why bed-stuy style matters more now than ever

As summer draws to a close, i-D looks back at the ultimate Brooklyn heat-wave film, 'Do the Right Thing', celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Spike Lee’s 89 depiction of Bedford-Stuyvesant shows a neighborhood full of life, strife, and style...

by Phillip Pantuso
09 September 2014, 2:25pm

Twenty-five years ago, filmmaker Spike Lee released his third feature, Do the Right Thing. It hit its moment like an incendiary device, setting off a conversation about race, black culture, and the savagery of society. Almost immediately after it debuted, at the Cannes Film Festival, Do the Right Thing stoked controversy; some critics fretted that it would incite black audiences to riot. Set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant on the hottest day of a racially tense summer, the film feels as relevant today as it did in the summer of 89. It's been an unseasonably mild summer in New York City this year, but to say there's been some racial tension, in the summer of Ferguson and Eric Garner, would be an understatement.

There's another sense in which Do the Right Thing endures: its iconic sense of style.

Fashion is conditioned by social norms, and so any clothing choice that breaks from the mold is inherently an assertion of identity. Lee and costume designer Ruth E. Clark treat fashion as a political expression by creating a wardrobe that is colorfully vibrant and expressive of urban blackness, to match the film's politics. Do the Right Thing has a fresh, brazen flair, as equally evident in the characters' clothing and accessories as in cinematographer Ernest Dickerson's color-rich visuals. It's no accident that Mookie (played by Lee) wears a Jackie Robinson jersey throughout the film, nor that Radio Raheem blasts Public Enemy's Fight the Power from the boombox he carries wherever he goes.

The arresting color palette, full of reds, yellows, reds, greens, and purples, is a far cry from the muted earth tones of the Manhattan young urban professional of the time. Such polychromatic vibrancy is an aesthetic amplifier of Lee's cinematic style: the bright hues visually emphasize the sizzling summer day on which Do the Right Thing takes place, and underscore the simmering racial tensions which are its subject, while the discordant clash between colors and patterns serves as a visual metaphor for the turbulence in the lives of the film's characters. It's also just cool. The costuming typifies the funky, Hip Hop inspired style moment happening on the late eighties Brooklyn streets.

In a journal he kept during the shoot, Lee wrote: "the look of the film should be bright… almost blinding AFROCENTRIC bright!" Women wear crop tops and skater skirts; the men step out in high-top sneakers, tanktops, and skinny shorts. Samuel L. Jackson's DJ Señor Love Daddy wears a gaudy Hawaiian shirt, leopard print-rimmed sunglasses, and a kufi; Giancarlo Esposito's Buggin' Out wears Nike Air Jordan 4 Cements; and within the opening credit sequence alone, debutante Rosie Perez's character, Tina, changes from a red dress with red tights to a blue Lycra dancer's outfit to a leather jacket to a silver satin shorts and a black sports bra. The corner boys, a trio of elderly men who act as the film's Greek chorus, are garbed in aerated linen button-downs in washed-out pastels, as if to emphasize their remove from the action. Radio Raheem wears a colourful white t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Bed Stuy Do or Die." Almost every young black character wears an African-themed pendant or accessory.

You can trace Do the Right Thing's style through several threads of early-90s culture: the popularity of Mitchell & Ness throwback jerseys, for one, or the wardrobe of Will Smith's character in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Lee himself, in character as Mars Blackmon from his debut film, She's Gotta Have It, became a pitchman for Nike in a celebrated series of commercials for Air Jordans. The fashion sense of the film both picked up on and influenced Hip Hop styles of the day, characterized by neon-colored clothing, snapback hats, blousy pants, and sneakers.

Along with other elements of the era, the style embodied by characters in the film is back in force today, especially in style-conscious Brooklyn. You might not find lycra bodysuits and floppy hats, but bright colors, hoop earrings, eclectic patterns? They're everywhere. Even the brightly-colored Beats by Dre headphones, ubiquitous on public transport, owe something to the headphones many of Do the Right Thing's characters wear.

These days, Bed-Stuy is on the front lines of Brooklyn's rapid gentrification; the neighborhood is equal parts hipster and Hip Hop. Its style sense, though, remains far-removed from downtown fashion. The old mixes with the new in what style writer (and Bed-Stuy native) Lance Fresh called "hoodster" in The New York Times. The Brooklyn of 2014 may be significantly changed from the one Spike Lee grew up in, but Mookie, Radio Raheem, and Tina would still fit right in. What they have to say, with their words, actions, and clothing choices, matters as much as ever.


Text Phillip Pantuso
Photography Stef Mitchell

spike lee
Do the Right Thing
phillip pantuso
stef mitchell