The Little Known Story Behind Do the Right Thing

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures / Universal Pictures

Spike Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson huddled on a plane. It was 1987, and they were headed to Los Angeles to do postproduction work on Lee’s second feature film, School Daze, a raucous musical comedy about life at an all-black college in the South.

At the moment, the 30-year-old Lee was everywhere: from Knicks games to Nike commercials. With just one film in release—the previous year’s She’s Gotta Have It—his brash, sexy, unapologetically political sensibility had made him one of America’s most recognizable auteurs. But on that flight, the tireless director was already plotting out a new project, furiously scribbling on a yellow legal pad. The script would be his most ambitious yet—a multiracial, intergenerational ensemble set in his home borough of Brooklyn on one hot summer day. He was calling it Heat Wave.

The project wouldn’t be an easy sell. In fact, it would cost every ounce of creative and cultural capital Lee had amassed in his short career. If it failed, he risked becoming just another young filmmaker chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine. Lee wanted to make his name, but he wanted to do more than that: He wanted to make a film that would make America look in the mirror.

Two days after Christmas the previous year, more than a thousand people had taken to the streets of the Italian-American enclave of Howard Beach, Queens, outraged by the death of a young black man named Michael Griffith. A few weeks prior, Griffith and some friends had been beaten up and chased from a local pizza parlor by a group of white men. Escaping from his pursuers, Griffith had run into the street and was killed by a car. The tragic event was just the latest in a long string of racially charged incidents that polarized New York’s neighborhoods.

At the same time, the five boroughs were undergoing an artistic renaissance. Rap, then still fighting for air time on radio and MTV, was rumbling out from block parties. By the mid-1980s, artists like Run-DMC and Public Enemy were bringing a distinctly urban sound to the airwaves. Writers like Greg Tate and Lisa Jones were breaking new stylistic ground; jazz masters such as Branford and Wynton Marsalis revitalized an older musical style; and a comedian named Chris Rock started performing jokes honed on the still-mean streets of brownstone Brooklyn.

It was out of this milieu that a young film student named Spike Lee rocketed to fame. The son of an arts and literature teacher and a jazz musician, Lee was born in Atlanta, but his family moved to Brooklyn three years later. As a kid, Lee handed out fliers for his dad’s shows, learning early the importance of wooing a crowd. It was all well and good to make art—his dad’s career effectively drove that lesson home—but Lee understood at a young age that it took money for the show to go on.

While attending college in the South, Lee made his first film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn. After graduating, he followed his passion to New York University’s film school, and in 1985, he raised $175,000 to make his first feature film. Over two weeks, he and Dickerson, with whom he’d ultimately collaborate on seven films, shot, in stark black-and-white, a hip, sensual romantic-comedy called She’s Gotta Have It. The film went on to win an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, and another directing award at Cannes. It also grossed more than $7 million at the U.S. box office—an astounding feat for an indie.

Two years later, Lee was ready to go bigger. His new film, which he discussed with Dickerson on that flight to Los Angeles, would focus on some of the hottest hot buttons around, including racism, immigration, gentrification, and police brutality. At the center of Lee’s new story, which would become Do the Right Thing, was Mookie, a pizza delivery guy who tries his best to move between worlds while keeping his eyes on what he cares about most: getting paid. On a blistering summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, with the heat reaching into the triple digits, fissures within the community— among African-American and Latino residents, Italian-American and Korean business owners, and the police—threaten to break open a series of escalating conflicts. By the end of the day, after one final confrontation, a neighborhood fixture would be dead, a beloved business would be destroyed, and the city would never be the same.

Early drafts of his script veered toward the polemical. Inspired in part by Michael Griffith’s story, Lee wanted to open with a Malcolm X quote and Mookie (played by Lee himself) shouting “Howard Beach!” as he threw a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. But convincing a major studio that a film founded on race politics should be made—and could be successful—was another matter. Though they wouldn’t admit it, studio executives were looking for She’s Gotta Have It II—a light, sexy, silly romp. And that wasn’t the movie Lee wanted to make.

In 1988, after a long and frustrating gestation period, Paramount decided not to fund the project. The main issue, according to Lee’s published diary, was the ending: “How would audiences feel leaving the theater? Will blacks want to go on a rampage? Will whites feel uncomfortable?” Their hesitancy made Lee more committed than ever. “Am I advocating violence?” Lee wrote. “No, but goddamn, the days of 25,000,000 blacks being silent while our fellow brothers and sisters are exploited, oppressed, and murdered have to come to an end.” Lee continued shopping for funding, and eventually, Universal signed on to the project for a modest budget of $6.5 million. Lee was ready to begin filming.

Do the Right Thing was shot on Stuyvesant Avenue in Bed-Stuy over eight weeks in the summer of 1988. Lee, Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and their crew worked hard to create a vibrant universe where the action popped off the screen. Working on location, they shut down crack houses, painted exterior walls, hung a billboard of Mike Tyson, and sprayed some artfully conceived agitprop graffiti.

