The murder of George Floyd is the latest tragedy in a long line of indignities and brutal afflictions waged on black Americans since before this country even declared its independence. Sovereignty has never been fairly distributed to people of color in America, and acknowledging that is the first step necessary to start moving toward a state of true equality.
I’ve been focused of late on how anyone can disagree with the previous statement, and am aghast as I listen to police chiefs, politicians and various famous figures insert their feet into their mouths as they make the bold claim that America is not a systemically racist society. I suppose it’s easy for people to delude themselves about the prejudiced nature of this country when they’re standing behind the police lines, watching further atrocities being committed from afar.
While movies feel like an unimportant part of the national discussion on this topic, it’s worth mentioning the valuable educational role they play in providing perspective to those who grew up without an awareness of racism. I was a white kid, growing up in a white community in 1989, going to a Catholic school that exposed me to very few people of color. I was fortunate enough to have parents who raised me on the tried-and-true principles of kindness, empathy and equality for all. However, I had no life experiences that required me to exhibit these principles, and as a result, I woefully lacked real-world perspective on the impacts of racism and the stories of those suffering under its suffocating effects.
The summer of 1989 is finely etched into my memory. I was 15, working my first job as a bag boy at Publix in the sweltering heat and humidity of South Florida. I had already seen “Batman” four times, “Lethal Weapon 2” three times and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” twice. “Do the Right Thing” wasn’t a movie that immediately stood out to me while planning my summer of cinema. It ranked far below the must-see, big-budget blockbusters like “Ghostbusters II” and “Star Trek V.” Still, there was a huge buzz around filmmaker Spike Lee, who had made waves with his first film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” at a time when the words “independent film” were meaningless to me.
Seeing “Do the Right Thing” wasn’t imperative until I learned of theater chains disinterested in showing the movie; they feared potential violence would break out at screenings. The nervousness created by the film suddenly made it a must-see.
There are only a handful of cinematic experiences I would refer to as “profound”— “Do the Right Thing” tops the list. Spike Lee provided a window into his world—one with which I was completely unfamiliar. His film is a sweaty, unflinching look into Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and the people who live there. The characters are wonderfully portrayed, with great care given to providing a number of different voices.
It feels almost a disservice to call out specific performances in a movie that has an amazing, immersive ensemble; Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro and Lee himself fire on all cylinders. Even smaller moments from iconic actors like Samuel L. Jackson and the late, great Robin Harris help give the world texture and depth.
For audiences who have yet to see this masterpiece, the film revolves around Sal’s Pizzeria—the last remnant of white-owned businesses in what has become a predominantly African American neighborhood. Sal (Danny Aiello) serves slices along with his two sons, one of whom is deeply racist and wants his father to close down and relocate. Mookie (Spike Lee) works at the pizzeria doing deliveries and finds himself at odds with his employer and members of his community. In part, Mookie and his friend Buggin’ Out (Esposito) view Sal’s Italians-only “Wall of Fame” as a slap in the face to the mostly black clientele.
The film is often remembered for its third act, which chronicles the eruption of violence as racial tensions explode. Still, there are so many perfect, surgical examinations of people and perspectives from each side of the racial divide.
For a sheltered white kid from South Florida, “Do the Right Thing” opened the door to a world I didn’t know existed. It electrified a part of my brain and made me desperate to know more. It also made me more empathetic to the plight of those forced to deal with stifling racism on a daily basis and forced me to consider that my worldview and the things I considered to be problems might pale in comparison to actual injustices.
Spike Lee used his voice to tell a story that asked important questions and taught me movies can be something more than thoughtless entertainment. I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember, but I hadn’t realized the raw power of cinema and its transformative properties until I saw “Do the Right Thing.”
Thirty-one years later, the movie hasn’t lost a single watt of power or ounce of relevance.