Do The Right Thing: 30 Must-Know Facts To Celebrate The 30th Anniversary Of Spike Lee’s Classic Film
I wasn’t in Do The Right Thing, but I was IN Do The Right Thing. Spike Lee’s third feature film began shooting on my birthday, July 18, 1988, in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Lee had been inspired by the 1986 murder of Michael Griffith, a Black man from Trinidad, to make a film that didn’t just tackle racial tension in America, but held it down on the blood-stained asphalt to stare at its reflection in the broken glass and dirty water that had pooled in the gutters. Griffith lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and was set upon by a mob of white men from Howard Beach, Queens, when he and his friends were leaving a local pizzeria. While trying to escape his attackers, Griffith ran in front of a moving car, driven by the son of a police officer, and was killed.
While the subsequent trial played out in the papers (17-year-old Jon Lester served 15 years for the death before being deported back to his native England), I was on the B35 and B16 buses back and forth to middle school from my home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a predominantly Black and West Indian enclave, to the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, which was predominantly white. In the three years between Griffith’s murder and the release of Do The Right Thing in 1989, my personal lens on race had been irrevocably altered. Thanks to my education, my proximity to whiteness was not theoretical or abstract. I’d been welcomed into the homes of my Italian-American classmates but also had been called a "spade" and hit with eggs on my way home by those who only knew me as the Black kid on the bus. Compared to Griffith I’d gotten off easy, but when Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” turned my favorite art form into more than just entertainment, my bones were shaken with the urgency of their message. By the time I sat down in the theater to see what Mr. Lee had to say about me and my hometown, I was ready and receptive. Before I could be conditioned to think my story didn’t matter, here I was, 13, impressionable, smart yet naive, about to watch the world I walked in projected onto a screen. Michael Griffith was not alive to see this, but I was.
The tragic story of a Brooklyn neighborhood torn asunder on the hottest day of the year remains one of Spike’s most nimble yet impactful scripts. Opportunity (or lack thereof) for financial independence, love, respect and recognition pushed the story forward in disparate but connected directions with racial tension serving as its corrosive nucleus.
"I think my job as a filmmaker is to shed light on the problems that face us and by examination of these problems, hopefully, an answer can be worked out,” Spike said in a documentary about the making of Do The Right Thing. “I think in order to fix a problem we have to acknowledge a problem is there.”
It’s been a rocky 30 years since the release of Do The Right Thing. America still hasn’t fully embraced the lessons about racial hatred, gentrification and police brutality that Spike Lee and his amazing cast unfurled for us that year. There are so many iconic moments that have endured and been cemented into the cultural lexicon ("D, motherf*cker, D!"), but there is so much that even I’m still learning about the creation of the film.
So, in recognition of the 30th anniversary of Do The Right Thing, I present “30 for 30,” facts you should know about Spike Lee’s classic. We scoured the internet for interviews, written and video, to unearth some gems.
The working title for Do The Right Thing was Heat Wave.
Do The Right Thing takes place on the hottest day of the year. “Spike always wrote with pens on legal pads, and he was writing something that was called Heat Wave,” cinematographer Ernest Dickerson told Ebony.com. “The first thing he said was, ‘I’m writing a script that takes place on the hottest day of summer and I want you to figure out a way for the audience to feel heat.’”
In the documentary produced by St. Clair Bourne, Spike would add that he was inspired by a Twilight Zone episode that he watched when he was six years old about a scientist that discovers that the murder rate goes up when temperatures exceed 95 degrees.
Do The Right Thing was originally a Paramount film, not Universal.
Spike was coming off the success of School Daze when he was ready to make his third film. “Do The Right Thing was really at Paramount Pictures first and they liked it,” he said at an Academy hosted panel moderated by John Singleton. But then they started to get kinda scared about the ending of the film. They really wanted me to tone it down and I wouldn’t tone it down. The same weekend that Paramount said no, Universal said yes.”
Do The Right Thing was made for $6.5 Million.
“Spike hadn’t had the best experience with School Daze and what he was most concerned about was interference by the studio and that we’d support the movie with marketing when it came out,” says Tom Pollock of Universal. “So, we made a deal. You can have $6 Million—he talked me into another $500,00 because he’s a great negotiator-- to make this movie and if you do that it’s yours, you can make the movie you want to make and we’ll support it. That’s how it got made.”
Spike added: Tom Pollock is the unsung hero of this film. It started at the world premiere in Cannes where there was a segment of the press who did not want this film to come out and said this film would cause Black people to run amok. Tom Pollock had done a film called The Last Temptation of Christ before this and he went through the ringer on that one. He had to get bodyguards. He could have easily said ‘Spike I can’t do this again.’ But he stood behind the film and said we’re putting it out.
Shooting was scheduled to last for 8 weeks from July 18th to September 9th, but the film wrapped on the 14th.
Filming took place on Stuyvesant Avenue between Lexington and Quincy. The block was renamed “Do The Right Thing Way” in 2015.
Security was tight.
