Though the Spike Lee Joint, about the angry events of a scorching hot day in Brooklyn, looks a bit dated these days — gone are the boomboxes and fade haircuts of the late ’80s — there’s no fighting the film’s power.
The issues raised by the film — gentrification, ethnic clashes, police presence, the impact of violence — remain topical.
So does its thoughtfulness, something that was overlooked, both then and later. “Do the Right Thing” was released 25 years ago Monday.
It had a reputation before it even opened. “Do the Right Thing” would doom race relations, said critics. Riots would engulf the multiplex. One can only imagine the fear that would have been stoked in the Internet age.
Instead, what audiences found was a film more infused with sadness (and humor!) than anger, less black and white than shades of gray.
Sal, the pizzeria owner played by Danny Aiello, was gruff but fatherly. Mookie, Lee’s delivery man character, was immature but not mean. The rest of the characters — the music-loving Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the drunken Mayor and Mother Sister (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee), even the pot-stirring Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) — were humans, not props.
New York has changed in 25 years. Today blacks and Italians both listen to hip-hop, the pop music of our times. The Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where the film takes place, was once considered rough — now “the people who once considered Bed-Stuy a jungle lazily walk their tiny dogs past me,” wrote Jason Reynolds in Gawker.
Even Lee, who can still get fired up about gentrification, acknowledged the barbed world of “Do the Right Thing” has lost some of its prickliness.
“When I wrote the script … New York City was a very polarized city, racially,” he told CNN in 2009. “I wanted to do a film that would try to show what was happening at the time.”
On the other hand, look at the vitriol on the Web. Look at the battles between red and blue states. Look at the ever-present conflict between violence and nonviolence.
The movie still haunts our culture. As Lee said in 2009, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Still, he can admire his handiwork. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he talked about “Do the Right Thing” with pleasure.
“It still holds up!” he said. “But we look real young.”