From Bed-Stuy to Scarborough: How Spike Lee influenced generations of Canadian filmmakers
Do the Right Thing turns 30 this year. 6 artists reflect on the impact of Lee's classic joint
The room was silent. The tension was high. My palms were sweaty. 30 people sat, stood and crouched in a downtown Toronto condo watching the screen intently. It was Oscar night 2019, and Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson were both onstage to present the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay...but all eyes were on Sam. We knew that the moment he knew, we'd know. And when he let out that yell, the whole room went wild. People jumped out of their seats; cups were thrown in the air; shrieks and screams were all I could hear. Spike Lee had finally won an Academy Award.
I was at that Oscar-watching party with filmmakers, writers, actors, producers, designers and animators, and in that room, Spike Lee was an indisputable legend. In the very home we sat in, a photo mural of Radio Raheem occupied an entire wall — a still from Do the Right Thing.
This year marks 30 years since the release of Do the Right Thing and on Saturday, the TIFF Bell Lightbox hosted a special screening featuring a post-film conversation between Cameron Bailey and Spike Lee.
Watching the film for the first time on the big screen, I noticed the sound of the sax in the opening moments of Public Enemy's song "Fight the Power." I saw the broken blinds in Da Mayor's apartment and admired the detail in the set design. And I heard the audible sighs from the audience when Radio Raheem's body drops heavily to the ground.
I was curious about the impact and influence this movie has had on Canadian artists in the three decades since its release. Six Toronto-based filmmakers shared their experiences with me over email: Alison Duke, Charles Officer, Joyce Wong, Sharon Lewis, Natty Zavitz, Nayani Thiyagarajah and R.T. Thorne. (R.T. hosted that Oscar party I described.)
Their work includes documentary and narrative, long and short form, film, music videos and television. Some have only one feature under their belt, others have a long list on their IMDB page. A few saw the film the summer it was released. Others weren't even born in the summer of 1989. All agree that Do the Right Thing marked a pivotal moment in cinematic history and left an indelible impact on their creative path.
Tell me about your first time watching Do the Right Thing.
Alison Duke: I was in my early 20s and going into my first year of grad school at the University of Windsor. I saw it many times that summer.
A bunch of us went to Detroit to see it during the opening weekend and it was a crazy time. Everyone was talking about the riots that were going to happen after watching it. But all I remember feeling was alive and empowered in my skin as a young Black person. Spike Lee gave us a voice. People were talking back to the screen. Perhaps all the hype about violence was to keep us from feeling that.
Nayani Thiyagarajah: I did not watch it until 18-19 years after its original release. It came out in 1989, so I wasn't even a year old when it was first released. I had heard about it for years, looked at the IMDb page way too many times and spoken with friends about it, but I had never had the chance to see it myself before then. Someone let me know that it was available at Queen Video, so I rented the DVD and took it home. It was the first Spike Lee joint I had ever watched. I just remember feeling like I finally understood what everyone had been talking about. I remember being late returning it because I had to watch parts of it over and over again. At the time, still in journalism school, I was just starting to consider directing and writing for documentary film and I just remember thinking, "This is what you can do with film." Technically it was a fictional piece of work — but really, it wasn't. That film reflects reality now. It's still too real and heartbreakingly relevant, 30 years later.
Spike Lee gave us a voice."-Alison Duke, filmmaker
R.T. Thorne: The first time I saw Do the Right Thing was the summer after my last year of high school. Rogers had video stores back then (what's a video store?) and they had a "seven movies for seven days" deal. At that point in my life I was all up on hip hop, comics and animation, looking to get into Sheridan College to be the first Back animator at Pixar. I rented a bunch of anime and a few hip hop films: Juice, Above the Rim, The Hughes Brothers's Menace to Society and Do the Right Thing. I knew about Spike cause of all the Jordan commercials, but I didn't know about Spike. Out of all those movies, Do the Right Thing stood out to me in a way I still can't qualify today. It was the only one I sat through all the credits in silence trying to understand how I felt. I remember feeling so angry, and hurt, and sad, but strangely accepting of these mixed emotions. It was the first film I'd seen that wouldn't allow me to simply like it or not like it. It forced me to think about how I felt about it. And I've been thinking about it for over 20 years now.
