I first saw Do the Right Thing at a theater somewhere in Monmouth County, New Jersey, of all places, not far from where I was living with my boyfriend at the time. I was aware of being among a handful of black people on line — both my boyfriend and my friend, who was visiting us from New Hampshire where I grew up, were white. But I was also somewhat at ease, or at least used to it, because that’s what I’d become accustomed to as a black adoptee raised in a white family and an all-white town. There had been a ton of buzz about the film, and as a fan of Spike Lee’s first two films, especially She’s Gotta Have It, I was excited to see this one.
As soon as Rosie Perez started popping and locking across the screen to Public Enemy’s "Fight the Power" during the opening credits, I felt like I was being called out of my seat. Her vibrant rage and feverish rhythm was so mesmerizing and so much bigger than her — it filled the screen with emotion, and set the tone for the entire film. The story takes place during the course of one hot AF day in Brooklyn, but manages to present fully realized characters with backstories and flaws and depth, while also painting a broad, colorful portrait of what feels like a whole legacy of blackness.
Buggin' Out (played with an engaged ferocity by Giancarlo Esposito) was by far my favorite character in the film; he was so beautifully self-contained, vigorously if atypically intellectual and black as hell. He was a black man I’d never seen before and I just wanted to hang out with him and talk for hours about how important it is to have pictures of black folks and leaders up on our walls.
I was riveted from beginning to end, and realized only as the lights came up that throughout the film I’d shifted my body away from my boyfriend all the way to the other side of my seat. I didn’t want to talk about the film with him or my friend on the way home — it felt like I’d shared a family secret with them that I shouldn’t have.
Do the Right Thing, which is being screened at some theaters this weekend to mark the 30th anniversary of its premiere, changed me. It made me feel differently about being black in a way that I’d never experienced before, but I didn’t know how or why at the time. There were no non-white people in my life who I trusted enough to talk with about it, and I certainly didn’t trust myself to process it on my own. So when my white birthmother fed me a question to ask Spike Lee a few months later, it didn’t register as a question that had come through a white lens. Thirty years later, I’m still embarrassed to admit that. But not as embarrassed as I am that I actually asked the question.
In a small assembly room at the University of New Hampshire where I’d attended for three semesters before transferring to another school, Spike Lee talked for a little under an hour, and then made himself available to a handful of us for questions. I’d established the university’s first black student union, and the union had been the group to invite him to speak. Even though I was no longer a student there, the new BSU president extended an invitation to me as a courtesy. We surrounded Spike in a semicircle, like a team huddle, and the guys immediately started a rapid-fire round of questions about the Knicks, Spike’s favorite basketball team.
“Spike, Mr. Lee, hi,” I interrupted. “Yeah,” he said. “That scene with the Da Mayor and the boys who were calling him a drunk, were you trying to make a larger statement about the disenfranchisement of black men in America?”
We all know the expression now, that look he gives that says, “You better get the fuck up outta here and stop wasting my damn time.” It’s practically his resting face. But back then, I’d never seen it before, and was immediately aware that I’d said something wrong. “No. Next question.” I backed out of the circle and left the room, feeling deathly stupid and ashamed.
I was trying to sound smart — or like my white birthmother, who was the most powerful and influential figure in my life at the time. But in holding back my emotional and personal response to the movie, I had also managed to reduce it to an academic exercise. I had made it seem that Da Mayor came off as just another victim of the system, a stereotype, rather than a real character with inner turmoil and dimension. Why hadn’t I trusted myself? Why hadn’t I told him that the film changed my life, and made me feel like I was part of something, or could be part of something — part of blackness and black culture? Why hadn’t I told him that I saw community in the kids cackling and running through the open hydrant to stay cool, in the wisdom of Mother Sister’s heart, and the funny irreverence of Buggin' Out?
It’s taken me the better part of 30 years to find the answers to those questions. In retrospect, that moment with Spike was a defining moment of when I actually understood that there WAS a white gaze, which was also what the movie was essentially about. The film fought the power for us — and continues to fight the power for us.
Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely. Her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2020.