Thirty years after its release, Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ has lessons for Harrisburg and beyond | Anwar Curtis

Screen Capture from 'Do the Right Thing' (YouTube)

Creating a legacy is hard work and protecting it is even harder.

Anwar Curtis (Capital-Star file)

That was one of the big lessons I took away from a June 20 forum on the campus of Central Penn College in Summerdale, Cumberland County. The event was put together by Carmen Henry Harris, the coordinator and community liaison for Penn State University’s Parents and Children Together (PACT) program, and David Botero, the founder of the HOPE in Handball youth mentoring program.

Along with Shippensburg University psychology professor Jamonn Campbell and Penn State Dickinson Law School professor Carlesha Halkias, we gathered to express our thoughts on director Spike Lee’s 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

There were three different scenes that we discussed which are all still relevant to this day. If you were born anywhere between 1940 and 2000 and you saw this movie would you believe the same issues that Spike Lee captured could not still take place in 2019?

I know history finds a way to repeat itself but for some odd reason at least to me in this case history isn’t repeating itself yet it is finding a way to stay relevant.

Halkias selected a scene in the movie where every racial group that had a presence on that Bed-Stuy block had something ignorant to say about their neighbor.

Halkias remembered seeing the movie for the first time as a teenage and laughing just like many of us do today, but not because hearing somebody being racially profiled and belittled was amusing yet amused due to the extreme discomfort and shame, one can possess because somebody else can be so insolent through hate.

Like many at an early age growing up Halkias mainly knew the people who lived in her neighborhood, so watching this particular scene and learning about all the many different races and them having some sort of hate towards each other at the same time was an eye-opener.

The next scene we dissected as a group was one Campbell picked, one that many black neighborhoods still go through today.

I am referring to the gentrification scene when Buggin Out, played by Giancarlo Esposito, snapped on his unknown neighbor for “stepping on his Jordans.”

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See this scene wasn’t just about Esposito’s character getting his kicks stepped on, it was the way Spike Lee orchestrated the dialogue and mannerisms altogether and the effects gentrification has on the people who live in that area.

If you look around the streets of Harrisburg you may see “progress” being made but who truly benefits from that “progress?”

Better yet who and what suffers from that progress?

The panelists. Curtis at far left. (Capital-Star photo by Anwar Curtis)

Campbell broke the scene down to a “T”: Buggin Out’s Jordans represented a culture and the neighborhood he loved it for. Buggin Out was also tired of constantly being overlooked, he argued.

That may not seem important to a person just walking by or moving in, infiltrating change he or she as a transplant wants to see happen without hearing from the neighbors who kept the neighborhood clean and protected, but it is important to the neighbors whose neighborhood is being snatched away from them.

The last scene we talked about was the fight before the fight between Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), Buggin Out, Pino (John Turturro), and Pino’s father Sal (Danny Aiello). If you watch carefully all four men were actually fighting for the same thing.

Throughout the entire movie, Nunn’s Radio Raheem made his presence felt and heard, while Esposito’s Buggin Out did everything in his power to not be overlooked as a black man.

As an Italian, Pino, through Turturro, really didn’t appreciate working on the block where his father’s shop was because it wasn’t in his neighborhood. And Aiello’s Sal wanted to stay right where he was because his pizza shop was a staple in that neighborhood.

This last scene we discussed wasn’t about pride but legacy. I think it is fair to say however pride got in the way of everyone which destroyed everything all four men fought their entire lives for and they all lost something valuable that night.

Radio Raheem lost his legacy through living; Sal lost his legacy once his shop burned down; Pino lost building on his father’s legacy with the shop, and Buggin Out lost his friend who understood what legacy being black stood for.

Thirty years later many of us ask ourselves how much progress has been made.  I would love to think a lot but the reality is the Radio Raheems, Buggin Out’s, Pino’s, and Sal’s are still fighting for legacies.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Anwar Curtis, of Harrisburg, tells the stories of the people of Pennsylvania’s Capital City. His work appears biweekly. Readers may email him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ACtheMayor.

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