On Christmas Day, 1987, the 30-year-old Brooklyn-based filmmaker Spike Lee started working on the script for his third feature. His first, the 1986 surprise hit “She’s Gotta Have It,” was a trailblazing romantic comedy about young upscale African Americans, and his sophomore effort, “School Daze,” a musical look at black college life, was in the can and set to be released two months later. In this new project, Lee wanted to examine the racial tension that enveloped New York City at the time, most of which was due to an incident that occurred in the predominantly white Howard Beach section of Queens a year earlier: A group of white youths attacked three black men outside a pizza place for simply being the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood. One of the black men, 23-year-old Michael Griffith, was chased onto the Belt Parkway and was struck and killed by a car. ? The new film, which Lee titled “Do the Right Thing,” wound up detailing how a single block in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant -- one with the white-owned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria at its heart -- erupted in racial violence on the hottest day of the year. It featured a striking visual style, an idiosyncratic blend of comedy and tragedy, and an extraordinary ensemble cast including Danny Aiello as Sal, the pizzeria owner; Lee as Mookie, an unambitious deliveryman; and Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, the local drunk. It also instantly established Lee as a major talent who couldn’t be ignored or dismissed.
When “Do the Right Thing” was released, audiences and critics were divided. Vincent Canby hailed it in the New York Times as “a remarkable piece of work,” and Roger Ebert, in his four-star Chicago Sun-Times review, added that it came “closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.” On the flip side, Lee was criticized for a drug-free presentation of a crack-ravaged neighborhood and for being recklessly incendiary. In his review in the June 26, 1989, issue of New York magazine, David Denby said that “the end of this movie is a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, [Lee’s] partly responsible.” Jack Kroll in Newsweek called the film “dynamite under every seat.” The critics’ fears underestimated the audience -- no riots resulted.
The movie received two Oscar nominations (supporting actor for Danny Aiello and original screenplay) but no awards. The motion picture academy’s political timidity was reflected in its choice for best picture, “Driving Miss Daisy,” which featured Morgan Freeman as a Southern chauffeur. Lee, however, would have the last laugh. When the American Film Institute unveiled its list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time, neither “Driving Miss Daisy” nor “sex, lies, and videotape,” which beat out Lee’s film for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, were anywhere to be found. “Do the Right Thing” came in at No. 96.
On June 30, the film celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Universal is releasing a two-disc special edition DVD with hours of extras, including a never-before-seen documentary and a new commentary track by Lee. Since making “Do the Right Thing,” Lee has averaged nearly a film a year -- his latest is the basketball documentary “Kobe: Doin’ Work.” But “Do the Right Thing” continues to be his most celebrated movie.
In this oral history, key members of the cast and crew, including Lee, who sat down for two lengthy interviews, were eager to discuss the controversy that accompanied the film, the tensions on the set and how the movie played a role in bringing our president and first lady together.
‘It’s gonna be a scorcher today’
Spike Lee [Mookie], actor, writer, producer and director: New York City at that time was a very racially polarized environment, which I still feel was fueled by Mayor Ed Koch. The Howard Beach incident had happened, and I wanted to explore the love-hate relationship between African Americans and Italian Americans. I also wanted to do something that took place on the hottest day of the summer.
Ernest Dickerson, cinematographer: Spike and I were sitting together on a plane to Los Angeles and he was writing a script on a legal pad. The title at that point was “Heat Wave.” He then asked me, “How do you portray heat on film? How do you get the audience to really feel it?” I remember we talked about having car radiators boiling over, hot asphalt and steam.
Jon Kilik, line producer: Spike and [co-producer] Monty Ross came to my place to talk, and either at that meeting or the next, Spike was, like, “Let’s do the movie for $10 million, let’s get Robert De Niro to star in it, let’s get Paramount to finance it, and let’s start shooting on July 18.” Well, most importantly, we did start shooting on July 18.
