Walking the streets of Brooklyn now is quite a different experience than it was, say, about 25 years ago. Or is it? One might posit the same issues are still here, just repackaged. And based on the detailed representation of this urbanized-gentrified-evolving city in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” the filmmaker wouldn’t disagree.
At this weekend's screening of the film sponsored by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lee was present with the cast to answer a few questions and look back on this Bed-Stuy-based classic. Not only did they talk about the making of the movie, but where Brooklyn is headed if we keep ignoring the issues of racism and inequality that have been here since (at least), well, the first day “Do The Right Thing” began shooting. Lee discussed several inspirations for the film, including those who lost their lives in the police brutality cases, the many who are still held back because of Brooklyn’s racial climate, and the economic culture of the city that is still very much the same as it was all those years ago. Moderated by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the evening was a mix of reflections about the movie, but also its social impact and how it still reflects the problems in our culture today.
The context of the social and racial climate of the time came up fast, and Lee said the inspiration for the film was all around him, noting “It's Howard Beach, it's Yusef Hawkins, it's Bensonhurst, it's Mayor Ed Koch, there you go, Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, all of that stuff was happening at the time in New York City." Muhammad also brought up the the Central Park 5 case of April 1989 that found five African-American teenagers arrested and eventually convicted for allegedly raping a white woman; the convictions were overturned decades later after the men had served 18 years in jail.
“Yep, and Donald Trump put a full page ad in the New York Times for a million dollar reward leading to the rest of the perpetrators who raped the woman,” Lee said, still sounding angry. “People forget that he took out a full page ad in New York Times, Google it.” [The quintent were finally exonerated and just a few weeks ago were given a $40 million settlement between the five of them.]
“That was the racial hysteria of New York City at that time,” Lee said. “And many critics—Joe Klein, David Denby—said this film was going cause race riots all across America...they thought this film was going make black people run amuck and riot.”
“That’s pure racism,” he added. “That African Americans would go to movies, and not have the intelligence to make the distinction from what’s on screen and what’s real life. How many white Americans have seen Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator” films? But we African Americans, we don’t have the 'intelligence' for that ... and they thought this film would entice Black folks to riot. And that was the climate at that time. Google it. Read those reviews.”