by Eric L.
As the weather heats up and tensions in America never seem to ebb, I am reminded of the Spike Lee masterpiece (or “joint’ as he prefers to creatively call them), Do the Right Thing. I am surprised by the number of people I speak with who have not seen this film. I am a fan of Lee; I find him humorous, I like his style and his honesty. I also like how much he likes the New York Knicks, despite the fact that they are a fairly disappointing sports franchise. I’m not really sure why I appreciate his devotion to the Knicks, but perhaps I wish I sat courtside at the Washington Wizards’ games (they’re still my Baltimore Bullets).
Visually the movie is very well done. The whole film takes place on a hot summer day in Brooklyn, New York in the late 1980s. Having spent much time in a southwest Baltimore small business cluster, it seemed pretty true to life and almost stereotypical. The setting is replete with the animosity, resentment, struggle, and misunderstandings of an American multiracial neighborhood. It’s a contentious place. Moreover, it reminds me of just how hot a city feels on the East Coast in summer and how riots often happen on scorching days. Lee creates and presents this masterfully, and the tensions are palpable. Someone I know that spent time in a similar environment, and is rather conservative-minded, claimed that the movie is “spot on.” I concur.
There is the Italian family who owns the pizza shop (Sal’s) for generations, the Asian family that owns the small corner store, (neither of whom presumably live in the neighborhood), the black and Hispanic residents, the white “gentrifying” guy that just bought the brownstone, etc. The scenes with Danny Aiello, Spike Lee, et al. filmed looking at the camera and enumerating racial epithets are raw, stripped down, and very powerful. By the way, you’ll recognize many great actors in the film, giving great performances.
One of my favorite scenes, which is famous, involves the character that would be me. A young white man carrying his mountain bike, with longish hair, stubble, and running shoes accidentally steps on a black character’s “brand new white Air Jordans.” Then, a very telling exchange and slick commentary on race relations in the U.S. ensues. Like all great comedic moments, it is also tragic.
There are several references to athletes and race throughout the film. In fact, Lee dons a Jackie Robinson jersey and wears Air Jordan sneakers himself. What’s more, one subtle detail is also clever – the white “gentrifier,” who accidentally mis-steps on the character’s shoes which he “paid $100 for,” is wearing a Larry Bird Boston Celtics jersey shirt. As a side note, if you’re interested in watching an outstanding documentary, check out Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals. Even if you’re not into basketball or sports in general, it is a compelling story about race in America and the relationship of two kindred spirits. As a blonde kid with floppy hair, Larry Bird was my guy in the NBA for sure; however, he had no interest in being the “white savior” America desired. But I digress.
Lee’s examination of his own beliefs and experiences, neighborhood, and America is real art. I would go so far as to say it’s a must-watch for Americans. In sum, Do the Right Thing is a micro-examination of inner-city race relations and how they can easily boil over in the sweltering heat. After watching this film you may ask yourself, how could they not?
Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.