‘Do the Right Thing'--What Does It Say About Race Relations?

Times Staff Writers

When Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” premiered at Cannes last month, many reporters and critics came away openly questioning whether its release next week would result in violent incidents. If so, it hasn’t affected Universal Studios’ ability to book the movie around the country, nor has it prompted the same response from those black leaders who have seen the film at early screenings.

“I think it’s probably one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen,” said Willis Edwards, president of the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP. “It is a film that makes you think about what’s going on in the world and what your responsibilities are in your own community and what you have to give back. But, I don’t think the film will incite racial tension in the black community. Maybe this film might save people from acting and cause people to discuss (racial tension) instead of holding it in.”

“Do the Right Thing” centers around the racial tensions that are aroused on a smolderingly hot day in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant--a predominantly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Lee, who wrote, produced and directed the film, also stars as Mookie, a delivery boy at “Sal’s Famous Pizzeria,” which is run by a hard-nosed Italian-American (played by Danny Aiello.)

Although the film--made on a $6-million budget-- was very popular with reporters and critics at Cannes, many questioned the decision to release the film at the beginning of summer. Less powerful films than “Do the Right Thing"--Dennis Hopper’s L.A.-set gang film “Colors” comes to mind--have prompted incidents.

But Don Jackson, a civil rights activist who has staged several protests against police racism, expressed an optimism about the potential effects of the film.


“I think this film is about provoking discussions, not provoking riots,” Jackson said. “I think it will motivate people to protest injustice at all levels rather than to attack.

“The movie is about pain and injustice,” he said. “I think that what it says to people is that you do have choices to make.”

Across the country in Washington, Virgil Eckton, executive vice president of the United Negro College Fund, said he sees the film “as a slice out of life that emphasizes realities.”

“I don’t know if it’ll get people angrier,” Eckton said. “I laughed a bit, I remembered a bit and left the movie with a general feeling that there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done in our society.”

The NAACP’s Edwards said that when he emerged from a screening earlier this week, “Everybody was talking about it, blacks and whites were communicating (about racism) like never before.”

Said Lee: “That was the purpose I made this film--to get people talking about something which I think is very important: race relations in this country. The last words you hear in the film are, ‘People, register to vote.’ ”

Lee and top Universal executives at Cannes said they did not believe “Do the Right Thing” would create incidents and that they were releasing the film in summer because they’ve got a film they think can perform well against the competition.

“The fears have been fanned by the press,” Lee said in a phone interview Thursday. “They’re just fanning the white hysteria of rampaging black youths going crazy in the inner cities of America.”

Tom Pollock, chairman of the motion picture group at Universal, agreed that the media are more apt to create controversy by raising such questions than the movie itself will and said: “Movies don’t cause incidents, incidents cause incidents.”

Pollock also said there were no concerns among exhibitors who had seen the movie. Most of the exhibitors reached by The Times this week agreed.

“We have absolutely no concern about (the film provoking violence),” said a spokeswoman for Cineplex-Odeon, which is opening “Do the Right Thing” in many U.S. cities. “We do expect the highest attendance in black neighborhoods, but we feel the film is very positive.”

Another exhibitor, who books movies for theaters in several major markets, had an opposite reaction.

“I think it’s one of the most honest films ever made about race relations,” he said, “but I really question their decision to release it now. I mean one of the points of the movie is that riots are more likely to happen in the summer when tempers are shorter.”

Universal’s booking strategy on “Do the Right Thing” seems to cover all possibilities for a break-out commercial hit. The film is opening Friday in about 350 theaters in 70 cities and though it’s running head-on against what may be the stiffest summer competition ever, the studio was able to book the film in communities that cover the spectrum from inner-city neighborhoods to first-run houses in upscale white suburbs.

“We reached the goal we set in the beginning on this film,” said Fred Mound, head of distribution for Universal. “We are happy with the theaters we’re in, and Spike is happy with them.”

Mound said that before the movie was shown to them, some exhibitors did express concern about reactions to the film in theaters where the audience is racially mixed. He said that after those exhibitors saw the film, they took the bookings.

In Los Angeles, the film will open in the black community of Baldwin Hills, but also in Universal City, Marina del Rey and Westwood.

An exhibitor in Washington said “the film is booked to play throughout the city” and said he doesn’t anticipate problems (“I haven’t heard one D.C. exhibitor even mention the possibility”). At two invitation-only screenings in the nation’s capital, with representatives from Capitol Hill special-interest groups in attendance, he said: “The reception was great. There were two minutes of applause at the end.”

Universal’s Pollock acknowledged that he gave Lee the green light for “Do the Right Thing,” and creative freedom to make it the way he wanted because he believes the studio will profit from it. Lee’s first two films--"She’s Gotta Have It,” made for $175,000, and “School Daze,” made for $8 million--were both commercially successful.

Certainly, the film figures to benefit from reviews. Critics were almost unanimous in praising the film after its world premiere in Cannes five weeks ago. The two most prominent American critics there--the New York Times’ Vincent Canby and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert--both wrote glowing essays about the film and Spike Lee’s growth as a film maker.

Last Sunday, Ebert and Gene Siskel, with whom he co-hosts the nationally syndicated “Siskel & Ebert and the Movies,” devoted their entire show to Lee and “Do the Right Thing.” The Odd Couple of movie criticism often disagree for the camera, but on this issue, they were united: “Do the Right Thing,” they said, is the best movie so far this year.

Whether the film will actually find a niche in the busiest of all movie summers will be determined next weekend. There are knowledgeable people who think it will have a tough time breaking through. To become the blockbuster Lee hopes for, it will have to put up big enough numbers in its opening weekend to warrant expanding to 800 or more theaters.

“I think the film is going to do very well in certain markets where Lee’s films have done well before,” said an executive with a major national chain. “But I don’t think it’s going to break out with ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Batman’ out there. There isn’t that bomb in the market that you can say, ‘OK, I’ll dump this one and take that one.’ They’re going against a very, very fast track.”

Said Lee: “We’re not going to make $100 million, but I still think we’re going to do very well.” “We feel we’ve made the most important film, a very independent film. It’s a very important film and at same time it’s entertaining, too.”

Still, there are some preconceived notions about the movie. Despite the good news out of Cannes, and the subsequent debate focusing on the universal concerns of racism, many white exhibitors and moviegoers think “Do the Right Thing” is a “black film,” of interest only to black audiences.

Explaining why he was booking the film in a black action theater in Atlanta rather than in a mainstream house, an exhibitor told The Times: “It’s completely a black picture. It’s made by a black man with a black cast. I don’t think the mainstream audiences would be interested.”

Lee predicts that the film will transcend that label and reach a mass audience.

“Universal and I are both doing everything we can to negate that perception,” he said. “I think they’re mistaken, and we’ll prove them wrong. Race relations affect everybody.”

Pat H. Broeske contributed to this story.