Spike Lee’s third film, Do The Right Thing, turns 30 years old on Sunday, July 21, but its message is so fresh that it could have been made today.
I was first introduced to this film during my senior year of high school, in March 1999. I borrowed it from a library in Oklahoma City, and the librarian gave me a look as I checked it out. “Don’t start a riot,” she said as she chortled. She was white. I don’t think she was joking.
I was taken aback by the confidence of the filmmaking. It may have been his third film—after She’s Gotta Have It and the brilliant School Daze—but Lee took chances like it was his 30th. The way he told the story reminded me of Greek tragedies, with the three men on the corner embodying a chorus and the inevitability of the final act telegraphed throughout the film. Lee’s use of the camera to create unorthodox angles, the lighting of each scene, and the color palette he used bespoke a man who was not afraid to take artistic chances. His willingness to tackle the anger that was always present but never openly communicated showed that he was a filmmaker who was willing to take on difficult subject matter.
Lee has said repeatedly that no black person ever asked him if Mookie did the right thing by throwing the trashcan through the window. Mookie was devastated because he had just seen his best friend murdered in front of him, and out of that anger and exasperation, he felt compelled to do what he did.
White audiences and critics, channeling the disdain for the film that my librarian had, were divided on the film. Roger Ebert, for example, was very supportive and found it an empathetic film, ultimately calling it one of the greatest films ever made. But others disagreed with him. A representatively negative review came from Joe Klein in New York magazine. “If Lee does hook large black audiences, there’s a good chance the message they take from the film will increase racial tensions in the city. If they react violently—which can’t be ruled out—the candidate with the most to lose will be David Dinkins.” This was a film that divided white America. We look back now at their racist reactions to the film and laugh, but many were concerned about black folks losing their minds and rioting at the time. As for me, the film opened my eyes about what was possible with art.
In February of the year I first saw it, Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was killed by four NYPD officers who mistook him for a suspect in a sexual assault that happened the year before. They thought the wallet he pulled out to identify himself was a weapon and opened fire, shooting at him 41 times, killing him on site. He was unarmed. With that on my mind, watching Radio Raheem strangled at the end of Do the Right Thing by New York’s Finest was an emotionally devastating experience. The film informed me that Diallo’s shooting was not the first of its kind. It was, in fact, just the latest in a vicious tradition of violence against black bodies.
The film was partly inspired by the death of Michael Stewart by police chokehold. In fact, you can hear bystanders in the crowd shouting things like “they did it again—just like Michael Stewart.” Another person in the crowd shouts “Eleanor Bumpurs, murder,” calling the name of a black woman who was shot and killed by the police in 1984. The film was responding to an incident that happened years before I first saw it, but the narrative felt apropos. Now, watching it again, I am taken aback by how the climactic scene could have just as easily been responding to the death of Eric Garner. The point wasn’t lost on Lee, either. He edited together videos of the two deaths by asphyxiation at the hands of the NYPD. Spike dedicated the film to the families and memories of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood and Michael Stewart—six black people, five of whom were killed by police officers, one who was killed by a white mob.
I don’t know what to make of the fact that not much has changed in the 30 years since the film’s release. Yes, we have had a black president, but the man who came after was just as bad, if not worse, than Reagan, who was in office when this film was made. Yes, we have the Movement for Black Lives to respond when black men and women are killed by police, but it still happens—and often without the justice system holding these men and women in blue responsible. It seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Do the Right Thing is an artistic and cultural achievement. I just wish that the story it tells was something we had gotten past as a county. Unfortunately it is not.