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Spike Lee Demands That ‘We Stop This Madness’ at Passionate ‘Do the Right Thing’ Reading

Spike Lee Demands That 'We Stop This Madness' at Passionate 'Do the Right Thing' Reading

When Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” came out in 1989, it was a swift kick in the ass for moviegoers. Vulgar and vivid, stylish and street-smart, it’s that rare breed of film that’s graced with a keen sense of modernity as well as startling foresight. Deeply rooted in the racial tension of the Reagan Era (and, let’s be real here, every era before and since), Lee’s joint attempts to vivisect the nebulous nature of bigotry, the hypocrisy bigotry begets, and gentrification two decades before 20-something Brooklynites and their Mac Books were taking over coffee shops. The film hit theaters like a hell spawn, igniting controversy and earning copious acclaim. For his incendiary portrayal of home-bred bigots, Lee gazed with wide, unflinching eyes at his home neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The epicenter of the film is a pizzeria, run by Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello, giving his best performance) and his two sons, one of whom, Pino (John Turturro), doesn’t even bother to hide his racist convictions, though he reluctantly admits that he’s a fan of Prince.

READ MORE: John Turturro and Michael B. Jordan to Participate in Free Black Friday Reading of ‘Do the Right Thing’ in New York

Lee’s film is at once a touchstone and a millstone, a prescient encapsulation of race relations that inadvertently acts like a root note to which American society returns, again and again. Watching “Do the Right Thing” today is as unnerving and upsetting as it was 25 years ago because, save for the ubiquitous presence of boom boxes, the film could take place in 2014. The startling violence with which the police react eerily foreshadows the tragedy still unfurling in Ferguson, and the way authority figures point blame like a fire hose at the black community brings to mind Fox News’ stomach-churning coverage. But it also gets at the fervid, sometimes irrational response a marginalized people will have in the face of relentless oppression. Lee neither embraces nor condemns Sal, Mookie, Buggin’ Out and the gang, which is the source of the film’s lasting power. The injustice is axiomatic, and audiences will either get that or they won’t. 
For the last few months, filmmakers Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) and Shaka King (“Newlyweds”) have been orchestrating a live reading of Spike Lee’s script for “Do the Right Thing.” Performed at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Ellen Munroe amphitheater on Black Friday, the reading involved the talents of John Turturro as Sal, and Michael B. Jordan, who starred in “Fruitvale Station,” as Mookie. Presented by Blackout for Human Rights, the performance was strengthened after the deaths of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, both of whom died in altercations with police that disquietingly recall the death of Radio Raheem.
While not the direct result of Ferguson, the reading unavoidably touched that open wound, and in light of the inexplicably inane response from those who apparently value property over people, “Do the Right Thing” has never felt more relevant.
When Coogler received Lee’s blessing to do the performance, he called King, who had been Spike’s student. With the help of casting director Allison Twardziak, they put together the cast of readers.
Approximately 300 people waited outside for hours in the frigid New York air, vying for 75 available tickets. From the opening bellows of Mr. Senor Love Daddy (played with boisterous glee by comedian Godfrey), the small amphitheater was imbued with a tangible energy. Since this was a cold read and many of the actors had never even read the script before, the packed-room was privy to the spontaneous forming of relationships: Lee’s version of a Greek Chorus, the three Corner Men who sit on the sidewalk under umbrella shrouds (with Frankie Faison reprising his role as Coconut Sid) bickering about the Korean fruit shop across the street, seemed to develop a rapport as the reading went on, and Mookie’s relationship with Tina (Melonie Diaz) started off a bit flat, but eventually warmed up.
The actors, most of whom are not household names, read from Lee’s second draft, which diverges in some scenes from the film, especially in its more verbose ending. Lee’s screenplay is replete with his own musings and observations (his description of erect nipples is something else), and his camera directions and descriptions are penned in Lee’s unmistakable voice. It was fascinating hearing them read aloud as narration. As dexterously performed by Trae Harris (“Newlyweds”), Lee permeates the performance like a spectral entity. When Radio Raheem’s box is smashed to shards, Lee-via-Harris intones that Raheem was, like most black youth, a victim of materialization, a sad observation you don’t necessarily get from the film.

Seeing and hearing Turturro play Sal, in a way becoming his father, provided ineffable chills, and insinuated, whether intentional or not, the way bigotry is passed down through generations. Turturro was initially skeptical, he told Indiewire, saying he thought it might be weird to play Sal. But he’s a fan of “Fruitvale Station,” having found the film “very moving,” and eventually agreed to participate. Also deserving special mention is Roger Robinson, who lent a haggard sorrow to Da Mayor while still being able to earned uproarious laughs with his delivery of, “Bud-Weis-er, motherfucker!”

Before the reading began, Coogler read a message from Lee, who asked that the performance be dedicated to Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Danny Aiello, Jr., and that we “stop this madness” of violence.        
A vital detail often overlooked by regressive folk is that everyone in “Do the Right Thing” displays bigoted tendencies, which culminates in the iconic scene in which various characters directly address the camera, unleashing torrents of deft, racially-charged insults. Everyone—the Italians, blacks, Jews, Koreans, Puerto Ricans—give it as good as they get it, and the actors in the reading had fun with the scene. The film’s titular, nebulous proclamation becomes corporeal when Lee’s character, Mookie, hurls a garbage can through the window of the pizza shop, where he works. Some people (read: white people) repeatedly asked Lee if Mookie “did the right thing,” a question whose answer its askers have obviously already erroneously ascertained. Reading about these talking heads asking if property damage is justified is akin to something out of a “Twilight Zone” episode, so strongly does it evoke Fox News’ pasty, cankerous pundits.  
As the actors reached the climax, with the police choking Radio Raheem, the room grew silent. Images from Ferguson gleamed on a massive TV in the background. It’s deeply upsetting that “Do the Right Thing” remains profoundly relevant 25 years later. It should look like a relic from a bygone era, but it doesn’t. And that’s the truth, Ruth.

READ MORE: ‘Fruitvale Station’ Star Michael B. Jordan On Living the ‘Dream’ Following the Sundance Wins and Those ‘Fantastic Four’ Rumors

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