A Portrait of the Bed Stuy Block Where Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ Was Filmed

Photo via First Run Features

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For eight hot weeks in the summer of 1988, Spike Lee took over an entire block of Stuyvesant Avenue, between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue, in Bed Stuy. As crews began to transform the street — cleaning up some of the buildings, while erecting new ones on two adjacent lots — the neighborhood watched from their windows and glanced from the sidewalk.

Some were elated, others concerned. Was this beneficial to the community or an intrusion? The documentarian St. Clair Bourne was there to capture it all. He and his small crew were hired by Lee to produce a behind-the-scenes film, which were standard components of press kits. Most of the time, these don’t go beyond the average fluff of promotional material. But Lee wanted something different. He was convinced what he was making was unique and needed somebody to film every facet of the creative process.

a portrait of the bed stuy block when do the right thing was filmed

Filmmaker St. Clair Bourne while making ‘The Black and the Green.’ Photograph by Roy Lewis via First Run Features

The 81-minute “Making ‘Do the Right Thing’” stretched beyond what Lee and his collaborators were doing preparing for the film. Screening at the Metrograph as part of a larger series about St. Clair Bourne — including films about Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes — that opens on Friday, February 16, Bourne’s film is an intimate portrait of a neighborhood amidst transition, attempting to determine how the arrival of a big-budget film production will change their neighborhood.

“My family has been here for 125 years,” says a local woman in the film. “So we have seen the changes. My mother, when she came here, it was gas lights and carriages and horses.”

Bourne grew up in Bed Stuy and his personal connection to the people is felt at different points throughout the film. “He pushed to get as much depth to the story as he could,” said J.T. Takagi, a sound recordist, filmmaker and the Executive Director of Third World Newsreel, who worked with Bourne on the film. She remembers that Bourne also, in the spirit of the film Lee was making, insisted on having a diverse crew around him for the shoot.

a portrait of the bed stuy block when do the right thing was filmed

Image via First Run Features

This helped him get access to the local residents. “Bourne was a very charming man,” Takagi said, remembering that he was able to convince people to talk on camera who may have had no interest when the conversation began. This leads to some of the most fascinating parts of Bourne’s film, including the ongoing story of a woman who, attempting to stay out of a shelter, manages to secure a job cleaning up every morning for the film’s production crew. When she struggles, disappearing for a few days, the community helps her out, and she is able to get her job back.

While the documentary also observes members of the Nation of Islam, who were hired by Lee, helping to clean up a building on the block that was occupied by drug dealers, others in the neighborhood find their efforts futile.

a portrait of the bed stuy block when do the right thing was filmed

The boombox carried by Radio Raheem in the film. Photo via the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

“The movie itself is not going to bring patrolmen on the corner; it’s not going to bring us a stoplight,” a skeptical local man tells Bourne in the film. “These are things themselves that people in the neighborhood need to work on. The President of the United States can come through here — they’ll clean the street for one day, but that’s it.”

Others in Bed Stuy took inspiration from the film’s presence. “I’m talking about trying to keep our community together,” another local woman says. “Being interested in our property, and our children, and getting things done around here. There’s a lot out here.”

While Bourne’s documentary is attached to Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” it’s better to think of them as adjacent. The documentary takes the position of the community, ending on a film shot of an empty lot on the corner of Stuyvesant Avenue where a set once stood. The film crews have disappeared, the business of that summer now in the past. But the block still remains, the same as it was but looking differently into the future.

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