Lee: Paramount was on track to make the film. Then at the last moment, out of nowhere, they didn’t like the ending. They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug, all happy and upbeat. I wasn’t doing that, so I called up Universal executive Sam Kitt, who I had known from my independent days, and he gave it to Tom Pollock.
Tom Pollock, then-chairman, Universal Pictures: I liked “She’s Gotta Have It.” I thought, “Wow, this guy’s really talented.” So when Spike submitted the script for “Do the Right Thing,” I felt it had the potential of being great. I also had never before seen a movie that dealt explicitly with race and what was then called a race riot, from a black director.
Lee: Tom said, “Make the film the way you want to, but you’re not getting a penny more than $6.5 million.” He’s really the unsung hero of this film. He was attacked after it was shown in Cannes, then he was attacked for releasing it in the summer.
‘My people, my people’
Lee: I wanted Robert De Niro to play Sal. I mean, what young filmmaker wouldn’t want him to star in their film? So I gave him the script and he liked it, but he said it wasn’t for him.
Danny Aiello [Sal]: I was in New York at a party for Madonna and as I was leaving, this little guy runs after me and says, “I have this script.” So we started a dialogue which led to our meeting in restaurants, going to a Yankees game, going to a Knicks game. We became close.
Robi Reed, casting: I had just happened across Robin Harris and Martin Lawrence, both of whom were fairly early on in their careers. So I told Spike, “Next time you’re in L.A., let’s go see these guys perform at the Comedy Act Theater and maybe we can put them in the movie.”
Martin Lawrence [Cee]: I remember Robi and Spike coming to the club. I didn’t alter my performance or anything, I did what I did.
Lee: I was in a Los Angeles club called Funky Reggae at a party for my birthday. This young lady was dancing on top of a speaker, and since it was my party, if she fell and broke her neck, I was going to get sued. So I told her to please get off, and she jumped down and cursed me out. I had never heard a voice like that before.
Rosie Perez [Tina]: That’s fiction. There were a bunch of African American girls on the stage bending over. It was a contest to see who had the biggest butt. I jumped on the speaker and started screaming for the women not to degrade themselves. I wasn’t dancing.
Lee: I love Rosie, but she was not on top of the speaker saying, “Women, we must rise against this!” She was dancing. She was the choreographer for “In Living Color,” and all the Fly Girls did were shake their asses. So that story is bull.
Ruby Dee [Mother Sister]: I knew this character from my childhood in Harlem. I remember seeing women on Seventh Avenue leaning out the windows, sitting on a pillow, just watching the block activity as if it was a television program. I was surprised that someone as young as Spike knew this character.
Giancarlo Esposito [Buggin Out]: I’m half-Italian and half-black, so I understood both sides on a deep level. And a hard part of growing up for me was that I didn’t want to take sides. But for this character, I had to.
Roger Guenveur Smith [Smiley]: All of my work throughout the film was improvised. There’s no Smiley in any script.
Stephen Park [Sonny]: In the script I had, my character was known as “Korean Clerk.” And when Ginny Yang, who played my wife, and I were called to the set on walkie-talkie, we were referred to as “the Koreans.” That really bothered me, especially considering the film dealt with race relations. So I told Spike that I wanted my character to have a name. I mentioned that my Korean name is Sun Kyu, at which point Danny said, “Sonny. I’ll call you Sonny.” It was a mini-Ellis Island moment. And it meant a lot to me.
Lee: Matt Dillon turned down the role of Pino. His agent told him not to do it. Then I saw the film “Five Corners,” in which John Turturro beats a penguin to death and throws his mother out a window. I was like, “That’s the guy I want to play Pino.”
John Turturro [Pino]: When I read the script, I thought, “This is what’s happening.” I grew up in Hollis, Queens, which was basically more black than white. So I knew both sides of the coin.
Aiello: I didn’t think Sal was a racist, but I don’t think he was a nice guy all the time either. Spike has said that I tried to make Sal lovable, which isn’t true.
‘Fight the Power’
Chuck D [of Public Enemy]: Spike said that he was doing a film that would reflect what was happening in New York City at the time and he wanted a song that would signify that theme, and that Public Enemy had to be the artist that recorded it.
