Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” turns 25 today, at least if you consider its theatrical release on June 30, 1989 its birthday. (It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival that May and was even released in France and the U.K. a few weeks prior.) To commemorate, the landmark comedy-drama — about racial tensions in Broolyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood on the year’s hottest day — was screened twice on Sunday at BAM Harvey Rose Theater, not far from the block on which it was filmed. (The film was shown in conjunction with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)
After one screening, Lee — wearing a seriously sparkly and colorful pair of sneakers — joined cast members Rosie Perez, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn, Spike’s sister Joie and others on stage for a 40-minute discussion.
“The reason we’re here today is because we told truths,” Lee said. “That’s all it was. We told truths. If we did not tell the truth we would not be here.”
“Do the Right Thing” emerged from the middle of a series of racial and sociopolitical quagmires. Before it came Howard Beach, Michael Stewart and the sharply divisive reign of Ed Koch (with Lee firmly on the anti side); after it was made but before its release there wasthe murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst and the Central Park jogging case, in which innocent teens —four African American, one Hispanic, later dubbed the Central Park Five — were wrongly imprisoned in the mad craze to find the perpetrators of a rape case. The convicted spent their adolescence and young adulthood behind bars, only to be released to a $40 million settlement.
“Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in The New York Times for a million dollar reward,” Lee recalls. “People forget that. Google it! A million dollar reward and [the wrongfully accused] get $40 million. They have to divide it up.” (Well, the ad really just called for the suspects to be executed, but it’s still Trumpian in its casual offensiveness.)
“Do the Right Thing” even foresaw, in a way, what was coming. “We had a crystal ball. We predicted what would happen. We predicted it. The L.A. uprising, the Rodney King verdict — we predicted it,” Lee says. That’s not all. “John Savage’s character: that Larry Bird jersey, that Boston Celtics s—, stepping on Buggin Out’s Air Jordans — we predicted gentrification.”
It’s here that Lee tried to back off. “I don’t want to get into gentrification tonight,” he says, jokingly, referencing his much-publicized, sometimes criticized, sometimes praised comments on the subject at Pratt Institute in February.
But he can’t help himself. “It’s not just Fort Greene, not just Harlem. When I was growing up, D.C. was called ‘Chocolate City.’ Now it’s ‘Vanilla Swirl.’ I used to go to London, hang out in Brixton. No more black people in Brixton. Gentrification is not just this borough, this city, this nation. It’s happening all over the world. And the thing everyone neglects to talk about is: Where do the people go when they get displaced?”
Lee is then told he predicted something else: climate change. Frankie Faison’s character — one of the three guys hanging out in lawn chairs, shooting the breeze the whole movie — talks about the polar ice caps melting, asking how long we have left. For this Lee is uncharacteristically modest. “That was just something I wrote,” he says. In fact, it might have been a Faison ad-lib. “I didn’t even know what polar ice caps are. I didn’t know that back then.”
Lee is still as angry over some of the negative press his film received as he was at the time, in particular pieces by Joe Klein and David Denby, both in New York magazine. Klein predicted the film, particularly its climactic riot, would damage David Dinkins’ upcoming mayoral race (spoiler: it didn’t) and cause copycat violence. He even said the movie would open “in not too many theaters near you, one hopes.”
“He was speaking to the white people who read his magazine,” Lee says. He decried the notion that a film could turn black viewers to violence. “To me that’s pure racism, that African Americans who go to the movies do not have the intelligence to make a distinction between what’s on-screen and what’s real life. How many white people rioted after seeing those Arnold Schwarzenegger ‘Terminator’ films? Arnold was shooting those mother—ers up left and right.”
Lee did surrender the floor to his many other fellow guests for most of the discussion, including Perez, who played the oft-angry mother of his character Mookie’s son, Hector (a name Mookie hates).
There are apparently two versions of how Lee discovered Perez, and Perez claimed Lee before the discussion admitted the one she tells is the correct one: Lee was holding a “butt” contest at a nightclub — the song “Da Butt,” from his second film “School Daze,” was at the top of the R&B charts — and Perez got on the speaker to mock it. She found herself face-to-face with Lee, who she started cursing out. But Lee kept laughing at her accent. She kept cursing him out till finally Lee said, “Tonight is fate.”
“Before the movie, I didn’t know that my voice was unique,” Perez says. “Bushwick, Williamsburg —where I come from everyone talks like me. I thought it was normal.”
Lee, for the record, steadfastly disagrees.
Previously we wrote an article about the anniversary screening and spoke with actor Bill Nunn about making “Do the Right Thing.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge