10 Facts About Do the Right Thing On Its 30th Anniversary

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

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.

A scene from 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

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.

Bill Nunn in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

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.

Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and Richard Edson in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

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.

Martin Lawrence, Giancarlo Esposito, and Steve White in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

“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.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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