10 Facts About Do the Right Thing On Its 30th Anniversary
A shot in the arm of American consciousness, Do the Right Thing—Spike Lee’s incendiary profile of racial tension and police overreaction—bristled in the veins of moviegoers when it landed in theaters in the summer of 1989. Taking its title from a Malcolm X quote, Do the Right Thing rumbled with youthful energy, dry comic wit, boombox-blasted politics, and an operatic magic unique to New York City.
It’s a fierce polemic. It’s a snapshot of stereotyping. It’s a chill hangout movie. It was also a showcase of Lee’s directorial know-how, just when experience was shaping his raw creative talent. Crank up the AC and the FM 108 We-Love Radio. In honor of the film's 30th anniversary, here are 10 things you might not know about Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated joint.
1. Do The Right Thing was inspired by a real-life incident that happened in 1986.
On December 19, 1986, four black men—Michael Griffith, Timothy Grimes, Curtis Sylvester, and Cedric Sandiford—were traveling when their car broke down. They walked three miles to the predominantly Italian-American Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York, where they got into an argument with some white teenagers before heading to New Park Pizzeria for a meal and a telephone. When they left the eatery, they were accosted by a larger group of white men, including the ones they’d encountered earlier. Sandiford and Griffith were beaten; Griffith tried to run but was chased onto the Belt Parkway, where he was hit by a car and killed. The incident was such a part of Do the Right Thing’s DNA that Lee wanted to open the film with his character, Mookie, shouting “Howard Beach!” while defacing Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.
2. It's difficult to find shots in the film that don't feature the color red.
One of the most impressive feats of the movie is how powerfully you feel the heat of the summer day. Besides placing Sterno cans near the camera to keep the air wavy, color was the filmmakers' most important tool in transferring the temperature to the screen. “I did a lot of research on [color usage’s] psychology and worked on a controlled palette that pretty much stayed in the warm range—yellows, reds, earth tones, ambers—and tried to stay away from blues and greens, which have a cooling effect,” cinematographer Ernest Dickerson told The Guardian. That rule extended to costuming, set design, and props, which is why almost every scene has at least one red element in it.
3. Spike Lee originally wanted Robert De Niro to play Sal.
Oh, what might have been. It’s a no-brainer that Lee would have wanted Robert De Niro for the role of the brash Italian-American pizzeria owner, which eventually went to Danny Aiello (who scored an Oscar nomination for the film). “What young filmmaker wouldn’t want him to star in their film?” Lee said. “So, I gave him the script and he liked it, but he said it wasn’t for him.”
4. Do the Right Things contains nods to a few classic films.
An avid cinephile and a student of film history, Lee is such a massive fan of Charles Laughton’s chest-thumper Night of the Hunter that he dropped part of it into the middle of Do the Right Thing. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carries the knuckle ring version of Robert Mitchum’s Night of the Hunter character’s “Love” and “Hate” tattoos, and he explains their existence using almost the exact same monologue.
Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson also turned to classic noir The Third Man for its use of disorienting Dutch angles; you can watch as the camera angle gets more and more aggressively tilted leading up to the riot.
5. Lee moved the film from Paramount to Universal to avoid a sappy ending.
It’s hard to imagine it, but Paramount executives dropped a bomb on Lee close to the end of pre-production, demanding an unrealistically uplifting ending. “They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing ‘We Are the World,’” Lee told New York Magazine. "They told me this on a Friday; Monday morning we were at Universal.” Obviously, he did the right thing.
6. Rosie Perez's dance sequence took eight hours to film.
Even the opening credits of Do the Right Thing are iconic. Rosie Perez’s frenetic, emotional dance to the bowel-shaking bass boom of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” sets the stage as well as any of Shakespeare’s prologues.
“Spike didn’t tell me he needed anger and angst and exhaustion,” Perez explained. “Instead, he just said, ‘I need you to kill it.’ I thought, okay. I thought I killed it in the first hour. Freakin’ eight hours later, this freakin’ man had me still dancing. I had tennis elbow, my knee was swelling. So, I forgot about the lyrics, the original words—you know, Elvis, John Wayne? To me, it was all 'Spike, Spike, Spike, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!' And when rage and hate just poured out of my body, pure exhaustion, he went, ‘Cut, print it! We got it!'"
7. Lee hired the Nation of Islam's paramilitary to serve as set security.
The production descended on a Bedford-Stuyvesant street in late summer 1988, building Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and painting murals, but largely leaving the neighborhood in its natural state for the shoot. To ensure safety, they hired members of Fruit of Islam, then run by Louis Farrakhan, to act as on-set security. One of their first jobs was boarding up known crack houses and guarding them to deter drug abusers from returning.
8. The clothing the characters wear in Do the Right Thing reinforces their racial loyalties.
Lee and costume designer Ruth E. Carter bolstered certain characters’ attitudes by dressing them in racially-coded clothes. The white, brownstone-owner cyclist (John Savage) who scuffs Buggin’ Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) shoes wears a Larry Bird Celtics jersey while Buggin’ Out’s sneaks are Air Jordans. Mookie also wears a Jordan jersey and a Dodgers jersey with Jackie Robinson’s number. Plus, while the racist Pino (John Turturro) wears all black in classic villain fashion, he wears a white undershirt while at work in the pizzeria, signaling his racial allegiance in the neighborhood in contrast to his open-minded brother Vito (Richard Edson), who wears a black undershirt.
9. The film was directly aimed at hurting a major New York City politician.
There’s no mistaking that Do the Right Thing is an overtly political movie that spoke to complex, large-scale issues like gentrification, systemic racism, and police brutality, but parts of it were also aimed at one politician in particular. Blaming Mayor Ed Koch for the deaths of black men and women like Eleanor Bumpurs (one person to whom the movie is dedicated) at the hands of an overly aggressive police force, Lee included graffiti that said “DUMP KOCH” next to an image of Mike Tyson punching Koch and Jesse Jackson campaign posters that say, “Our Vote Counts!”
“We had this plan because the film came out in August and that fall was the Democratic primary [between Koch and David Dinkins],” Lee told New York Magazine. “So, throughout the film, you hear Mister Señor Love Daddy, played by Samuel Jackson, telling people to vote, vote, vote. And Dinkins won."
10. Barack and Michelle Obama saw the movie on their first date.
“He was trying to show me his sophisticated side by selecting an independent filmmaker,” Michelle Obama said, reflecting on seeing Do the Right Thing on her first date with her future husband—and the future president. On the 25th anniversary of Lee’s film, Barack Obama recorded a video message thanking Lee for helping him impress Michelle. Other options for that first date? Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids were still in theaters, and The Karate Kid Part III came out the same weekend as Do the Right Thing.