On June 30, 2014, Do the Right Thing—Spike Lee’s groundbreaking film on race-relations in the U.S.—celebrated its 25th anniversary. To mark the occasion, fans could buy DTRT tank-tops and Boycott Sal’s t-shirts (here’s another on Red Bubble). And Spike Lee even hosted a free block party in Brooklyn.
More significant, for the film’s silver anniversary, the city of New York even changed Stuyvesant St. (between Lexington and Quincy in Brooklyn) to Do the Right Thing Way.
So lace up your Air Jordans, squeeze into your biker shorts, and travel back to 1989 to see what you might have overlooked in Spike Lee’s breakout film.
1. Lee Tips His Hat to Classical Hollywood.
One of Spike Lee’s favorite films is Night of the Hunter (1955). He pays homage to Robert Mitchum’s story of “love and hate” with Radio Raheem’s rendition.
2. This is the film debut of Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence.
3. Lee infuses meaning via his walls.
Written on a brick wall outside Sal’s Pizzeria, the phrase “Tawana told the truth” references Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who claimed she had been kidnapped and sexually abused by several white men including police officers. A grand jury found that she falsified the incident. Spike Lee evidently thinks otherwise.
4. Onscreen bickering is offscreen love.
Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, who play Mother Sister and Da Mayor, were married for nearly 60 years until Davis’s death in 2005. Dee died in June 2014. The actors and political activists also had an open marriage.
5. Costumes reinforce the racial ideology of the characters.
In Do the Right Thing, costumes consistently reinforce the characters. For example, practically the only white character in the film wears Larry Bird’s Celtics jersey. Contrast that with the Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson jerseys worn by Spike Lee’s character, Mookie.
Similarly, brothers Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) wear wife-beaters to illustrate their working-class roots and perhaps more importantly, their alignment with other races. Wearing a white wife-beater, Pino spouts racist language. Wearing a black one, Vito befriends Mookie and the pizzeria’s black customers.
6. Lee recycles dialogue to make his point(s).
The last line in Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988) is “Wake up!” The first line of Do the Right Thing, Lee’s next film, is “Wake up!” Spoken by Laurence Fishburne, the last line in Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988) is “Wake up!” Spoken by Samuel L. Jackson, the first line of Do the Right Thing, Lee’s next film, is “Wake up!”
7. Graffiti and name-dropping serve a higher purpose.
The screenplay is dedicated to and features the names Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpers, two black Americans who died at the hands of New York cops. Lee deems NYC Mayor Koch responsible for Bumpers’ death, which is one reason we see “DUMP KOCH” graffiti in the background of Do the Right Thing.
8. Danny Aiello’s Sal is and is not a racist.
Spike Lee wrote Danny Aiello’s character, Italian-American pizzaria owner Sal, as a racist. Aiello, however, never saw him that way: “he’s not a racist—he’s a nice guy; he sees people as equal” (from the documentary Making Do the Right Thing).
9. Lee keeps close family ties.
Joie Lee, who plays Spike Lee’s sister in the film, is his real-life sister. Joie has acted in nine of Lee’s films and co-wrote the screenplay for his film Crooklyn (1994) with Spike and their brother Cinque.
10. Lee’s dolly shot is missing.
Lee’s signature “isolation shot” (or double-dolly shot) is not used in Do the Right Thing. He came up with it in 1990 for Mo’ Better Blues.