On June 30, 1989, Rosie Perez first graced American screens dancing furiously to Public Enemy, Radio Raheem demanded a pile of D batteries for his boom box and Buggin’ Out got his Air Jordans scuffed up by Bed-Stuy’s first sign of gentrification.
Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” turns 25 on Monday, and the day before, Brooklyn’s BAM’s Harvey Rose Theater — in conjunction with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — will screen two anniversary screenings, just a mile or so from where the film was shot (on Stuyvesant Ave. between Quincy St. and Lexington Ave.). The 5 p.m. screening will be followed by a discussion with Lee, Perez, Danny Aiello and others. (Among those sadly MIA will be John Turturro and Giancarlo Esposito.)
New York, and particularly Brooklyn, was very different back then. Filmed over the summer of 1988, “Do the Right Thing” was made in the wake of a 1986 incident in which three black youths were killed by Italian locals in Howard Beach, as well as a racial fight that broke out in Brooklyn College over music. (A much more civil music battle pops up in the film.) Then there was Tawana Brawley, a black woman who had accused six white men of raping her — allegations proven to be false, though that claim has been called by some into question (as in a piece of graffiti in “Do the Right Thing” that reads “Tawana told the truth”).
Controversy loomed over the film when it opened, mostly about the riot that breaks out in the climax. Some (white) reviewers predicted violence breaking out in theaters, which of course never came. Today it’s regularly cited as one of the great American films and taught in schools. And most of the discussions it raised needed raised.
Bill Nunn, who played the quiet and focused Radio Raheem and will be present at Sunday’s discussion, remembers that to him it didn’t seem like the film would be a big deal. “I was looking at it as a gig,” Nunn recalls. He did see it as important from a filmmaking perspective. “Twenty-five years ago there weren’t a lot of projects for black actors or black filmmakers. We thought it was important along those lines.”
He didn’t recognize its importance until shortly before the release, when a journalist from the Village Voice came down to his home in Atlanta to interview him for what Nunn was informed was a hugely buzzed film.
Nunn recalls the shoot as one that created a small community, not only among the cast and crew but among the surprisingly tolerant neighbors, who put up with a raucous film crew all summer. Despite the film’s portrayal of the hottest day of the year, summer of ’88 wasn’t that bad. “It wasn’t as hot as the movie,” Nunn says. “A lot of times we were getting sprayed with water to look hot. Because we really weren’t that hot.”
It also allowed him to work with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the latter who passed away in early June. “I remember when my mom took me to see ‘Raisin in the Sun,’” he says, referring to the 1961 film starring Dee and Sidney Poitier. “I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. To think that I would work with her so many years later was beyond a treat.”
Nunn says his daughter had it on her curriculum in Syracuse.
Sunday’s “Do the Right Thing” screening will also kick off a two-week retrospective of Lee’s films, all of them personal, thought-provoking works, many that amazingly came from within the Hollywood studio system. Last Sunday Lee premiered his latest, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” which he funded through Kickstarter.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge