Do The Right Thing, one of the best movies of the ’80s, instantly elevated Spike Lee into an Oscar-nominated bracket of directors—storytellers who weave art, race, counterculture, and social politics into the fabric of modern American life.
Set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the controversial, powerful 1989 film takes place on the hottest day of the year, when sub-cultures clash and racial tensions reach a boiling point.
The story was one never fully explored in modern cinema, but more important, we witnessed a largely black community’s narrative fully realized in our distinct vernacular, music, and dress. In other words: The movie relied heavily on how style identified, divided, and ultimately dictated outcomes good and bad.
Veteran costume designer Ruth E. Carter was responsible for looks that would, eventually, set precedents for the future of urban streetwear and would subsequently influence such future projects as A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the hip-hop collective Native Tongues, and music festival Afro Punk.
More political than trendy, the costume palette was a sign of the times: 1989, summertime, vibrant, bold, fresh, youthful, red/black/green, Brooklyn. Much like what was seen in Spike’s previous effort, School Daze, the establishment of a communal lookbook focused on location and fashion climate.
The cameo by Jean-Michel Basquiat delivered a more conscious message: the transformation of black art from primitive to abstract, and with it the interjection of an Afrocentric way of life and dress. It was, in layman terms, urban avant garde.
Former Brooklynite Courtney Anderson, music curator and A&R man, knows all about that evolving style landscape captured by Do the Right Thing, from the swagger to the music to the attitude of individuality. While interning at the Cross Colours showroom, under the supervision of up-and-coming stylist June Ambrose, Anderson saw a shift in the style dynamics from a cultural viewpoint. “I didn’t think of it as fashion—it was a sign of the times,” he says of the movie’s cultural influence. “It was urban street style. It was Afrocentric. It was an opulence of hip-hop. It was going to Moshood or buying Cross Colours to select an outfit, these new black designers that were everything bespoke and flowy. It was, in my case, thrifting and pairing pajama pants with blazers. It offered a snapshot of the people of Brooklyn in all of their glory.”
Carter’s sartorial capture of Bed-Stuy in the film was spot on: Girls wore tube tops and short shorts while guys donned vests, fresh, clean, moderately priced sneakers, and knee length shorts. This would determine the major difference between neighbors, and between, say, Harlem and Brooklyn. The former is more about loud, label-heavy looks while the latter evokes something more ethereal, poetic, and organic in the muted, ethnic-print garb mostly seen on the older, supporting players like ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison), Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris), and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis).
Mister Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), the community DJ who alarms, comments, and entertains while wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt, tortoise shell glasses, and hat, is a neutral connector among a younger generation, a bevy of older citizens, African Americans, Italians, and other ethnicities. Sal (Danny Aiello), of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, and sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) appear throughout the film arrayed in sleeveless vest combos, white T-shirts, and eventually black to commemorate the community’s tragic loss.
But mostly it was the black and Puerto Rican cast members who fully realized the look that Carter and Lee were aiming for: youthful, in-your-face, loud, and very black!
You must remember at the time a string of very important events that contributed to the social DNA: Carl Jones’s L.A.-based clothing brand Cross Colours; the Stop the Violence movement single “Self Destruction,” and David Dinkins’s election as the first African-American mayor of New York City. Enrollment soared at historically black colleges and universities was soaring as never before. And filmmakers like Spike Lee—but especially Spike—understood and embraced the everydayness of young black life.
The film’s protagonist, Mookie (Spike Lee) is a bit of an exception. Though he dons an African pendant, as most of the younger cast member do, he wears a series of sportswear throughout the film including a throwback Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers baseball jersey and Michael Jordan #23 Chicago Bulls jersey paired with red shorts on top of black biker shorts, red-black socks, and white sneakers as a quick nod to pop culture and maybe a bit of a marketing strategy; he would later change into his Sal’s Pizzeria uniform (green shorts on top of yellow-green biker shorts and matching socks)—a sign of fashion oppression.
Tina (Rosie Perez) has an outfit that’s singular and consistent throughout the film: neighborhood beauty who wears barely an outfit but looks cool, tough, and respected while doing so. The most memorable image we have of Tina is the opening scene where she is dancing, aggressively and seductively, to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” switching between a single, fitted, red tank dress and black sports bra, satin shorts, and red gloves while shadow boxing, venting her frustration with Mookie and with the day’s sweltering heat.
Then there’s Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the most outspoken and ardent of all, and his energy is present in his clothing. Outfitted with two African medallions, oversized Coke bottle glasses, hair in mini-dreads (hair would also dictate style). Always a man on the go, he visits Sal’s Famous Pizzeria several times, wearing Everlast ankle weights to keep his calves looking good in his brand new Nike Air Jordan 4 Cements until a white cyclist scuffs them, possibly a symbol of the urban renewal that is happening around them. Rule of thumb: Never damage a man’s brand new kicks.
And finally there’s the crown jewel of Do the Right Thing’s costuming: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). A man of few words, he lets his costume do most of the talking: His fingers are adorned with two huge gold brass knuckle rings that read “LOVE” and “HATE,” signifying “the story of Right Hand, Left Hand, a tale of good and evil.”
Raheem’s outfit consists of camouflage shorts and a T-shirt with “BED-STUY” across the top, and “DO OR DIE” along the bottom, which is ironic, given his violent and unnecessary demise. The last thing we remember is that powerful scene where his Nike Hi-Tops are the last remnants of life and a symbol of anti-materialism.
Almost 26 years later, a new generation of artists has embraced the aesthetic of this classic. Andre Singleton, artist and co-founder of the social political movement THE VERY BLACK PROJECT, grew up idolizing Lee and Carter’s sartorial collaboration. When asked about the styling, Singleton’s eyes lit up with admiration. “Timeless, expressive, colorful! It helped shape me as a little brown boy growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. I thought I was in the movie with my gray Lens Crafter glasses, biking shorts, and jerseys,” he exclaims. Singleton himself worked for Lee on Inside Man and 40 Acres & A Mule, and admits that his own style of dress was heavily influenced by DTRT. “Movies like Do the Right Thing and shows like A Different World were our babysitters, and more and more [generations] can build a connection, bond with the re-runs. Overall it raised me. These people looked and dressed like me and I was inspired!”
These looks were among out first glimpses of what would become known as street style, and we still see throwback glimpses of the period even today. But remember this: Ruth E. Carter did the right thing so you can continue doing the right thing!