How Spike Lee Predicted Global Warming and Gentrification and Other Things We Learned at BAM’s Screening of DO THE RIGHT THING

Do the Right Thing (1989) Directed by Spike Lee  Shown: Spike Lee (as Mookie)

There is no better time and place to watch Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing then on a hot summer day in Brooklyn. And even though yesterday wasn’t going to be the hottest day of the summer and even though the race and class dynamics of Bed-Stuy in 1989 have shifted dramatically in the intervening 25 years (although perhaps not so dramatically as you might think), we were pretty excited to see Lee’s masterpiece on the big screen (something we’d never before experienced) and attend the post-screening Q & A, which would feature Lee, of course, but also many others who’d worked on the film, including Danny Aiello, Rosie Perez, Bill Nunn, Wynn Thomas, and John Kilik. And in much the same way that we learned plenty of new things from David Lynch’s appearance at BAM earlier this year, we were also edified in more than one way at last night’s screening. Here are some of the things we learned:

Spike Lee Predicted Global Warming
Among the many social and political issues that Do the Right Thing tackled, the ones that were most talked about at the time (and the ones that continue to be most talked about today) had to do with race- and class-based resentments brought about by, among other things, gentrification. So it was with no small level of surprise (and delight) that we realized upon watching yesterday that Lee also predicted global warming. In a scene between ML, Sweet Dick Willie, and Coconut Sid, ML starts in on the polar ice caps melting and how soon everyone in Bed-Stuy will need a boat to get around: “Well, gentlemen, the way I see it, if this hot weather continues, it’s going to melt the polar caps and the whole wide world. And all the parts that ain’t water already will surely be blooded.”

Donald Trump Is a Dick
Ha, well. We didn’t need a Q & A  with Spike Lee to be reminded of this truth, but there’s never a bad time to remember what a racist piece of shit Donald Trump is and always has been. And so, in case you need a reminder, Lee pointed out that in the spring of 1989, while he was editing Do the Right Thing, the vicious rape of the Central Park jogger led to a citywide outcry against the so-called phenomenon of “wilding,” which was supposedly  black youths running amok around the city. And while there was no evidence to support this “phenomenon” (not dissimilarly to today’s version of “wilding,” the Knockout Game), that didn’t stop Donald Trump from taking out a full-page ad in four New York newspapers calling for the death penalty for the “roving gangs” of youths stalking the streets. Oh, Donald Trump. Despite so many things changing in this city i the last 25 years, your race-baiting, bloviating pronouncements remain as rancid as ever. 

How Rosie Perez Was Discovered
Apparently, there were two versions of this story, but only one was presented by Ms. Perez herself, which will now forever be the only version. As Ms. Perez recalled, she met Lee at a nightclub on his birthday, while he was hosting a “butt contest.” Perez found the contest demeaning and “went on the speakers and mocked the whole thing,” leading to a confrontation during which Perez cursed out Lee and he stood there laughing, finally saying, “This is fate.” Which it clearly was, because Do the Right Thing was not only Perez’s debut, but also the best opening scene credits in the history of cinema.

Spike Lee Didn’t Want to Talk About Gentrification
It wasn’t too long ago that Lee ranted against gentrification and his comments went viral, leading to a million (and one) think pieces. But despite the fact that Do the Right Thing is primarily about issues that have to do with gentrification, Lee wanted nothing to do with the topic, saying, “I didn’t want to get into gentrification tonight; I will not do that.” And he didn’t! Well, other than throwing out the comment, “My parents were smart enough to buy a brownstone in Fort Greene for $40,000.” Which led to many jealous groans among the audience, because, damn. That is the kind of deal that will never happen again.

But Spike Lee’s 1989 Version of How Gentrification Would Look Was Eerily Spot On
It still bears mentioning though that Lee’s vision of what gentrification in Bed-Stuy would look like (a self-righteous, brownstone-owning white guy in a Celtics jersey with a bicycle) was eerily spot on.

Wynn Thomas Didn’t Watch the Pizzeria Burn
Also on stage last night was production designer Wynn Thomas, whose brilliance was wildly apparent on the big screen. The vivid, even lurid, reds and golds and greens that Thomas (and costume designer Ruth Carter) employed added so much to the film, helping to create the world of this one hot summer day in Brooklyn. And, in fact, Thomas was so attached to his set creations that when the time came to burn Sal’s Pizzeria down, he was told to leave the set, so that he wouldn’t need to see his work go up in flames.

Danny Aiello Was the Jackie Robinson of Black Films
Of all the notable people on the stage, Danny Aiello was the most exuberant, let’s say. He is clearly a consummate story-teller and enjoyed regaling the audience with a number of tales (sweetest of which was the one in which Lee gave an impromptu eulogy at the funeral of Aiello’s son, Danny Aiello III, who was his father’s stunt double in the riot scene of Do the Right Thing), and took quite a bit of pleasure in the fact that he has been called the “Jackie Robinson of black films” for his role in both this movie and Harlem Nights.

Radio Raheem Was Middle-Aged
For many people, Radio Raheem, with his boom box blasting Public Enemy was representative of black urban youth. So it was pretty awesome to hear Raheem himself, Bill Nunn, tell the audience the secret of being the voice of a generation, “I was not some young kid from Brooklyn, I was a 35-year-old man from Atlanta. So that’s the secret to me capturing a young black man from the city. I was faking it.” Well, he did it well.

Do the Right Thing Almost Had an Alternate Ending
The ending of Do the Right Thing is so powerful because of its ambiguity. What is the right thing? Is it the non-violent path? Or is it the violent one? Do you follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X? Are there ever right answers when the underlying questions are so corrupted by an unbelievably flawed world? These are the things with which audiences are left to wrestle, and it’s of vital importance that Lee doesn’t provide any clear-cut solutions to an intractable problem. However, the studio was uncomfortable with this level of ambiguity and wanted to have Spike break the fourth wall and talk to the audience. Luckily, this didn’t happen and Lee placated the studio by ending the film on two contrasting quotes by King and X, which managed to complicate and deepen the experience of the movie even more, the perfect ending to a movie that’s perfect for its imperfections.

Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.
– Malcolm X

BAMcinematek and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences present By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective through July 12.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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