Lee: I needed an anthem. . . . When I heard “Fight the Power,” I was, like, “This is it!”
‘Bed-Stuy -- do or die’
Wynn Thomas, production designer: I scouted every block in Bed-Stuy. The location that we settled on fit all our requirements: two vacant lots directly across from each other, where we could build Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and the Korean Market. The ultimate compliment was when real people would walk off the street and try and buy a slice.
Turturro: The neighborhood had a lot of energy, but it was dangerous to drive through at night. You definitely didn’t want to have a flat tire at four o’clock in the morning, because there were a lot of hungry dogs out on some streets.
Lee: There were crack houses in the neighborhood. The NYPD was not thought of that highly in most black communities, especially Bedford-Stuyvesant, so we got [Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam’s security force] the Fruit of Islam to watch the set.
Dickerson: It became the safest block in Brooklyn!
Richard Edson [Vito]: I tried to get through to the Fruit of Islam guys. It was kind of a challenge because I knew they had very strong racial feelings. So every morning, I would say hello and try to engage them. I don’t think they ever even acknowledged me. I finally gave up after about four weeks.
Esposito: Those guys were hard-core. They just didn’t like or hang out with white people.
Turturro: They talked to me all the time. They called me Brother John. I guess Richard is not as black as I am.
‘How come you got no brothers up on the wall?’
Aiello: Spike has said that when we were filming the fight in Sal’s, I didn’t want to use the word “nigger.” He might be talking about John Turturro or Richard Edson, but definitely not me. What I said to him was, “Do you want to use it this much?” I felt that you diffused the word if you kept saying it. Spike hired me because he knew I wasn’t afraid to say the word. He knew I used that word my whole life. I’m not proud of it but I did. I grew up in a black neighborhood and both blacks and whites said it.
Lee: Danny did not want to say the word. He told me that he had never used it before. I was like, “Come on, you’re playing a character and don’t tell me that Sal has never used that word before.” During the scene, Giancarlo called Danny something like “guinea bastard,” and Danny flipped and called Giancarlo a nigger. That’s the take we used because he went berserk.
Esposito: I remember Danny not wanting to say the word because he felt it was too obvious. So we talked about how he grew up and how I grew up, so we could get to a place where we could push each other’s buttons and say things we really didn’t want to. When we started getting into the scene, I held off on calling him a guinea, because I knew how much Italians hated that word, because my father’s Italian. In fact, Danny reminded me at that time of my dad. I grew up with Italians so I actually believe that I’m more of a guinea bastard than a nigger. But when I finally said it, Danny flipped. It was an amazing moment. When we finished, the first thing we did was hug each other. We were both in tears because that was a lot of hate to access.
‘Burn it down, burn it down!’
Bill Nunn [Radio Raheem]: The whole neighborhood felt hot that night. You got the vibe that something could have really jumped off. There was something in the air that was electric, and a little dangerous.
Dee: In a sense, I wasn’t acting because I had lived through it. In Harlem, I had seen the people running down the streets, ransacking stores, and the cops trying to beat them up.
Aiello: It was sad to watch Sal’s burn down. I thought it should have been preserved, almost like a landmark or tourist attraction.
Thomas: I wasn’t looking forward to its destruction, so Spike burned it down on a day when I wasn’t on the set. I thought that was very sensitive.
Smith: Going into the burning pizzeria was like walking into a huge propane-fueled barbecue pit.
Dickerson: I got a little spooked because the flames were crawling up the walls, so we had to cover ourselves with blankets because we were being bombarded with hot exploding glass.
Lee: I wanted to use three Frank Sinatra songs in “Jungle Fever,” so I approached Tina Sinatra, who handled that stuff. She said, “Spike, I don’t know. My father wasn’t happy about his picture being burned in the pizzeria.” It’s funny -- Pacino never said anything, De Niro never said anything. I had to do some serious smoothing over with Frank.