The Fruit Of Islam were brought in to clean up the drug dens and abandoned buildings: “Spike invited us here because he knows we have a rapport with the community. We don’t come to do no harm to our people. We came in and asked them to leave and they left.”
The sets they built were almost too real.
It took six weeks of prep time to build the pizzeria and Korean market. People kept trying to shop at the Korean market and walk in to buy pizza. The ovens in Sal’s actually worked, so you could make real pizza.
Two murals were painted specifically for the film.
The “Bed-Stuy- do or Die” feautring flags and peoples of many nations and a Mike Tyson portrait were painted specifically for Do The Right Thing.
Feel the heat.
In many shots, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson would put a butane lighter underneath the lens to make the images look hotter. And one wall was purposely painted fire engine red.
Where there was fire, there was smoke.
When Sal’s Pizzeria went up in flames, it posed a potential threat to the local residents. So they were paid between $150 and $220 per day to relocate during the fire scene. “When we do our fire scenes we’re going to have to relocate the people that live adjacent to the pizzeria for fear of smoke inhalation.”
The part of Sal was originally written for Robert Deniro, but he declined and recommended Danny Aiello. Bill Nunn originally auditioned for Senor Love Daddy, which eventually was played by Samuel L. Jackson.
Samuel L. Jackson was bored a lot on set.
Jackson: “I was always stuck in that radio station,” Sam told Entertainment Weekly. “They only came in there when it rained and they had to shoot stuff in a covered set. So, I’d be in there just kinda looking out the window watching them shoot everybody else, wondering if I was ever gonna get on camera. Half the time I’d be in there asleep, because I’d been up pretty much the night before f—ed up, hanging out with my friends. [Laughs] Bill Nunn actually lived in my basement, in my brownstone.
Nunn: We called it “The Cave.” The Cave was up on 143rd between Broadway and Amsterdam. That’s where we ended up a lot, having fun.
Bill Nunn on portraying teenaged Radio Raheem.
Bill Nunn “I felt sorry for the kid. Just the sympathy I evoked within myself for the character helped me to be the character,” he says in the documentary. “It wasn’t like a deep process. I’m not deep. I’m not one of those Johnny Carson cats that goes on Johnny and says “When I was preparing for Raheem, I went and lived with a gang and I had em whoop my ass a couple times to really see how it felt.” I don’t have to get my ass kicked to play like I am. However, years later he Nunn confessed that the role saved him from some ass whoopins.
“I wasn’t a young black kid. I was a 35-year-old from Atlanta who came up to Brooklyn to make these movies with Spike. I was faking it man. I’ve gotten out of a lot ass whoopins back in the day. The Decepticons would be like ‘Hey, it’s you.’
Raheem’s Radio is history.
Spike autographed Raheems’s Promax Super Jumbo boombox as a gift to film critic Gene Siskel. It now lives in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Roger Guenveur Smith’s character ‘Smiley’ was not in the original script.
Roger Guenveur Smith: “Spike gave me a draft of the script. There was no character written for him, but Spike Lee gave him a copy of the script with a Malcolm X quote. I took it home and read it. And I came up with the idea of this guy who walked up and down the street selling personally colorized photographs of Malcolm X shaking hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. Whenever I saw that photo I thought of the popular propaganda of these men is that they were diametrically opposed. But you could see in the flash of that bulb that they had true love and respect for each other.”
Spike also revealed in this interview at Cannes in 1989 that Smiley’s stutter was inspired by a character named Gabrielle in Fences, who is living with a head injury from World War II.
Rosie Perez was cast after arguing with Spike at his Birthday party.
Rosie: He was having a “Da butt” contest to see which black woman in the club had the biggest ass. I get on the speaker to mock the whole thing and these bouncers come over and tell me to get down and we got in an argument and he kept laughing at me while I cursed him out. And he asked me where I was from and I said Brooklyn. And he said tonight was fate.
Robi Reed, casting director: “Rosie auditioned for that movie in my house and she had no acting experience, but it didn’t matter. It was all about instinct and what a person could convey with their truth.”
Rosie’s opening dance sequence was filmed for 8 hours and she got tennis elbow as a result. “She hated me after that,” says Spike.
Ossie Davis pulled from personal history to play Da Mayor.
Ossie Davis on playing Da Mayor”: "I approach him from my own memories," he says in the documentary. "Growing up as a boy as I did, in a small southern town, and watching old Black men, some too old to work, some too sick to work, some just plane unemployed. Sitting around at the railroad station. And every day they would be there. And they would wait for the train to come. And they would comment on the train as it came, they would comment on the train as it stood there and then they would comment on the train as it left. As if they controlled the train. As if they made it happen. I knew powerlessness from that. I knew the pain of it, the joy of it. I knew the jokes that they told. But more than that, I knew what they were covering up.”
It was hot enough to fry eggs.
In one deleted scene, young Eddie (who is later almost hit by an ice cream truck) cooks an egg on the hood of a Sal's cadillac.
“Fight The Power” was not the original idea for the theme song.
