What 'Do The Right Thing' Means 20 Years Later

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What 'Do The Right Thing' Means 20 Years Later

What 'Do The Right Thing' Means 20 Years Later

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Mookie throws a trashcan through the window of Sal's Pizzeria in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy. Riots and looting erupt as angry blacks and Latinos attack the white-owned business. That's right, "Do the Right Thing." Spike Lee's movie was released 20 years ago. It openly addressed racial tensions Hollywood wouldn't touch. Take this scene earlier at Sal's Pizzeria where Buggin' Out, played Giancarlo Esposito, confronts the owner, Sal, played by Danny Aiello, about the pictures on his Wall of Fame.

(Soundbite of movie, "Do the Right Thing")

Mr. GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (as Buggin' Out) Hey, Sal, how come you ain't got no brothers up on the wall here?

Mr. DANNY AIELLO: (as Sal) You want brothers 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, stepmother, whoever you want, you see. But this is my pizzeria. American-Italians on the wall.

Mr. ESPOSITO: (as Buggin' Out) Yeah. That might be fine, Sal. But you own this. Rarely do I see any American-Italians eating in here. All I see is black folks. So since we spend much money here, we do have some say.

CONAN: Today, our series Talking Race focuses on the 20th anniversary of "Do the Right Thing." It's the latest in our series of conversations with Dawn Turner Trice, who writes the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune.

So the characters, the quotes, even the trashcan were a description of urban reality for some, an allegory of multicultural America for others. Does the movie hold up? Our phone number: 800-9898-255; email us: talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation going on on our Web site. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Dawn Turner Trice joins us from Chicago Public Radio. Nice to have you back in the program.

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: So, what do you think? Does the movie still hold up?

Ms. TRICE: Well, I think that there are some themes in the movie that are still very significant today. The movie came out when police brutality was a hot topic in New York and in other places around the country.

And what Spike Lee did very well was get in there and show a community that was extremely complicated. And it was something that we hadn't seen before. And he dealt with the conflicts between, let's say, the black residents. And, you know, not all of the black residents where American born. Some of them were from the West Indies and maybe Haiti, places like that. And then he had the Korean storeowners who had moved into the black community.

But there, you could see the resentment between the community and the storeowners because, I mean, there was this conflict where you needed the items in the store, but people felt, well, why couldn't - you know, why can't we get in there and start our own stores?

And as you - as we heard in the clip a few minutes ago, the conflict between the militant, young black man and the storeowner who wanted to have more - the kid who wanted to have more black people on the wall of fame. And so, the question is, do you start your own business and then hang pictures up of people you want to hang up, or do you protest? Does the storeowner have a responsibility to accommodate, you know, to hang a few black folks - pictures on the wall?

CONAN: And…

Ms. TRICE: So I think - I thought that those were good issues.

CONAN: Yeah. And even seemed to go beyond that to ask, so even if he had his own place and his own pictures on the wall, what would he do when the neighborhood changed again and a new group came in?

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And so, one of the main themes of Lee's movie in 1989 was kind of what Rodney King would say a couple of years later. Can we all get along? But Lee was asking, can we all get along under the roof of one community, so to speak? And that was the challenge in the movie's predominantly, you know, black community.

CONAN: And interestingly, in the riots that followed that, the verdict in that case, well, Korean-owned businesses were targeted in the black community. So some issues don't change. Yet, you look at the picture, you know, 20 years ago, it doesn't seem to carry - in some respects, it's not the same. And in some respects, you see artifice in the way that Spike Lee directed. He's got a lot better at his craft.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TRICE: Well, absolutely. I have to say that I kind of - I was cringing when I was watching the movie because you see the really odd picture, the camera angles, and the acting seemed very, you know, I mean, quite overdone in places. And the women - I mean, the women characters where really just kind of placeholders. And so, you really - it was a message movie rather than a movie, a good movie with a message, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRICE: And I think that what made it so important at the time is that we had never seen anything like this before. I have to say that I love the movie "Crash." And maybe, you know, a few years from now, we'll see how it holds up. But in 1989, I just remember watching "Do the Right Thing" and kind of feeling like, wow, what a powerful film. And so some of the things that it lacked, it really didn't - I mean, you kind of overlooked those because the theme was so poignant.

CONAN: There was a lot of black nationalism in the movie, which some saw as the message of the movie. I'm not sure that 20 years later, looking back at it, that was the message of the movie.

