Twenty-five years after Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” emerged on the scene like a clarion call, a movie set in the hotbed neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant that tapped directly into the explosive racial climate of New York City in 1989, much has changed.
Brooklyn is now as known for its hipsters, world-class restaurants and gentrified, family-friendly neighborhoods as it once was for crime and decay.
Tensions have lessened significantly, especially compared to a decade that saw the murders of Yusuf Hawkins and others, the just-settled Central Park Five case, Bernhard Goetz’s subway shooting and more.
Lee, 57, is a veteran institution and an iconic presence at New York sporting events, rather than an upstart working on just his third movie. Actors such as Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson and Martin Lawrence are household names.
But the movie endures. There’s a block party in Bed-Stuy on Stuyvesant Avenue, where it was shot, Saturday. It’s getting a special gala screening co-presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and BAMcinematek Sunday. There’s a bid to rename Stuyvesant between Lexington Avenue and Quincy Street Do the Right Thing Way.
“Good [expletive] holds up,” Lee says.
The truth is more complicated than that, of course.
The film offers a slice-of-life depiction of a single day on a single block in Bed-Stuy, following Lee’s pizza deliveryman Mookie as he works his way through a neighborhood filled with regular people going about their day, as a simmering undercurrent of racial tensions threatens to disrupt this fragile world.
Characters represent a cross-section of New York. They are black, Italian-American, Hispanic and Korean. There’s even an early, white gentrifier. And there are cops, too.
“It was always the intention of this film, when I sat down to write it, that everybody would get a chance to say what was on their mind,” Lee says. “And at the end, I’ll leave it up to the audience who did the right thing.”
Some critics saw the film as incendiary and controversial, predicting it would set off race riots, a charge that still angers Lee today. Others hailed it as a masterpiece in 1989 and its stature has only grown since then.
“It started a conversation, it absolutely started a conversation,” said Patrick Harrison of the Academy. “It’s a conversation we’re still having in many respects. It was true yesterday and it was true today that we still need to have these conversations about race and about community and about stereotypes.”
Rosie Perez, who got her start playing Lee’s girlfriend in the movie, says the filmmaker gave her a revealing piece of direction when they shot her famous dance to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” over the film’s opening credits.
“You gotta kill it. You gotta give everything. You gotta wake them up.”
“Do the Right Thing” screens at 5 and 9 p.m. Sunday at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. Spike Lee and actors Danny Aiello, Rosie Perez and Bill Nunn will be among those participating in a Q&A after the 5 p.m. show. Lee will introduce the 9 p.m. screening.