Do The Right Thing: 32 Years Later in a Theater of No One

By Jason McCullum

On February 13th I ventured back into a movie theater for the first time since seeing 1917 in January of 2020. The film that brought me back? Spike Lee’s classic, Do the Right Thing. After months of various theater chains begging me to take the dive, I finally bit the bullet and rented a theater for myself and my family in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Viewing the most iconic work of Lee’s storied career on the big screen for the first time seemed like a fitting way to return to the movie theaters, an outing that will hopefully be far more prevalent in 2021 than it was last year.

Entering the theater was a depressing affair, strolling past the long walk of posters for movies that are now years past their release dates. Movies that just barely made their 2020 releases such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Bad Boys for Life were still up, as well as the slew of Summer blockbusters, such as Black Widow and A Quiet Place Part II that have yet to see the light of day. It begged the question, what's worse: leaving up posters for movies that are over a year past their initial release date or taking them down and leaving empty “coming soon” frames across the theater? Oh, Covid, what an ugly devil you are.

However, stepping into our actual auditorium was a thing of beauty. Marching up the steps and triumphantly throwing myself back into the theater recliner was a feeling that I had never expected could feel as marvelous as it did. After over a year away, that moment rivaled the exhilarating feeling releases like Parasite and Endgame gave me upon first viewings. Not only did it help to re-establish some sense of “normal”, but it also brought on something much grander. The exclusivity of sitting in a private theater felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even though it is relatively mundane in our current society. Still, no doubt renting theaters for releases such as In the Heights and The Suicide Squad has jumped to the top of my summer to-do list.

Witnessing Do the Right Thing in this manner also felt oddly fitting. Do the Right Thing is by no means a film that needs to be seen with friends, families, and strangers all cheering together, the way a typical blockbuster does. However, it is a piece of art that demands it be viewed on the big screen. Similarly, Spike Lee focuses less on telling his audience a story but rather transports them into the world he has created, in this case a 1980’s portrayal of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Like with other Spike Lee projects, the location is relatively intimate, centering itself around a specific community of specific people, which paved the way for the empty theater to enhance my trip to Brooklyn. There were no phone alarms to distract or front row conversations that are anything but a whisper, or five-year-olds who are way too young to see Rosie Perez’s boobs complaining that they wanted to see The Croods. Everything was centered on Mookie, Sal, Da Mayor, Radio Raheem, and the entire exceptional cast, making the story and all of its key moments feel that much more impactful.

As the movie drew into its breathtaking closing moments I finally realized the importance of seeing this movie nearly 32 years since its release and in such an intimate setting. Through all things 2020, there has been a lot of pain felt for the human race. Most specifically it was an unbelievably impactful year in terms of racial injustice and police brutality. The year started with the gut-wrenching loss of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in February and March respectively. Then George Floyd was brutally murdered on May 25th in Minneapolis, and the response was pandemonium. People of all ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds took to the streets for months, marching for the life of him and the thousands of other Black lives lost at the hands of the police. As the summer drew to a close, however, many protests died down.

People returned to their normal lives and stopped thinking about those that had been lost. This was in no way symbolic of a reduction in the violence that had been witnessed all summer. Rather, it is because many of us stopped exposing ourselves to the horrors at hand which is a big reason Do the Right Thing was such an impactful experience last Saturday night. Certainly, it would have felt incredible to sit in a chair and watch Iron Man snap Thanos into oblivion or watch Tom Cruise jump from one building to another, breaking his leg in the process. But how productive would that truly be? Not to say that those experiences should be ridden from our lives entirely, but maybe they should not be our dominant desire to get out of bed and into a movie theater once this pandemic draws to a close. Far more beneficial to ourselves and others is to venture back into society with a reminder of the awful things that have happened, staying angry at the appalling world we live in.

It is the human duty to continue challenging oneself by being exposed to the injustices in society, both in our real and fictional worlds. Watching the brutal murder of Radio Raheem and the justified anger of good-hearted individuals that followed felt all too familiar to recent events. While it is commendable that Spike Lee made a movie so timeless, it is deeply disappointing to see how little progress has been made since the movie originally came out. Just as Señor Love Daddy alludes at the tail end of the movie: Brooklyn is looking at “another hot day”. America has felt like a slew of “hot days” that have continued far too long. Movies such as these remind us that despite the changes that have been made, there is still so much evil in the world that needs to be dealt with before any real progress can be made.

After over a year away from the theater, Do the Right Thing was probably the best movie to return with. Directly viewing the continuing race war, specifically America, is not always the story that we want to hear, but frequently the one that we need to hear. It is why Spike Lee’s masterpiece is well worth returning to as it serves as a reminder of how much work there is still left to do. Even following a historic year for the BLM Movement, leading to some very necessary changes in human culture that pave the way for greater appreciation, representation, and protection for Black lives, there is always work left to be done. Education and advocacy are key steps to take to gain ultimate liberation and, for many, Do the Right Thing is an excellent place to start. As life slowly returns to normal, we mustn’t pretend that what we once knew as normal is acceptable. Rather, we must begin to morph humankind into something greater than it ever was: something that promotes care and love.

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