Mid-afternoon Saturday, a crowd of Brooklynites attending Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing block party were seeking shade and complaining about the heat. The irony was lost on no one. Spike Lee’s seminal hip-hop film was set on the most sweltering days of a New York summer, a stifling atmosphere that illustrated how New York humidity can suffocate you—especially that summer of ’89, when racial tensions in the city were at their peak and a young, insurgent black consciousness was embodied by hip-hop groups like Public Enemy, who soundtracked the film.
But this day, there were no Molotovs-through-pizzeria windows, though a clutch of young gentlemen wore socks over the toes of their sneakers for protection from errant scuffs. The celebration commemorated the film’s 25th anniversary, held on the very block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn where Lee shot the film in 1989, and to officially rechristen that corner of Stuyvesant and Lexington as “Do The Right Thing Way” with a street sign.
Banners demarcated the brownstone houses where important Do the Right Thing scenes were filmed—including a "We Love Wake Up Club" sign referring to the temperature-taking fictional radio station in the film, and blown-up photographs of important characters, like Radio Raheim (Bill Nunn) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito, AKA Gus from Breaking Bad!). Other film locations were less formally marked.
Early in the day, when it was still possible to walk through the crowd and peruse the tents hawking Knicks paraphernalia and photographs prepped with a Flava Flav clock-necklace, Spike Lee took the stage to introduce his party.
After the never-wavering Knicks fan led the crowd in a chant of "Melo LOL" and took jabs at the "New Jersey Nets," he got down to business. "Twenty six years ago, we shot Do the Right Thing here. This empty parking lot is where Mookie threw the thing through the window and Sal's Pizzeria burned to the ground," he said, gesturing towards a fenced off area. "He could have just lit a match."
Do the Right Thing was Lee’s match, of sorts, an assertive statement of pride in a racially divided summer that depicted Brooklyn as Eden long before it was rebranded as the New Cool. Brooklyn borough President Eric Adams, dedicating "Do the Right Thing Day," brought up the specter of gentrification and praised Lee for showing the neighborhood as it was "before they knew what was going down on Lafayette," a reference to a middle-class black area of Fort Greene that has gentrified in a matter of a decade.
Lee was visionary enough to see change coming; some of the anger in Do the Right Thing’s central characters is fueled by a muscled, cocky white man who moves into the neighborhood and commits the mortal sin of sullying Buggin’ Out’s pristine Jordans. The symbolism remains salient; at the 40 Acres and a Mule tent, Lee was selling (and autographing) commemorative t-shirts, all stamped with a patch saying "Defend Brooklyn." A healthy police presence scattered throughout the block—the more things change, as they say, the more they stay the same.
Despite these tensions, the overwhelming feeling was one of joy, underscored by DJs Mick Boogie and Spin playing New York City classics from Biggie and Slick Rick to Mary Jane Girls and Luther Vandross. Vendors hawked Italian ices, girls jumped Double Dutch, babies and their grandmothers swayed together in tempo. “It’s like family out here,” said David Gray, of Crown Heights. “This is where it all started. I was born in Brooklyn, I came out here when he made the movie, and this is how we lived. We had our problems, but we stuck together. It’s nothing but love.” Celebrity guests added to the feeling: Wesley Snipes, star of Lee’s Jungle Fever, emerged to the Stevie Wonder song of the same name; comedian Dave Chappelle stepped out to crack a joke about how “Brooklyn done changed”; Yasiin Bey (AKA Mos Def) freestyled a few bars, with Erykah Badu smiling in the background.
Brooklyn flexing superstar Storyboard P.
The soundtrack of the day were songs from Lee’s films, like the aforementioned "Jungle Fever"; EU’s "Da Butt," from School Daze. But the DJs did not play a lick of Public Enemy, which portended an excellent close-out to the affair: Chuck D, performing "Fight the Power," which PE wrote especially for the film.
"Lee made sure that the center of the world was Brooklyn, and they all paid attention," said the inveterate rapper, to huge cheers and hands in the air. No Rosie Perez punching the air next to stoops, but the spirit of the song would do. "Spike Lee and Do the Right Thing were the things that originally brought me to New York,” said Abi Ishola, a fashion reporter who moved to Brooklyn from Miami a decade ago. "The culture and everything about it. I used to live around here and when I found out this was the block, I came to check it out. To be celebrating it 25 years later is amazing."