Cinema Style: Throwback Bed-Stuy Fashion In 'Do The Right Thing'

Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee as Mookie in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

The 2013 Video Music Awards are breaking new ground as the very first awards show in Brooklyn, kicking off live at 9 p.m. EST on Sunday, August 25 from Barclays Center. (And if you don't know, now you knowwww.) In honor of the history-making show, we're immersing ourselves in the VMAs' new neighborhood, unpacking iconic aspects of BK style in movies, music, and art. First up, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.

Do The Right Thing is a cultural triumph, telling the story of one day—the hottest of the year—in a Bed-Stuy neighborhood bubbling over with racial tension. The film, Lee's third-EVER feature, is visually stunning, awash with a vibrant and jumbled color palette of yellows, reds, limes, and purples, and the interplay is arresting, adding a slightly surreal tinge to the rising turbulence. The silhouettes—tees, shorts, tanks—remind you that it's a hot summer day on Stuyvesant Avenue between Lexington and Quincy street. The film and Ruth E. Carter's brilliant costuming work had a highly influential trickle-down effect—see Will Smith's TV wardrobe for the entire six-season run of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (Important/Fun Fact: Carter is also the genius responsible for Halle Berry's orange patent latex and gravity-defying hair in B*A*P*S.)

Do The Right Thing

Cast of 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

The sea of discordant brights is largely reserved for the film's youth, a visual representation of their exuberance of character and highly reactive, noisy demeanor. On the flip side of that, many of the film's older characters are clad in more muted vestments. Take Lee's version of the Greek chorus—the corner boys: ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison), and Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris). They spend the day perched on the sidewalk in linens, dress shoes, and washed out pastels. And Da Mayor (Ossie Davis)—in a way, Lee's fool—is dressed in bedraggled Sunday's best: a worse for wear light blue seersucker suit, faded yellow button-up, and a straw fedora.

Do The Right Thing

Paul Benjamin as ML, Frankie Faison as Coconut Sid, and Robin Harris as Sweet Dick Willie in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

Do The Right Thing

John Turturro as Pino and Danny Aiello as Sal in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

Races are divided by costuming, too, with the wardrobe for the film's lead Italian Americans—Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson)—being particularly devoid of color. Very black and white. More than a blanket use of color palette to define groups, the more prominent the character, the more specialized the costuming. You'd never know by looking, but Sal, on the right, in the vaguely Hawaiian print shirt unbuttoned nearly to his diaphragm, owns the pizzeria, and on the left, his son Pino, dressed in head-to-toe black with that double-breasted, brushed silk shirt, is his employee. Pino's regimented dress speaks to him taking himself too seriously, and even a small detail like the epaulets on his shoulders are a nod to his combative nature. Sure, Pino only wears this for a few minutes, then promptly changes out of the shirt and into work clothes, but these are the establishing moments for his character, and Carter makes them count.

Do The Right Thing

Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin Out in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

Almost every young black charater wears an enamel Africa pendant necklace. And Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the most ardent activist of the film, wears two; the second emblazoned with "Black Power." Buggin' Out is excitable (characterized by short dreads that stand on end) and is always the first to see and call-out injustice (characterized by gigantic, impossibly thick, Coke bottle glasses). It's Buggin' Out who creates the first rift, urging the neighborhood to boycott Sal's Pizzeria because there aren't enough "brothers on the wall" (the pizza shop's Wall of Fame featured only Italian American celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Robert De Niro). This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the vibes at Los Pollos Hermanos which Breaking Bad fans will know has different HR rules and embraces diversity of all kinds within reason. And it's Buggin' Out who incites another major clash of races when an ambling white cyclist (John Savage) scuffs up BO's brand new Nike Air Jordan 4 Cements (that he wears with Everlast ankle weights, BTW, v. important for strength training on the go).

For Carter and Lee, the cyclist's unmistakable white-ness isn't enough to visually set him apart as unwelcome. They give him tiny shorts, a sweaty ponytail, a smug 5 o'clock shadow, a pair of glasses dangling from his neck by croakies, a handheld carton of brand name Tropicana orange juice, and the ultimate signifier of outsider status: a bright green, Boston Celtics t-shirt repping Larry Bird. While Larry Bird was certainly not the first white NBA player, he was one of the first to catch as much shine as he did, earning himself the nickname "The Great White Hope." Bird's biggest rival, his adversary from college ball and into the professional league, was the Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson. Annnnd what purple hoops jersey turns up alongside Buggin' Out to back him up against the kick-scuffing, transplant Celtics fan? The Lake Show's own: Magic Johnson, #32. Spike Lee is arguably the Knicks' biggest celebrity fan, and his support knows no bounds, showing up to support his team even at the Draft. The use of sports affiliations in his characters' wardrobes? Definitely not an accident.

Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee as Mookie in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee as Mookie and Danny Aiello as Sal in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

For the first hour, the film's protagonist, Mookie (played by Lee himself) wears a throwback Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers baseball jersey with red shorts on top of black biker shorts, red-black color blocked socks, and white sneakers. With just this jersey, Mookie is coded with Robinson's heroism, an individual, a pioneer. Mookie later changes into his official Sal's Pizzeria uniform (this time with green shorts on top of yellow-green biker shorts and matching socks)—a symbol of seeming conformity which is later undone as Mookie erupts and throws a trashcan into one of Sal's storefront windows after the riot in the film's final act. But back to the sports.

It's through these sports references that Lee, in a way, brings viewers back out into the pop culture landscape within which the film was released. Mookie's establishing shots picture him waking up his sister Jade (Spike's actual sister, Joie Lee). He's wearing a Michael Jordan, #23 Chicago Bulls jersey. (Side bar: are we to seriously believe he wore that thing to sleep?!?!!) In real life at the very same time, Spike was rolling out a series of Nike commercials for Mike's Air Jordans starring MJ himself and Lee as Mars Blackmon, a character from his 1986 film She's Gotta Have It. Some might argue this served as a slick, maybe even subliminal reminder of Lee's marketing endeavors, but the way this Buggin' Out x Celtic cyclist clash plays out—all that hot air over a pair of shoes—could also be seen as an under-handed critique of materialism.

Do The Right Thing

Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Love Daddy in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

In so many ways, the costuming illustrates things that can't be said explicitly. Mister Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), the golden-throated community DJ, wears a black-based Hawaiian shirt that's similar to Sal's but louder and definitely more Shaft (JK, Sam as Shaft hadn't happened yet, you're jumping ahead!), round-lensed tortoiseshell glasses, and undergoes, like, infinity hat changes. OK, more like 4 or 5, but STILL. It's a quirky character trait for a radio personality, sure, but it also speaks to the idea that Love Daddy wears many figurative hats in the community: alarm clock, mediator, entertainer, etc.etc.

Do The Right Thing

Rosie Perez as Tina in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

There's also Tina (Rosie Perez, pre-In Living Color Fly Girls) dancing, somehow both seductively and forcefully, over Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" in that unforgettable opening credits sequence. She switches between an all red everything dress and tights outfit and a female boxing uniform with a black sports bra, white satin shorts, and red gloves. It's latent aggression personified.

Do The Right Thing

Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

And finally, in my opinion, the crown jewel of Do The Right Thing's costuming: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). Radio Raheem is the very definition of the strong, silent type, and with very little dialogue, his character is the most aided by costume. His signature accessory is a massive boombox, bigger than his torso (and Raheem is a pretty big dude). Honestly, everything about this guy is big: he wears two GIGANTIC gold knuckleduster rings reading "LOVE" and "HATE" which instigate a monologue about their significance, "the story of Right Hand, Left Hand, a tale of good and evil."

Do The Right Thing

Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in 'Do The Right Thing.'
Photo: Universal Pictures

Raheem also wears a pair of camouflage cargo shorts—a nod to his latent combative nature, incited later in the film by Buggin' Out—and a t-shirt with a large color blocked illustration on the front, "BED-STUY" across the top, and "DO OR DIE" along the bottom—an eerie foreshadowing of his *SPOILER ALERT* tragic demise. Raheem is a powder keg, symbolic of the neighborhood as a whole, fairly even-keeled for the majority of the film, then explosive to the point of his own destruction.

If you haven't watched the movie, I've definitely already ruined the entire plot. BUT that doesn't make the story any less moving or the cinematography any less exhilarating (it's about the journey, not the destination). If you have seen it, let the 2013 VMAs be a great excuse for you to watch it again and become reacquainted with the story and the colorful, highly influential Bed-Stuy street style that helped tell it.

+ MORE PHOTOS FROM SPIKE LEE'S 'DO THE RIGHT THING'

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