The Movie That Changed My Perspective on Race Forever

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/

In July 1989, my friend Gregory and I went to the movies. This was not an unusual event. As childhood friends growing up in Queens, we often went to our local movie houses. Cinema, for us, was about fantasy. The movies transported us to other worlds, other times, to exotic countries, to outer space, to rousing adventures with a Fedora-wearing Indiana Jones, and to cutesy romantic comedies where good-looking couples rode horse and buggy carriages through Central Park.

When “Do The Right Thing” was released in July 1989, it made quite a splash in the media. This powerful independent film, written, directed, and starring Spike Lee, a young black filmmaker from NYU, was a no-holds-barred story about race.   The film’s opening title sequence, in which Rosie Perez danced to Public Enemy’s defiant “Fight the Power,” immediately signaled the director’s intention not to sugarcoat his anger and frustration over the state of race relations in the city. Although the film was marketed as comedic, some theater owners were afraid of showing it, thinking the realism of the story would cause race riots. No one who has seen the film will ever forget the dramatic moment when Mookie, played by Spike Lee, throws the garbage can through the window of the pizzeria owned by Sal, played by Danny Aiello, just as the establishment goes up in flames.

What made “Do The Right Thing” such a powerful experience for Gregory and I was that the Brooklyn neighborhood portrayed in the film was not that different from our own Queens neighborhoods, straight down to the centrality of the Italian-owned pizzeria. Also, Gregory and I, like the characters of Mookie and Pino, played by John Turturro, were black and white.

After the movie, Gregory and I went a diner for a bite to eat, like we always did after a movie. We were both movie buffs and loved finding the loopholes in the plots, asking questions like, “Why did ET have to “call home?” and “Why doesn’t the villain shoot James Bond rather than tie him up, giving him the potential of escaping?” After watching “Do the Right Thing,” our conversation was stilted, because the film forced us to look at ourselves, not story points.

“Why do you think Mookie threw the garbage can through the window?” I asked. “I mean I understand why. But it came out of nowhere.”

What made “Do The Right Thing” such a powerful experience…was that the Brooklyn neighborhood portrayed in the film was not that different from our own neighborhoods.

“He was angry and fed up.” said Gregory. “And the pizzeria had to be destroyed. It was the symbolism of the act.”

Gregory and I had known each other for years, but we had never had an honest conversation about race. He was born in Jamaica, an all black neighborhood in Queens. I lived in Kew Garden Hills, a whiter neighborhood. The two neighborhoods, while walking distances from each other, were like two districts where the other didn’t cross without being accompanied by a local.

“It’s a pretty depressing ending to the film,” I said. “The pizza places burns down, so now the neighborhood doesn’t have a pizza place. It only hurts themselves.”

“When people don’t have power, this is what happens — violence.” he said. “Sal was taking their money, but didn’t respect them.”

Gregory admitted that the portrayal of the looters in the film embarrassed him, because they gave black people a “bad name.” When pressed, I revealed that I had heard white people use racial slurs in our pizzeria by my apartment building, but I never confronted them. We had a long discussion about the scene in the film where Mookie accuses Pino of wanting to be black because all his favorite musicians and athletes were black.

“Why do you have so many Motown albums?” Gregory asked me, which made me uncomfortable, as if he was accusing me of hijacking his culture.

By the time the waitress served our burgers, we had switched our conversation to a less weighty subject, the 1989 New York Mets. As we all know, nothing makes Americans more uncomfortable than confronting our continuing problems with race.

The success of “Do The Right Thing” opened up opportunities for a whole generation of African-American filmmakers, but no film has stared us so directly in the face and said, “We have a problem here… one that no one wants to discuss.”

Despite the election of an African-American president, little has changed in our society in the twenty-five years since the release of the “Do the Right Thing.” In the film, the police kill Radio Raheem using unnecessary force, a fatal chokehold, which cause the neighborhood to explode on a hot summer night. Much of the race-oriented tragedies in this country over the past few years seem to come straight out of the plotline. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Ferguson. Charleston. We live in a country plagued by the same racial inequality, police misconduct, and inner city anger that was here in 1989.

Recently, I called Gregory, and we were discussing how his son was reacting to recent events in this country, and we both knew it was time to show him “Do The Right Thing,” adding his voice to the conversation we started in the diner twenty-five years ago, and never finished. His son’s review: he found it moving and intense, and immediately wanted to see all of Spike Lee’s other films. He did say that times have changed somewhat. In his own progressive Brooklyn school, black and whites date each other and race is less of an issue. The big shocker to us was that Gregory’s son found the groundbreaking soundtrack of “Do the Right Thing” as “old,” reminding us again that the movie, like us, was now twenty-five years older.

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