For Giancarlo Esposito, it doesn’t feel like three decades have passed.
Yet, as the celebrated actor—known to as many, perhaps more fans as Gustavo “Gus” Fring of acclaimed series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul—makes the rounds to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated film Do The Right Thing this summer, he can’t help but note the passage of time.
“This is a milestone anniversary so it’s nice to put some attention on the film and also Spike’s achievements,” Esposito said in a recent phone interview. He played Buggin Out, an anti-gentrification enthusiast, sneaker lover and rabble-rouser in the movie.
“It doesn’t feel like 30 years. When I think about it, it feels like yesterday,” he said. “We were all just excited because Spike had a vision and was quite creative in how he implemented and saw that particular vision coming through.
“Maybe it was the political tide at the time that Spike comments on within the film and the struggle against racist, resentful feelings that many of us had to act out onscreen. You could palpably feel the history running through our veins because we were doing something honest and real.”
The film’s authenticity is one of the reasons the Toronto International Film Festival is paying tribute to “Do The Right Thing.” TIFF is screening a brand new 4K digital restoration of the movie Friday July 19 and afterward, will talk to Lee to celebrate his legacy and that of his cinematic masterpiece.
“Spike Lee brought a completely original vision to a story that spoke specifically to his beloved Brooklyn but it ended up resonating all over the world,” said Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and cohead. Bailey will be moderating the discussion with Lee.
“And it goes beyond the story,” Bailey added. “From the opening credits set to Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power,’ to the way the colors pop, to the performance styles of an intergenerational cast that went from Rosie Perez to Ruby Dee, this movie concentrates so much Black creative genius into one film.”
Unfortunately, not a lot of mainstream critics shared Bailey’s enthusiasm for the film back in 1989. And a number of them offensively and wrongly predicted that Do The Right Thing and Radio Raheem’s devastating death at the hands of the police would incite Black audiences.
“Back then most film critics were white men with limited experience of what might motivate the characters in the film,” Bailey said. “At the same time, mainstream media and many politicians found it easy to demonize Black people and Black neighborhoods as inherently criminal and dangerous. So when New York magazine critic Joe Klein said that Black people might riot after seeing the film, he was reflecting a common racist fear. As Spike has said, ‘I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.’”
Despite the negativity most media types spewed at Do The Right Thing, or possibly because of it, noted and deceased film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel declared it the best movie of 1989 and later, one of the best of the decade. And Rotten Tomatoes rated the now classic film 92 percent fresh with a critical consensus that reads “Smart, vibrant and urgent without being didactic.”
Actor Frankie Faison who costarred as Coconut Sid, one of the neighborhood corner guys in Do The Right Thing, said time has been kind to the movie because it reminds audiences of what really matters in life.
“The movie is vital today because of the title itself,” Faison said. “It’s called ‘Do The Right Thing.’ If we were all out there trying to do the right thing, I think that the world and society would be a lot better off. But aside from that fact, it is a film that encompasses the landscape of the neighborhood and families. We’re being taken away from that and we need to get back to it.”
Over the years, several of the movie’s stars have passed away giving it an even greater sense of significance. The list includes wedded screen legends Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, comedian Robin Harris and Bill Nunn, who played Radio Raheem.
“Bill was a gentle giant but he had such power in his words and his actions,” Esposito recalled. “Every scene that I had with him was kind of electric because he’d be in that laidback Radio Raheem place but somehow he was able to switch that dynamic and become threatening. I always enjoyed being on screen with him because he was able to improvise and out of the blue, be loose and in the moment.”
“I was really happy to know him before he took off for the next plane,” he continued. “He was just a solid character actor who knew what he was doing. For me to be juxtaposed to his coolness and his intimidating size, I felt like a great foil. I related to him on and off camera and he is sorely missed.”