This past Monday, June 30, marked 25 years since the heavily controversial release of Spike Lee’s third feature Do The Right Thing. Prior to its premiere, film critic David Denby and political reporter Joel Klein wrote editorials expressing fear that screenings of the film would cause violent outbursts. None happened of course, but 25 years later, Lee’s film still makes an impact emotionally. Revisiting the film, it is shocking to see how ahead of its time it is, predicting the debates that have taken over much of the daily conversation in NYC.
Known more today for his outbursts against gentrification in Brooklyn and as the New York Knicks’ number one supporter than a filmmaker, Lee is actually one of the most outspoken and prolific filmmakers in American cinema. Fearless about his beliefs in public and in his work, his early filmography focused heavy on racial and gender issues in academics and in the community. Raised in Fort Greene and obtaining a film degree from NYU, Lee’s pride of his home city is obvious to anyone who has heard him speak in the past few months.
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Spike Lee’s vision, Stuyvesant Avenue, the Brooklyn street on which the film is set and shot, was renamed “Do the Right Thing Way” and hosted a block party last Saturday. We took a trip down Do the Right Thing Way, revisiting locations in Lee’s powerful and controversial film.
The entire film takes place on the hottest day of the summer, in one particular Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Spike Lee stars as Mookie, a young black man working as a delivery boy for the neighborhood pizzeria. He lives with and is supported by his sister Dawn, on whom the pizzeria owner Sal seems to have a little crush. The brother and sister live in a brownstone at 173 Stuyvesant Avenue, which looks completely unchanged today.
Through the years, we’re sure plenty of people have made the journey to the block where Do The Right Thing was filmed and wondered where the Yes Jesus Baptist Church is. 184 Stuyvesant Avenue, across the street from Mookie’s home is actually just a regular apartment building with a fake front added to it.
Portrayed by the legendary actress and political activist Ruby Dee (who passed away this year at the age of 91) Mother Sister is the eyes of the neighborhood, watching its goings-on from her home at 167 Stuyvesant Ave. She has no children of her own, but everyone in the neighborhood views her as a maternal figure. For the older gentlemen in the neighborhood, they view her as a sibling. Because of his alcohol consumption, she has a distaste for DA Mayor, but on a day like this one, emotions can change. Today, aside from its newer window gates, the building looks exactly the same.
Spike Lee lets the world know what he thinks of gentrification (Spoiler alert! It is the same as it is today) in one of the film’s most famous scenes. A biker accidentally steps on character’s Buggin’ Out’s sneakers–not just any sneakers mind you, but his all white $100 American dollar Air Jordans. Antagonized by the crowd, Buggin’ Out demands to know why the white biker owns a brownstone in a black neighborhood, which the biker responds that he was born there. The photo above is the reaction from the neighborhood kids.
The beautiful “BED-STUY– DO OR DIE” mural, across the street of Sal’z pizzeria on the side of the former building at 157 Stuyvesant Ave, is no longer around save for some faint traces of paint on brick. The mural was painted for the film, encapsulating the kinds of people living in Bed-Stuy during the late 1980’s. Flags that represent Jamaica, Nigeria and Puerto Rico stand as a striking visual of members of different races mixed together; the characters of this film however, are anything but united, sticking to their own race rather than integrating with others.
The store run by the Korean family on the corner of Stuyvesant and Lexington was actually built for the film. The livelihood of the community’s only Korean family is the subject of much hate from certain residents, with one of the older black men expressing his suspicious at how the grocers got a shop on the corner of their neighborhood. Today the location is like it was before filming, an empty lot.
We really wish more neighborhoods had their own radio stations. Samuel L. Jackson portrays Mister Señor Love Daddy, the neighborhood’s local DJ who provides the block with news, music and even life advice from his transparent studio. Unfortunately, the actual building across the street from Mother Sister’s home at 174 Stuyvesant Ave looks nothing like its movie version. Instead, the space is occupied by an ordinary brownstone marking the place where Sam Jackson was the coolest radio DJ in the city.
Sal’s Pizzeria, where Mookie works and helps destroy after the death of Radio Raheem, does not actually exist. Pino, one of Sal’s sons, hates the neighborhood and begs his father to move to a more Italian area but Sal–who built the shop with his own hands–cannot handle the competition in other parts of town and actually likes the neighborhood.
It is here that Buggin’ Out demands a place for black people on the “Wall of Fame,” which features only white, Italian faces–a protest that eventually leads to Radio Raheem’s murder. When Sal refuses and destroys Radio Raheem’s radio, the sweltering heat, loud music and racial tension explode. The fire set by Smiley is a symbol of the hate that has encapsulated the community.
Like the Korean grocery across the street, the set was built specifically for the film. The pizzeria was, and still is, an empty lot on the corner of Lexington and Stuyvesant.
All film stills courtesy of 40 Acres and A Mule Productions
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