Lee wanted every shot to heighten the story’s tension; to that end, the color palette was limited to the hotter end of the spectrum. Out went blues and greens; in went bright reds and yellows. The crew even burned Sterno cans next to the camera to create the illusion of heat waves. Anything to agitate viewers’ eyes and make their necks sweat. Lee and Dickerson also used Dutch angles to destabilize viewers—positioning the camera at 45 degrees to give the movie an off-its-axis feel. “We’d looked at The Third Man and saw the use of Dutch angles, how it created tension,” Dickerson says of the 1949 Orson Welles noir. “It’s kind of a world going out of balance. We had it more tilted as things got rougher, especially before the riot.”

That riot took place at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. To create the parlor’s handmade feel, Thomas traveled all over the outer boroughs looking for inspiration—a mission not entirely without fraught moments given the freshness of the Howard Beach assault. In the end, he built a fully functioning restaurant with a working oven and kitchen, its walls lined with gas pipes, ready to burst into flames at the strike of a match.

But ultimately, Lee’s climactic scene worked not because of the set, but because of the richness of his characters. Bill Nunn, who played boom-box-toting B-boy Radio Raheem, understood his character intuitively. “I was trying to be like this guy who reminded me of myself at that time,” Nunn says. “A guy so in love with his music and culture that he wants to impose it on others.” Joie Lee, who played Mookie’s sister Jade, recalled on the commentary track how three-dimensional Lee’s characters were. “These are not stereotypical black characters,” she said. “Now, we may not think that so much because it’s not so out of the ordinary anymore—but then, my god!”

Another complex character was Smiley, a developmentally delayed man with a severe speech impediment who memorably attempts to explain racism. Roger Guenveur Smith, an accomplished stage actor, conceived and played Smiley. He remembers Lee being no-nonsense—and in a hurry to make history. When Lee showed the actor the script, he told him, “Read it tonight; come back to me tomorrow with an idea.” The character Smith came up with was so realistic that locals thought he was actually disabled.

Politics aside, Do the Right Thing was still a hard sell. It struck a complicated tone that whipsawed from comedy to melodrama to advocacy. In a single film, Lee portrayed street corner provocateurs that bordered on parody, tender scenes of family and community, and exuberant moments of fun with open fire hydrants, featuring a then unknown comedian named Martin Lawrence. Not to mention: that powder-keg ending.

The film builds around a single relentlessly thumping song, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” and yet for all its politics, the director never tells the viewer what to think or how to feel. We hear each point of view (sometimes spoken directly to the camera in long streams of racial epithets), but Lee refuses to define his film’s heroes or villains. Instead of spelling it out, Lee ends Do the Right Thing with two competing quotes. One, from Martin Luther King Jr., denounces violence. The other, from Malcolm X, advocates for self-defense. In the end, the director leaves it to the viewer to decide what doing the right thing means.

When Do the Right Thing debuted in May 1989 at the Cannes International Film Festival, Lee was dressed in a Malcolm X T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan no sellout. “This film is not about just New York City,” Lee said at the press conference. “It’s about the world. Racism is all over the world.”

Some critics fretted that in portraying an explosive situation, the movie might spark real unrest. David Denby, then a writer with New York, called Lee “a commercial opportunist” and worried that “the response to the movie could get away from him.” In the same issue, Joe Klein wrote that the director was “a classic art-school dilettante” and criticized the “dangerous stupidity of Spike Lee’s message.” But for every negative review, there was an effusive one. Roger Ebert left the Cannes screening with tears in his eyes. “I have been given only a few filmgoing experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw Do the Right Thing,” the critic wrote years later. “Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul.”

In the end, the top prize at Cannes that year went to Steven Soderbergh, for sex, lies, and videotape, but Do the Right Thing ignited a nationwide debate about race. Both The New York Times and The Village Voice devoted page after page to essays about the film; Nightline and Oprah brought the conversation into Americans’ living rooms. Many observers even say it influenced politics: That fall New York City elected David Dinkins, its first (and still only) African-American mayor. Was it a coincidence that one of the last lines in the film comes from Samuel L. Jackson, playing the DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy, reminding listeners to register to vote in the November election? New York still had a rough few years ahead of it, with the Central Park jogger rape case, riots in Crown Heights, and other racially charged incidents, but the conversation around race was being had openly—facilitated, in part, by Lee’s art.

Today, the film is a snapshot of an era—but it’s also an undisputed milestone, not just in Lee’s career, but in the evolution of African-American film and art. With it, Lee joined the ranks of luminaries like Melvin Van Peebles, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Bill Cosby—actors and directors who fought to make the movies a place where black performers could portray more than just maids and thugs.

But Lee did more than that. His style opened the floodgates for a new generation of African-American directors, most notably John Singleton, whose 1991 film Boyz n the Hood made him, at 23, the first black filmmaker to nab a Best Director Oscar nomination. “Spike opened the door to make more serious pictures,” Singleton once said. Earning more than $40 million worldwide, Do the Right Thing showed studios that black directors could do more than just provoke dialogue: They could secure box office returns. And for Lee, it proved that making a living didn’t have to conflict with making a statement.

Perhaps the biggest testament to Do the Right Thing’s legacy is that after a quarter-century, it feels fresh and relevant even to people who don’t remember the world it depicts. Nunn, whose character speaks few words on screen, today finds himself talking to people all the time who approach him and say, “Yo, Radio Raheem!” “What amazes me is the age of the people who say that,” Nunn says. “They’re kids. And they’re still watching this movie.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.