On this day in the summer of 1989, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was released to theaters in the United States. This highly acclaimed film cemented Lee’s rise to prominence in film and was also coincidentally my introduction to a group that would change the trajectory of my life; Public Enemy.
I was young, but I remember this shit vividly.
YO! MTV Raps was on the television in my aunts home, which was par for the course because she normally didn’t get in until around 6pm. After playing on the porch a bit I recall going in the house, grabbing a drink from the fridge and planting myself smack-dab in front of the television. I only managed to catch the tail end of what Ed Lover was saying, but they stopped and soon thereafter I witnessed one of the blackest things I’d seen. Shit in all honesty, it might be one the blackest things i’ve witnessed to day.
For the next 5 minutes, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Dj Terminator X, and the S1W’s, collectively known as Public Enemy, held a rally on the streets of Brooklyn in front of what looked like millions. Looking back, it was probably was closer to a thousand, but that’s where the genius of Spike Lee lies; creating something massive out of very little.
This was my first time ever seeing hip hop as a literal unifying culture. Banners with the faces and quotes from African American leaders, signs held high with the names of different cities with high black populations, and in the middle of all of this a fucking rap show?
Yes sir, sign me up for this shit.
That summer I’d seen that video over and over again on television and although young as hell, I remember it changing me. I wanted to know who some of the unfamiliar figures in the video were. I needed my mom to get me a Phillies cap, the same Chuck wore. I started to wear an African necklace and patch that my father got me, just like Flav’s. And as many times as I saw that video, I had no idea that it also served as the first single for Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
Yes, it took all of that reflection to get to the movie, but it’s symbolic of the way I learned of it’s existence in the first place.
Back then, shitty bootlegged versions of movies made their rounds in my neighborhood. Normally if you didn’t see a movie while it was in theaters, then you’d have to wait at least a year before it was available on home video. My parents were avid renters from a chain called West Coast Video and one weekend night they brought this movie home with little fan fare. Neither I, nor my younger sister had any interest in watching this with our parents but all that changed for me when the title scene began.
Ho-ly SHIT! …is that what I think it is?
Yes indeed, it was none other than Public Enemy. I knew the music like the back of my hand by this point and the visual of a young Rosie Perez had me locked in immediately. Looking back at it now, it’s kind of hilarious admittedly, but at the time it felt so powerful to me because I’d never seen dance with a narrative I could relate to until that point.
The movie began, and soon it became just as beloved to me as P.E’s, “Fight The Power” itself. Although I had family in New York City, I’d never been to Brooklyn but after almost two hours spent with Mookie on the hottest day in the summer, I felt like I’d lived there my entire life. I knew that place because it was a similar make up to the neighborhood I was born and raised in.
I grew up on streets just like those in Hunting Park, Philadelphia. Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans were and still are the majority of the demographic makeup of the blue collar community. Now, I said blue collar, but this wasn’t some middle class shit, it was and remains to be “the hood”. Not knowing anything too different made it just fine by us.
Just like in the movie, my neighborhood had stores with Korean ownership, issues with police in the community, and showed the earliest signs of modern gentrification. I knew the O.G’s on the corner who spent entire days talking shit and trying to find shade. Sadly, I also was familiar with interactions with the law turning sour when people died by their hands. As far as I was concerned or could even tell, Bed-Stuy was H.P.
Upon its release to theaters, Do The Right Thing became an instant classic due to its portrayals or race relations and the social climate of the day. However, many believed it was dangerous and had the potential to spark riots in black cities across the U.S.
As we know, those riots never happened, as black people proved they couldn’t be moved to real violence based off fictional images. Even though Lee was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Danny Aiello was nominated for Best Actor, neither won. In fact to much surprise, the film wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, which of course went to Driving Miss Daisy. This also was the launchpad to Lee’s contentious relationship with Hollywood but that’s another story altogether.
Close to 30 years have passed since Lee released what many contend is his greatest body of work to date. I tend to agree, but this in no way is an indictment of the quality of his films since.
Just my humble opinion, but it’s his most accurate representation of life in streets that looked like mine with people who looked like me. I related to it immensely then and still do. Every single time I see it through adult eyes, I’m reminded of my home as child.
Moreover, every time it comes on that Public Enemy shit still manages to go hard as hell.