‘Always do the right thing’
Lee: To this day, no person of color has ever asked me why Mookie threw the can through the window. The only people who ask are white.
Edson: I don’t think Mookie did the right thing. He did what he felt he had to at that moment. But then did Sal do the right thing by smashing the radio? I think there were a lot of wrong things.
Kilik: He absolutely did the right thing because, whether consciously or not, he directed the anger away from Sal and his sons. He probably saved their lives.
Nunn: I didn’t really understand why Mookie did what he did. Sal was doing the neighborhood kids a favor by staying open late. He was trying to do a good thing.
Esposito: Mookie did the right thing for Mookie. But I think he definitely made a mistake.
Perez: No comment.
Lee: That’s up to the audience.
‘Together, are we gonna live?’
Barry Alexander Brown, editor: I showed a filmmaker friend of mine the movie. And afterward, he said, “You and Spike are irresponsible. There are going to be riots and people are going to get killed.”
Lee: People actually thought that young black Americans would riot across the country because of this film. That’s how crazy it was. It was the furthest thing from my mind because I had faith in my people. But I still feel that some white moviegoers were scared to see it in theaters because they might be filled with crazy black people.
Edson: It incited discussion, that’s what it incited.
Dickerson: It bothered me that people reacted that way but I wasn’t surprised because films that try to deal with racism often get a short shrift. Take Sam Fuller’s “White Dog,” which is a brilliant movie. It’s about racism, but it’s not racist.
Perez: The Latin community just blew a gasket over my depiction. They were bothered that I was a single mom, that I was -- whether they would admit it or not -- impregnated by a black man, that my accent was heavy. I would say, “If you don’t believe that there is truth to my character, walk into a welfare office.” And that pissed them off even more.
Lee: It disturbed me how some critics would talk about the loss of property -- which is really saying white-owned property -- but not the loss of life. “Do the Right Thing” was a litmus test. If in a review, a critic discussed how Sal’s Famous was burned down but didn’t mention anything about Radio Raheem getting killed, it seemed obvious that he or she valued white-owned property more than the life of this young black hoodlum. To me, loss of life outweighs loss of property. You can rebuild a building. I mean, they’re rebuilding New Orleans now but the people that died there are never coming back.
Aiello: Spike brought attention to the film and that is, of course, good. But he was quite controversial in his press conferences, talking about Malcolm X and so forth. If it wasn’t for that, I feel the film had a chance to win the Academy Award for best picture.
Dickerson: [“Driving Miss Daisy” winning best picture] still hurts. It definitely does.
Lee: I let it go. But let’s be honest. If you look at the academy voters 20 years ago, which movie are they going to like? One with characters named Buggin Out and Radio Raheem? Or one with a subservient, obedient, yassah-massa character?
Aiello: I love Denzel [Washington, who beat Aiello in the supporting actor category, for “Glory”], but that film was a joke. I look at it today and laugh.
‘We had a great, great day’
Turturro: Would I do it again? Of course, I would. They don’t make movies like that anymore, man.
Aiello: We made something special.
Smith: People will come up to me on the street and start stuttering, “Ma-Ma-Malcolm. Moo-Moo-Mookie.”
Nunn: One thing I get a lot is, “Where’s your radio?” I’m like, “Didn’t you see the movie, man? It burned up.”
Perez: People always ask me to say the name “Mookie.” I tell them, “No, rent the film.”
Turturro: Maybe there will be a sequel in which Pino’s married to a black woman and he has his own pizzeria: Pino’s Famous. Oh, and it’s in Bed-Stuy.
Lee: There was a benefit for Barack Obama on Martha’s Vineyard when he was running for the Senate. I didn’t really know who he was. He came over and said, “You’re responsible for me and my wife getting together.” Then he told me how they saw “Do the Right Thing” on their first date, and then went to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream and talked about it.
Smith: We’re actually responsible for a whole new era in American political achievement.
Lee: I think he is a very smart man, because if he had taken Michelle to see “Driving Miss Daisy,” things would have turned out a whole lot different.