Chuck D: “Fight The Power” was not the first song that Public Enemy submitted. [To Spike] “You wanted us to do ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ and we were like I don’t know if that’s gonna fit. Then Hank [Shocklee] and I and Bill [Stephney] came together and said “Fight The Power.” You told us a little bit about the wall and that’s where the Elvis and John Wayne thing comes from. They’re on the walls of being icons of America, but the contributors weren’t on the wall…a couple passes came your way…It was the second “Fight The Power”…we all knew about the first “Fight The Power” by The Isley’s in 1975. It was the first song I heard with a curse word in it. Talking about the “bullshit going down”…There’s no way in hell there would be a “Fight The power” without a Do The Right Thing.
“Lift Every Voice,” the Black National Anthem, does still open the film.
Giancarlo Esposito, Buggin Out, lived at the epicenter of the movie’s conflict in real life.
“I am a Black Italian. My father is Italian, my mother is Black, I was born in Italy,” he shared in the documentary. “When I went to school I wasn’t accepted by Blacks because my name was Giancarlo Esposito. The whites didn’t want me because I had an Italian name. My only friends were Jewish people because I were another outcast. So, I think this film is showing us that we all have this problem somewhere.”
Buggin Out’s iconic Air Jordan 4s were originally for Mookie.
“I made the smart decision to have Mookie wear Jordan’s in ‘She’s Gotta Have It’,” Spike told Rob Markman. “I wasn’t really feeling the 4s, (not for Mookie) but I gave those to Giancarlo Esposito." Mookie rocks the Nike Air Trainer III.
Danny Aiello was uncomfortable dropping the N-Bomb.
“Spike wanted Danny to use the N-word, and Danny refused on the grounds that these were his customers, these were his people, and he would never stoop to that level,” Richard Edson, who played Vito, told Entertainment Weekly. “Spike’s justification was that when push came to shove, this would be the default position of a guy like Sal. So, the production stopped and we sat down at the table, and Spike, who pretty much always got what he wanted, laid it down.
Danny Aiello’s son, Rick, plays the cop, Officer Long, who kills Radio Raheem.
Do The Right Thing premiered at Cannes Film Festival on May 19th, 1988, Malcolm X’s 65th birthday. Coincidentally, Ossie Davis gave Malcolm’s eulogy.
DTRT didn’t win any awards at Cannes, but there was one very strong supporter at the Festival.
“Sally Field liked the movie. The other six judges “hated the movie.” Sally Field told me herself,” Spike said in an interview with Brian Linehan in 1989. “We flew from Niece to Paris. Sally Field was on my plane. She tapped on the shoulder and introduced herself. The president of the jury didn’t like the film. That it wasn’t heroic enough. Awards were given to 10 films and we didn’t get one.”
Universal’s gamble paid off.
Do The Right Thing opened with $3.5 Million in just 353 theaters. The domestic gross peaked at $27 Million, worldwide at $37 Million. It was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1990: Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello, but was famously snubbed for Best Picture, which went to Driving Miss Daisy.
Burning Frank Sinatra’s picture would cause problems for Lee later.
In an interview with director Martin Scorcese, Spike reveals that one famous Italian was not happy with his photo being burned in the Sal’s Pizzeria fire.
“I’ve got a funny Frank Sinatra story. In Do the Right Thing , the wall of fame was of all Italians. One of the pictures burned was Frank Sinatra’s. So, a couple of films later, I’m doing Jungle Fever , and there are three songs I want to use of Frank Sinatra’s. Frank Sinatra doesn’t want to speak to me. I have to speak to his daughter Tina. I said, “Tina. Miss Sinatra. Frank, your father, I adore him. He was my mother’s favorite performer. I chose these songs from September of My Years  because that was her favorite album, and I meant no disrespect by burning his picture at all!” [laughs] So they made me squirm a little bit, but they relented and let me use the three songs in Jungle Fever.
Spike wants his plaque back.
On the last day of shooting a bronze plaque was put into the sidewalk to commemorate that Do The Right Thing was shot on that block on a certain date. “We got permission from the city and everything,” Spike told Entertainment Weekly. [link: “And the next day it was gone. That’s the old Bed-Stuy, Do or Die. [Laughs] I wish I had it. That bronze plaque did not unscrew itself out of cement and just walk down Lexington Avenue. So, if someone is out there reading this EW article and you’re the motherf—er who stole that plaque, I’ll buy it back. No questions asked.”
Do The Right Thing is the center of a Spike Lee cinematic universe.
Mookie and Tina’s Son, Hector, is revealed to Mars Blackmon from She’s Gotta Have it Season 2. Mookie is also still delivering pizza in Brooklyn, according to a cameo in Spike’s 2012 movie, Red Hook Summer. Guess who he is delivering them for? Sal.
“Sal left Bed Stuy,” Lee told IndieWire in 2012. “If he would have known it’d be gentrified he would have stayed. Sal, with insurance money, rebuilt his place from the ground up, in Red Hook…Sal called Mookie, who’s unemployed at the time. And Mookie said ‘I’ll think about it, [but] you’ve got to make sure that me and Pino (John Turturro‘s character in the 1989 film) are straight’ What really made Mookie take the job is that Sal finally put sisters and brothers up on the wall.”