Ms. TRICE: No. I think that there were a number of messages. And the over-arching one for me was the, again, can we coexist? And these various places where - since - some of the - some of our older cities in the Midwest and Northeast were established before, let's say, restrictive housing policies were outlawed. And so you have newer cities that are much better able to deal with integration than some of the older cities. And so, can we - you know, there are so many various levels of conflict. Can we live together?

CONAN: Now let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Dawn Turner Trice, our guest, as we continue talking race. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Twenty years after it was released, does "Do the Right Thing" still hold up?

We'll talk with Walt, Walt is calling us from Milton in Delaware.

WALT (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

CONAN: All right.

WALT: Well, I grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, and when I saw, you know, "Do the Right Thing" a lot of hit home with me because I was just - had strife 40 years ago. Over 40 years ago in 1967, I experienced a riot first hand. But talking about today, when I see what's going - I don't live in Plainfield anymore, but I follow what's happening there. The whole thing with some people exploiting the residents is still going on.

There's a slumlord right now that's being called on the carpet by the residents about really bad housing conditions. And, I mean, it's appalling. What's going on there - I would say - here's another example of what's going on in Plainfield. They had a hospital that was there for 130 years. The - a bigger medical company came in, just sucked all the doctors out of it and just - they shut it down. It just sits - it's the hospital I was born in. It sits there empty. And, you know, the exploit - that was exploitation in its worst, and that happened last year.

CONAN: And a lot of people would think of Plainfield as suburban New Jersey, and in one sense it is. But it is one of those northern Jersey cities where there are black areas and white areas and nice areas and not-so-nice areas.

WALT: Well, you just got to live there and grow up in it to see it and experience it. I'd say right now, Plainfield is about 65 to 70 percent black, maybe 15 to 12 percent white, and the rest is Hispanic and other. When I was growing up there, it was about 60 to 70 percent white.

CONAN: Well, Walt, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

WALT: Yup.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is George, George calling from Hollywood, Florida.

GEORGE: How are you doing?

CONAN: All right.

GEORGE: I'm a big fan of your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

GEORGE: I wanted to say that I think "Do the Right Thing" is still relevant. One, in terms of when you look at police relations with blacks. Just because we have Obama as president doesn't mean those same situations don't come into play when you have a black - you know, when you look at the prison system or who's being incarcerated and why they're being incarcerated and the way the judicial system treats people of color, I mean, I think that's a big - very poignant in terms - when you look at the end of "Do the Right Thing," because that's the best, ultimate outcome, that people of color sometimes don't have - many times in these communities - and this is really socioeconomic - they don't have a voice.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice, it was among the very first films to address that issue openly that took the African-American point of view.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. Just - and as the caller was just saying, I mean, things - we're still dealing with police brutality issues and just how race complicates things on various police forces.

Just last month in New York, you remember, there was the off-duty black police officer who was chasing a criminal and was shot and killed by a white officer who didn't realize he was shooting a fellow officer. And during - back when the - when "Do the Right Thing" came out, the chokehold that the police officer put the character Radio Raheem in was surely - it was the same way that Michael Stewart, who was a young black kid who was killed in New York. And it was - that's how he was killed, in that chokehold. And it was outlawed.

So there has been various - I mean, there is this heightened sensitivity to brutality, but it's still something that a lot of communities are dealing with.

CONAN: George, thank you very much.

GEORGE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Adrienne(ph) in Portland, Oregon: I am a black woman who recently watched the movie with my partner who is white and from Utah. The movie holds up very well over time and still moves me, although knowing that the movie is 20 years old and I was already grown when it was released makes me feel old.

The thing that I would left with in 1989 and still left within 2009 when I watched it again was that no one in that movie was the bad guy. Sal was just a businessman trying to get by. Mookie is just trying to do a job. Your commentator is correct. Spike Lee has gotten much better at his craft.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TRICE: Yeah, absolutely. The - I think that one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that - I heard Spike Lee say that white people, over the years, consistently have asked why did Mookie throw the trash can into the window of the pizzeria? And that is what started the riot, right after that scene. And he said that - but, no. Over the 20 years of the film, that not once - not one black person asked that question. And what it kind of says is that there is still this disconnect. And one of the things that the movie didn't explore as much was kind of the motivations or the thinking, the kind of the - I don't know, the internal conflicts there. Because he really, really - there are a lot of people who got why Mookie threw the trash can, and a lot of people who didn't.

CONAN: We're talking race with Dawn Turner Trice, the columnist of the "Exploring Race" column with the Chicago Tribune. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we forget, Dawn, that when this film came out, there was real concern among some that it would start violence and trigger riots, a concern that seems almost quaint today.