Sharon Lewis: The first time I watched Do the Right Thing was in a theatre that was downtown and filled with other Black folks. It wasn't just the movie — it was the experience of watching the streets of Brooklyn that I had been visiting as a kid and seeing these beautiful, well-rounded characters. I remember feeling so divided about [Mookie] throwing the garbage can. I still feel divided. And that's the brilliance of Spike Lee [with] this film: there were no easy answers.
What made the movie stand out for you?
NT: The themes explored. The continued relevance. The characters — they were such specific and distinct characters. You knew right away that Mr. Lee had thought about them in detail, that he knew them intimately. Those characters were palpable; they felt so real. I'll also never forget the image of Ms. Ruby Dee at the window and that exchange with Ossie Davis as the Da Mayor. The seasoned performances and the framing in that particular scene still sticks with me. Also, the colours. They jumped off screen. They stayed with you. And the overall art direction. The costumes. I learned about the incredible Ruth E. Carter through Spike Lee films — her attention to detail, to storytelling through costume design and wardrobe selects. That's artistry of a different nature: to thoughtfully and intentionally help convey story through the characters' clothing, with specificity and care. I've read about the choices she made and the symbolism behind them, which leaves me in awe of her.
It forced me to think about how I felt about it. And I've been thinking about it for over 20 years now.- R.T. Thorne, filmmaker
RT: It had everything! Humour, tragedy, social and political commentary, violence, love, dancing, storytelling, vibrant portraits of people, incredible casting and performances and stunningly colourful cinematography. Like Roma or Cinema Paradiso, it was a portrait of life in a neighbourhood with all its raw complexities and characters, and nothing has topped it since for me.
Aesthetically, what elements of Do the Right Thing spoke to you as a filmmaker?
Joyce Wong: Visually, the choices were so bold. The use of wide low angle close-ups, canted angles and direct address to camera in order to heighten the tension was unique and fitting for the story. With other filmmakers, these heightened visual choices sometimes feel pretentious. However, Spike Lee used these techniques to convey an urgency, to force the viewer to pay attention. The way he wielded the lens choice and heightened visual style felt necessary for the story.
Although the film is a scathing portrayal of interracial tension, he infused humour in the visual language through many brilliant but simple ways. For example, there's a sequence of direct address to camera [of] vitriolic racist monologues where the camera aggressively dollies into each person. For the last monologue, you expect the camera to dolly in again but instead Jackson pushes himself away from the camera on a wheelie chair, mimicking the dolly move because his message is for this vitriol to stop.
Cinematically, my favourite sequence is the love/hate monologue by Radio Raheem. This sequence starts out as a two shot where he's talking to Mookie, so as a viewer we are observing this from the outside. Suddenly Raheem goes into a monologue, which prompts the camera to pivot and suddenly the audience is on the inside of the conversation and he's staring at the audience and talking to us directly.
Natty Zavitz: I love that Spike has his characters look down the barrel of the camera and address the audience in all of their double truth. The audience can be Sal or Radio Raheem. The way they populate their street scenes is amazing; it always feels like a real community. The blocks are crowded and the action feels honest. Ruth Carter's costume design is so iconic that 30 years later we're all still trying to dress like Mookie.
RT: Ernest Dickerson's stunning cinematography flipped a switch in my head. This was the first film that I actually saw the shots used to present the film. For the first time as a viewer [I] was aware that the camera was floating down over the street and into Mister Señor Love Daddy's radio station. There's some incredible crane work, and stunning wide angle 35 mm framing that I still watch over and over again.
The score was also a game changer for me. I started buying movie score CDs (what's a CD?) the weekend after watching the film. A lot of people think Terence Blanchard did the score to Do the Right Thing, but he only played on it. It was actually Spike's father, Bill Lee, that composed most of it, and it planted a seed in my brain.
