Bigger than Bedstuy: “Do the Right Thing” 30 Years Later

Students for Cultural Inclusion in Theater (SCIT), led by Tuse Benson ’21, Maddi Taylor ’21, Eva Magaña ’20 and Amanda Tugangui ’19, is a group of students of color seeking to make the Theatre department a more accommodating and diverse space for all students. To this end, the two-year-old club presented a screening of legendary filmmaker Spike Lee’s seminal movie “Do The Right Thing,” followed by a discussion of the film’s costume design by Associate Professor of Theatre Michael Olich. Looking to catalyze important discussions about race, the group saw a perfect opportunity in Spike Lee’s classic film.

“Do The Right Thing,” inarguably the most impactful Spike Lee joint, was released in 1989 to a volatile country, one immersed in racial turmoil — especially in Lee’s city, given the long list of anti-black incidents such as the killings of Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs (the disastrous Rodney King riots that would consume Los Angeles two years later only add another layer of resonance to the film). Taking place on a single block in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the movie follows Mookie (Spike Lee), as the scorching summer heat boils over into a tragic display of racial violence.

A full 30 years after its initial release, I am left wondering if a more prescient movie exists. From quips predicting global warming and rising water levels, to charged commentary on police brutality and inter-racial relations, Spike Lee’s film is as poignant today as the day it was released. Its immutability in the face of time is what has critics and consumers alike continuing to return to the film. Lee’s film operates both as a time capsule of the late ’80s and early ’90s and as a harbinger of the hip-hop culture that was yet to fully develop. From scenes that demonstrate the sanctity of a fresh pair of Jordan 4’s, to the necessity of being able to get a New York slice for $1.50, “Do The Right Thing” was at once magically of its time and before it.

One of the most resonant aspects of “Do The Right Thing” is its eloquent handling of complicated dichotomies. Whether it’s black and white or love and hate, Lee’s film revels in dualities without being cliché or reductive. One scene that captures this approach is Radio Raheem’s heart-wrenching monologue depicting the battle between love and hate. Radio Raheem, who walks the neighborhood blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” puts his boombox down for a moment to drop knowledge on Mookie. In his speech Raheem conveys the parable of his two hands adorned with rings reading “Love” and “Hate.” Love begins the story on the ropes, on the verge of yielding to hate, only to emerge victorious at the last second. Radio Raheem notes, “Hate! It was with this hand Cain iced his brother. Love. These five fingers they go straight to the soul of man.”

This motif of bifurcation carries through the closing credits, presenting first a quote from Martin Luther King on the needless nature of violence, and then juxtaposing that with one from Malcolm X’s advocating for the necessity of violence as a survival mechanism.

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