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'Do the Right Thing' still relevant in race-divided U.S.

By Helena de Moura, CNN
"When I wrote that film, in no way we'd think there would be an African-American president," director Spike Lee said.
"When I wrote that film, in no way we'd think there would be an African-American president," director Spike Lee said.
  • "Do the Right Thing" considered one of the most "culturally significant" films in the U.S.
  • Director/writer Spike Lee never imagined he'd see an African-American U.S. president
  • Some reviewers had feared the 1989 movie would cause race riots
  • Lee says now, "Race is always there"

Atlanta (CNN) -- "Nineteen eighty-nine ... was the number, another summer ..."

These are the scratching, hip-hop verses sung by Public Enemy in the opening scenes of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," a film the U.S. Library of Congress has classified as one of the most "culturally significant" in U.S. history.

Released on June 30, 1989, the film became an ode to the angst and alienation experienced in some of America's black, inner-city neighborhoods where disenfranchised youths roam the streets, sometimes in search of jobs, sometimes trouble, and in the case of the protagonist Mookie, played by Spike Lee, sometimes in search of meaning.

"When I wrote that film, in no way we'd think there would be an African-American president in the United States of America," director Spike Lee told CNN during a recent interview at Morehouse College, the director's alma mater.

"I lived to see it ... I think that was a great testament to the growth that the country has made," he said.

Set in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, this dramatic comedy pits African-American residents against Italian-Americans, Asians, Latino and whites, offering an explosively blunt discussion on race relations in America in a mere two blocks.

Mookie, the pizza delivery boy, navigates through the various multiethnic scenarios seamlessly until a race riot forces him to "do the right thing." It's an ambivalent decision for Mookie, who shows different levels of attachment to different groups.

According to Lee, critics lashed out against Mookie's ambivalence during the film's race rioting, claiming Lee left the audience without an answer to the conflict.

To Lee, the artist has a special role in the midst of social unrest.

"I think a lot of times the artist's job is to show what is happening now and hopefully through dialogue, conversation, discussion, you can arrive at some answers," Lee said.

"... I have no formula," he said.

"Their job is to hold the mirror up to society and say: Look, this is what's happening right now. Wake up!"

Matt Miller, an Emory University scholar of rap music and black popular culture, said "Do the Right Thing" defined a bleak decade for African-Americans, who were drawn to militant imagery as a response to the Reagan ethos of a unified America.

"The late 1980s and early 1990s were definitely a low point for African-Americans," said Miller. "This was a time when white politicians and voters had largely turned their back on African-Americans and their concerns and struggles."

African-Americans struggled with disproportionate incarceration and a failed public education system, leaving them out of the so-called "American Dream," he said.

"The crack boom of the late 1980s and the subsequent 'War on Drugs' cast a shadow over many blacks' daily lives, turning their communities into dangerous conflict zones," he said.

"Do The Right Thing" won just about every accolade in the film industry, despite fear-mongering by some reviewers who predicted the movie would cause race riots.

It was the Obamas' first film together. First lady Michelle Obama once told CNN that "Do the Right Thing" was the first film she watched with her then-future husband.

"Do the Right Thing" excited audiences worldwide with its unceremonious discussion of racism in America.

Twenty-two years later, Lee offers a skeptical view of the status quo.

"I think that in the United States, race is always there," he said. "It's simmering right below whatever level you want to call it, and it takes an outburst for it to explode.

"And Hollywood would not make 'Do the Right Thing' today. There is no flying through the air, no superheroes, you can't shoot in 3D, no explosions."