AD: I see Spike Lee as a graphic type of filmmaker who is highly influenced by the graphic aesthetics in early hip hop. He manipulates his camera movement and dialogue in a way that feels like he's hitting you in the face with stuff all the time. His films feel hyperreal or even surreal to me, much like how stories are presented in a graphic novel.
When it first came out critics feared it would incite a riot. What did people fear about this film?
NZ: Spike was showing folks what he saw about gentrification, police profiling and violence, community, Jordans, racism and lots more. I can only imagine how shocking that voice was in 1989 to critics who had been holding up another idea of North America. Oppressors are always scared of honesty, and Spike Lee is a perpetual truth teller. To have such a singular voice being expressed with such confidence, and when that voice is Black and young and hip hop, establishment critics have been terrified at every evolution of the culture.
JW: People probably feared the film because of how honest it was. It doesn't sugarcoat anything. Hollywood wants to simplify things, reduce things so they are wrapped in nice little packages — but interracial tension is complicated. This movie is a realistic portrayal [of] how messed up things are and that there is no easy fix.
It's been 30 years since it came out. Is the film still relevant to you?
Charles Officer: The specificity in Do the Right Thing is where the magic is, and what I believe makes it a timeless work of cinema. The film is a clear gauge of how far we've come and how short we've fallen in the last 30 years on matters of justice, equality, socioeconomics, community, police violence and even the way we treat our planet. Spike Lee immortalized all of this brilliantly on one-block in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, New York.
NZ: Do the Right Thing will always be relevant. As long as there's oppression, racism, hot hot summer days and people trying to provide for their families, the film will be important. Police are still killing innocent people, communities are [still] being broken up by government policy and lending practices and the ice caps are still shrinking. The biggest tangible difference between 1989 and 2019 is that Buggin' Out's [Jordan] Cement 4's are like 400 American dollars now.
What impact (if any) has the film had on your career trajectory?
SL: At the time Do the Right Thing came out, I was pursuing an acting career, so it inspired me to think that perhaps there were roles out there for me. Now that I am a director, I can see how Spike's "personality" with the camera has inspired my own work to be theatrical and bold when necessary.
CO: Do the Right Thing had a massive impact on my filmmaking journey and raised many questions for me. Where are our stories about the Black Canadian experience on screen? Why are we represented so little? Why is our experience treated with less value than our American neighbours? Where is our cinema that illustrates the breadth of Canada's largest multicultural city? Do the Right Thing steered me toward telling stories about the place I grew up and the intention of contributing to our cinema archive.
NT: Films like Do the Right Thing serve as a constant reminder to go out and tell the exact story you want to tell. Don't back down, don't take no for an answer and don't let anyone tell you that you can't make the film you want to make or that you aren't ready. I deeply feel, with all my being, that the authentic ideas we have as filmmakers — especially as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) filmmakers — come to you for a reason. Think about how the culture of film would be if Spike Lee did not follow his gut and make this seminal film? It changed the cinema game for an entire generation. It is cinema, but it is also commentary and that's my most beloved type of cinema.
Do the Right Thing steered me toward telling stories about the place I grew up.- Charles Officer, filmmaker
AD: Spike Lee is a huge influence. He actually co-wrote a companion book about the making of Do The Right Thing that I still have. It's about his career leading up to this film and his process making it. I still use some of the techniques in that book, especially how he organizes his creative thoughts. Every filmmaker should read that book. I will never give that away.
RT: The film made me realize that filmmaking was truly an art form. It wasn't just for entertainment or to pass the time, but could provoke thought and discussion and encourage an audience to reflect. Do the Right Thing stole my heart away from drawing, pencils and paper and got me into cameras as tools for storytelling, which my mother was definitely not feeling. It wouldn't be farfetched to say that I can tie my filmmaking ambitions all the way back to the story of Love and Hate, so beautifully broken down by the late great Bill Nunn. I guess that's why I still got a mural of Radio Raheem on my living room wall.