Ms. TRICE: Well, absolutely. And it's - and Spike Lee was, you know, pretty offended by that, which - understandably so, because his feeling was, I mean, do you not think that black people can go to the movie and, you know, and watch a movie and look at it objectively as anybody else? But if you recall, during the election, the last - our last presidential election, there was some talk, also, about whether there would be riots if Barack Obama didn't win, if there was something - if people felt, you know, that the election had been stolen from him.

And, you know, nothing happened. But it's interesting that the riot becomes kind of the method of - or seen by some as the method of a solution, solving a problem.

CONAN: Or that African-Americans' would - first recourse would be to riot.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely, yes.

CONAN: Yeah, exactly. Let's see if we get another caller in. This is Emmett, Emmett calling from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

EMMETT (Caller): Yeah. Hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

EMMETT: Good. So my comment is that I rented the movie a little while ago for my 15-year-old son who loves movies and who's very interested in race relations. Anyway, he loved the movie. He thought it was great. So I think that's a pretty strong indication that it is still relevant because my 15-year-old likes it.

CONAN: And what - did he tell you particularly what he liked about it?

EMMETT: Well, I mean, I think first and foremost, it was entertaining. And if it's still entertaining it's still relevant. But - and he just thought it was interesting. But also, he just, you know, liked to see the - in New York and the - how the races interacted with each other. And we talked about different scenes in it. But I think it's just - it still entertained him and it kept his attention. And, you know, we did have some race conversations afterwards, talked about specific theme. But…

CONAN: A teachable moment, then?

Ms. TRICE: Right.

EMMETT: Right, a teachable moment, and an entertaining movie still. And, look, I rent a lot of movies for him that he thinks are stupid and doesn't want to watch. So…

(Soundbite of laughing)

EMMETT: You know? If he still likes it and is entertained and he still thinks - and he thinks it's relevant, then I think that definitely makes the movie still relevant.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trace?

Ms. TRICE: Well, yeah. I mean, I think that - I mean, it's entertaining, as well as educational. And that's important because we have more now than ever. You've got YouTube. You got the Internet where younger people - even younger people who live in racially-isolated areas can be exposed to people of other races and cultures beyond what they might see on the television news. And so - and that wasn't the case 20 years ago.

And so I think that it's important to - and this is a movie that was entertaining, but it's also educational because Spike Lee - for whatever the flaws of the movie - was able to get in there and to bring to the surface some issues and some dynamics, you know, between various groups that we hadn't seen before, and that are still very much relevant today.

CONAN: Emmett, thanks very much.

EMMETT: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Eli in Oakland: "Do the Right Thing" remains enormously relevant today. I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, and was in high school when the movie came out. My high school had large numbers of black and white students and racial tensions simmered, boiling over during the first Iraq war and then again following some injudicious comments by a foreign-born teacher. I now live in Oakland and had been struck recently by news of race-based misunderstanding at nearby Berkeley High School Center around the use of the N word by some white students on their Facebook pages. It is time for me to watch this movie again.

And let's see if we can go to Nicole(ph), Nicole calling from Rochester, New York.

NICOLE (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Fine, thanks.

NICOLE: Good. I also believe that the movie is extremely relevant. On a show earlier on this broadcast, wasn't this particular show, but they were having a conversation around countywide services versus city services. And when the question of race came up as one of the reasons why lots of counties don't want to go that way, you could hear even in the commentator's voice, a change in his intonation and how quiet the studio appeared to get.

Even articulate, professional people can't even have a conversation around race without stammering or losing their focus. And so, it is very much relevant still today because if we can't even talk about it without looking down or looking away, it lets us know that we still have a lot of tensions to get through.

CONAN: Even after, again, a presidential election where this was…

Ms. TRICE: Right.

CONAN: …very much the elephant in the room - I mean, if not stopping on us most of the time.

NICOLE: Exactly. Exactly. And one of the issues even with Barack Obama, imagine if he was a dark-skinned African-American. Would he be the president of the United States? So there are even issues around shades of blackness that we have yet to really get into intelligent conversations around.

CONAN: And there's still that divide between African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans that was explored in that movie, too, and very much in the politics of Brooklyn, New York, still. Nicole, thank you very much.

NICOLE: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And Dawn Turner Trice, as always, we appreciate your time.

Ms. TRICE: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice writes the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune. She joined us from Chicago Public Radio.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about the president and his restive gay allies -many feel betrayed. The Political Junkie will join us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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