It was surely hot in the summer of 1989 when filmmaker Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" hit theaters — right around the time that Alrich Lynch, then a teen lifeguard at a South Florida public pool, learned that doing the right thing was more than just a movie title.
Lynch was the only black lifeguard on shift at the predominantly black community pool when, during a training run, he was "rescued" by a white female co-worker. He emulated the panic of a person drowning, grabbing the lifeguard by the neck before being pulled to safety. When they reached the pool's edge, the manager said something Lynch would never forget. "She told [the female lifeguard] she should have used the torpedo because it may be the last time [the victims] get their hands on a white woman. Everyone turned and looked at me with their mouths wide open," he said.
Lynch gathered his thoughts, then spoke privately to the manager suggesting that maybe she should think carefully before saying such things.
"It was the subtle but not-so-subtle way that a minor issue could blow up and be the catalyst for releasing racial tension that has been going on for years," said Lynch, 37, of Atlanta.
That, in a nutshell, is what Lee's movie was all about and what still resonates with Lynch and many others as it comes to the Fox Theatre Saturday for a special 20th anniversary screening and celebration. The Atlanta-born Lee, a graduate of Morehouse College, will be on hand to host a VIP reception and participate in a post-screening Q&A.
"As they say, the good stuff holds up," Lee said in a telephone interview a few days before the screening. "People are amazed at how many of the issues that this film dealt with back in 1989 are still with us today."
Some things were different, of course. It was Lee's third film, but it was the first on which he felt confident as a director. "I was finally able to convey to the actors what I wanted," he said.
But there were obstacles — a very short filming schedule, unions that weren't always open to people of color and, when the film was completed, it faced opposition because people thought it would cause riots.
While it focuses on a hot summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, when a scuffle over a boombox results in a racial morass that leaves one man dead, the movie never incited any violence. For many people, particularly young black men, it became a generational rallying cry against racial conflict and police brutality.
"At the theater when I saw the movie, what struck me was that people in the audience became emotionally enraged during the choking scene," said Scott Johnston, 44, of Midtown, who was a 24-year-old sales representative for IBM in Detroit when the film made its debut.
In that scene, the character Radio Raheem played by Bill Nunn is killed by a police choke hold, setting off a riot that destroys the neighborhood.
"I'm a student of history, and when you look at the history of this country, when black people have rioted, it is not just random, it is the cops killing somebody, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the beating of Rodney King. It just took one event to get into that mindset, but it wasn't just random," Lee said.
He is baffled by those who think racism is a thing of the past, or who refer to this as the "post-racial climate."
"I still don't understand that," Lee said.
Neither does Johnston. While he was on a date recently at a Midtown restaurant , another patron handed him a parking stub thinking he was a valet attendant (despite his Armani suit and the fact that most of the valet drivers on site were Caucasians wearing khakis with tennis shoes).
"The reality is, we are still a very racially polarized environment," Johnston said. "Blacks live on the south side of Atlanta, whites live on the north side. As long as we live apart, there will be a misunderstanding of each other."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.