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'Do The Right Thing' Celebrates Its 25th Anniversary

Jun 30, 2014
Originally published on June 30, 2014 4:22 pm

Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was hotly anticipated when it was released 25 years ago.

The film about racial tension reaches a boiling point on a scorching summer day in Brooklyn. All the action takes place on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City; a block where African-Americans and Puerto Ricans live, Koreans and Italians work and the New York Police Department plays dirty.

Do the Right Thing would go on to be nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay, where it ultimately lost out to Dead Poets Society. (The Academy Award for best picture that year went to Driving Miss Daisy, a film with vastly more timid portrayals of racial distrust and tension.)

The Academy Hosts A Silver Anniversary Screening

As if to make up for the oversight, the Academy Film Archive premiered a new 35 mm print of the film that was screened last Friday.

The movie opens with Rosie Perez dancing and shadow boxing to "Fight the Power" in what some have called the greatest opening credit sequence in film history. The audience at the event hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was immediately transported to 1989 and its gold door-knocker earrings, biker shorts and boom boxes.

The way the movie explored racial tension and police brutality resonated across the country.

"I lived in South Central [Los Angeles] and it was like, 'Wow, that happens over there, like cops do that over there, too?' " says Jesse Bingham, who was standing in line with his wife, Shaunte, hoping to get into the sold-out screening. Both were too young to see it in a theater when it was first released, but they did see it on video as kids.

Racial tension is in your face in Do the Right Thing — no subtleties, no need to read between the lines. There's even a montage with several characters spewing racial slurs into the camera. Right at you. Whoever you are.

But don't think it's some bash-you-over-the-head-with-the-injustices-of-the-world kind of movie. It's hilarious. (Unfortunately for us, the funniest moments are replete with unprintable language.)

The Risk Of Making 'Do the Right Thing'

"I doubt that Do the Right Thing would be made by any studio today," says Tom Pollock, who ran Universal Pictures in the late 1980s and gave the movie a green light. In a discussion before the screening, Pollock tells the packed theater that studios today aren't as willing to produce original screenplays. Too risky. Director Spike Lee (who also plays the role of Mookie) says "risky" was an understatement when it comes to this film.

"It started at the world premiere in Cannes where there was a segment of the press who did not want this film to come out, who were writing reviews, saying this film was going to cause black people to run amok," Lee says.

Pollock adds there was concern that the film was going to cause race riots. "So what did we do," he says. "We moved the release date up to take advantage of all that controversy!"

The Obamas made a brief videotaped appearance at the event where they talked to the audience and Lee about going to see Do the Right Thing on their first date. "Today I've got a few more gray hairs than I did back in 1989," the president says. "You don't look like Mookie anymore, but Do the Right Thing still holds up a mirror to our society and it makes us laugh and think and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another."

As Mister Señor Love Daddy, one of the film's characters, says, "That's the truth, Ruth."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It was 25 years ago on this date that Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" was released. The film about racial tension reaching a boiling point on a scorching summer day in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy was hot, so hot it sparked a national conversation about race. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji attended an anniversary screening here in Los Angeles with the director, producers and original cast members.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: This is "Do The Right Thing's" silver anniversary, but in Bed-Stuy in 1989 it was all about gold doorknocker earrings, boker short and boomboxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT THE POWER")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Singing) 1989, that number, another summer, sound of a funky drummer.

MERAJI: The film takes place on the hottest day of summer, on one block, in one of poorest neighborhoods in New York City. A block where African-Americans and Puerto Ricans live, Koreans and Italians work and the NYPD play dirty. And the way the movie explored racial tension and police brutality resignation across the country.

JESSIE BINGHAM: I lived in South Central and it was like, wow, that happens over there? Like cops do that over there too? And it kind of created the conversation, it brought up the conversation.

MERAJI: It's date night for Jessie Bingham and his wife Shaunte. The married couple are standing in line, hoping to get in to this sold-out screening of "Do The Right Thing." Both were too young to see it in the theater but they saw it on video as kids. Same with Lucy Castro also from south-central LA and her friend, Autrey Triplett, a Chicago native.

AUTREY TRIPLETT: We were just talking about like the liquor store on every corner and the demonstrations in the streets and even back down to how you got the fire hydrants being opened up in the middle of the summers just to cool the kids off.

LUCY CASTRO: That's not South Central though. No that's not South Central, but we did have a right.

MERAJI: Racial tension is in your face in "Do The Right Thing." No need to read between the lines. There's even a montage with various characters yelling racial slurs into the camera right at you, whoever you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO THE RIGHT THING")

SPIKE LEE: (as Mookie) Dago, wop, garlic breath, pizza slinger, spaghetti bending...

JOHN TURTURRO: (as Pino) High Jumping, spear chucking, 360 degree basketball Dunking...

LUIS RAMOS: (as Stevie) Slanty eyed, me no speaky American, own every fruit and vegetable stand in New York.

RICK AIELLO: (As Officer Gary Long) Goya bean eating, fifteen in a car, 30 in an apartment. Yeah you.

MERAJI: But if you haven't seen it, don't think it's some bash you over the head with the injustices of the world kind of movie, it's not, it's hilarious. Too bad the funniest moments are not appropriate for a morning show on public radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DO THE RIGHT THING," SILVER ANNIVERSARY SCREENING)

TOM POLLOCK: I doubt that "Do The Right Thing." would be made by any studio today.

MERAJI: Tom Pollock ran Universal Pictures in the late '80s and green-lit the movie. He tells the packed theater in a conversation before the screening, that studios today aren't as willing to produce original screenplays, too risky. And director Spike Lee who's also the protagonist, Mookie, says risky is an understatement when it comes to this film.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DO THE RIGHT THING," SILVER ANNIVERSARY SCREENING)

LEE: It started at the world premiere in Cannes where there was a segment of the press who did not want this film to come out, who writing reviews saying this film was going to cause black people to run amok.

(LAUGHING)

POLLOCK: That this movie would cause race riots, whatever that is, so of course would did we do, we moved the release date up so we can take advantage of all that controversy.

MERAJI: After the conversation, it's time to watch "Do The Right Thing" on a big screen, 25 years after it was released in theaters. But before we could all revel in Rosie Perez dancing and shadowboxing to "Fight The Power" during what have some have called the greatest opening credits in film history, Michelle and Barack Obama make an on-screen appearance and reminisce about going to see "Do The Right Thing" on their first date.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DO THE RIGHT THING," SILVER ANNIVERSARY SCREENING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today I got a few more gray hairs than I did back in 1989, you don't look like Mookie anymore but "Do The Right Thing" still holds up a mirror to our society and it makes us laugh and think and challenges all of us to see ourselves and one another.

MERAJI: And that's the truth, Ruth. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT THE POWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.