Before Jennifer Lopez, Selma Hayek and America Ferrara, there was Rosie Perez. She became a household name in one of the greatest films of all time, Do the Right Thing, playing Tina, Mookie’s (Spike Lee) flamboyant girlfriend. Although she had a career as a choreographer, Spike Lee noticed her after an argument the two had in a nightclub. Lee was having a “booty contest," Perez got on top of a speaker shouting sexism, confronted Spike Lee and history was made.
Do the Right Thing, a movie about race relations in 1980s Brooklyn, was an international controversy and a media sensation. In an era where Black people in Brooklyn were solely represented by “The Cosby Show,” the Spike Lee Joint blew the roof off race relations in America. Lee scared Blacks, Whites, Latinos and everyone in between.
Following “Do the Right Thing,” the proud Brooklyn native would gain global fame. Perez starred in successful films like “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Fearless,” which made her the second and last Puerto Rican woman to receive an Oscar nomination. In a one-on-one, the always candid Perez talks President Barack Obama, race relations, her career and the impact of “Do the Right Thing.”
Did you know President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama saw “Do the Right Thing” on their first date?
I did not know that until my best friend told me when I was on my way down to D.C. for the Inauguration. When I did meet the man, when he was still a Senator, and he asked me to campaign for him—he was so excited to meet me. I was like, "He's that excited to meet me? He knows my work?" [Laughs] I was really shocked. I told that to my best friend and she was like, "Duh! His first date with Michelle was 'Do the Right Thing.’" I was like, "Oh my God, I'm so embarrassed now!" I thought that was pretty wonderful. It's a bragging right that I use all the time—thank you! [Laughs]
“Do the Right Thing” goes down in history and 20 years later is still relevant. What was running through your mind when you were making “Do the Right Thing”?
I was still a college student at the time so I understood the ramifications a story like this would have. I understood that when I read the script. There was only a few of us on the set that were saying, ”This is going to be big. This is going to be extremely controversial. Spike, you need to be very ready"—everything people were going to throw at him just because of the subject matter. I understood that then.
So you knew it was going to be big?
I knew it was going to be big. As a college student and it being 1988 when filming, crack was quite prevalent in urban areas and it was becoming prevalent in rural areas. Just the inherent racism that was still at hand. Nobody was addressing it in such a big way. I also knew that a lot of people would not understand what satire meant. I knew a lot of people would be offended, people of color and people not of color. People of color would say, "We're not like that! We don't act like that!" Well, it's a satirical look at a neighborhood. I knew it would bring up so many issues for people as a whole and open wounds that people thought were closed and healed. I knew it was going to be big the same way I knew “White Men Can't Jump” was going to be big.
When the film came out Blacks and Whites had strong reactions. As far as your character, what was the reaction from the Latin community?
As far as my character, people had the reaction that I just spoke of. The issue of classism just kept pouring out. They were offended, “This is not a positive representation of who we are!” Back then they didn't call themselves Latin; they called themselves Hispanic, which I thought was hilarious. I don't call myself Latin, I call myself Puerto Rican. Having to have a discussion with so-called intellectuals, Latino intellectuals—it's satire. Like it or not, there are characters like this that do exist. Maybe not this over the top, but they do exist. If you don't want to face the ugly truth that's out there then I don't know what to tell you—the problem is never going to be solved. Spike is talking about prejudice and you're being prejudiced against what he wrote, which I think is hilarious. I think that Spike, I can’t speak for him, but I would surmise that he thought any racist or classist response would only come from White people—and it didn’t. It came from Spanish-Latin-Hispanic, whatever you want to call us, and also African Americans. It came from both sides of the color margin. I thought that was pretty dynamic. I think that I pissed off the Latin community because I didn't get offended at all. I was like, "It's a character I'm playing, it's not me. Why are you attacking me? Go to the source. Call up Spike! Have an interview with him." If we can't look at the good, bad and ugly of who we are, we are never going to progress as people—ever.
Kim Basinger famously said at the Oscars, "The best film of the year is not even nominated and it's 'Do the Right Thing.'" How do you feel about it?
I thought it was great! That's what I'm saying, there were a lot of unexpected reactions from this film and that is what made it so great. A lot of people consider this one of the top 100 great American films and I agree. Kim Basinger coming out in that way was great and grand, but also if we were surprised that a White person would champion and defend a movie that was made by a Black man—what does that say about us? We're being prejudiced as well. They say people of color can't be prejudiced? We can, we may not be able to be racist, but we can be prejudiced. We can make judgments about people and have preconceived notions about people. A White woman is standing up for us? I was like, "Wow!" When the movie came out it was '89, I was like, "When was the civil rights movement? When was slavery? How far have we come? Wow!" We're still shocked and amazed by these same ridiculous issues.
Angela Bassett, Whoopi Goldberg and Halle Berry are considered pioneers for women of color in Hollywood. I would put you in that same category. Do you see yourself as a pioneer?
Yeah. Someone told me Halle Berry used one of my quotes. She didn't quote me, but she kind of took from it, which I thought was great. I remember in interviews I was like, "I want the Jessica Lange roles!" You know? If I’m going be the maid, I better be a hell of a maid. I better have the biggest arc in the movie and there should be humility and depth to my character. Same thing if I was going to be a prostitute. I was out there saying no. Saying no to a lot of stuff and I also was saying yes to a lot of stuff on the other side of the coin. I was very willing to take on controversial roles that people didn’t really want to look at. Also, I was the first woman in a long time, there was some men, but when I came along I made no apologies whatsoever for my nationality, my color, my ethnicity, my vernacular and my class status. I made no apologies whatsoever. I did not try to conform to anybody's ideal of what a Latin celebrity or movie star should be. I took a lot of hits for it. Now, all of sudden everybody wants to say, "Yo, I'm hip-hop! I'm from Brooklyn! I'm from the Bronx!" When I first came out and saying that people were like, "Why is she doing that? Why is she so ghetto? Why does she have to mention Brooklyn?" I was sitting there going “Wow, I'm sorry that's your problem, not mine.”
In the African-American community it's important to pay homage to the people before you. Have any of the women of Latin descent who came after you, like Jennifer Lopez or Selma Hayek, said thank you for paving the way?
A few have. The first person to ever do that was Selma Hayek. She came up to me and she said, "I saw an interview of yours and you said you were producing a movie. I said, ‘Well, if she could do it, I could do it.’ I want to thank you now. People think my accent is cute and I know you had a tough time because you did have an accent. Because you made no apologies for it, people think mine is cute." I have to be honest with you, I cried because nobody had said it prior to her. No one said thank you whatsoever. People who I started their careers, helped start their careers or open doors. You don’t do it for that but when someone does acknowledge it, it makes you feel good inside, it helps your journey. Then, Eva Mendez called me. I never met the girl and she said, "Thank you." When I recently met America Ferrera she said, "I think you’re awesome, thank you." It has happened, but it hasn’t happened a lot.
What is your relationship like with Spike Lee today?
I would say it's very cordial and we've come full circle. I think a lot of old wounds have been healed. [Laughs] Most in part because of me! I was like this is stupid; this is the person who was very instrumental in changing my life. To have a rift between us that occurred years ago, is not healthy for anybody to hold onto. I felt like I could never really appreciate and say thank you to him if we had this rift between us. I remember going up to him at a party with his wife and said, “Hi.” They were both stunned and I go, "It's a new year. Let's start over. Nice to see you." He said, "Nice to see you too." It was so genuine. I had to walk away because I got so embarrassed by my emotions. Now it's great, anytime they want to honor that man, he gives a call or his people give a call, I jump to it. I may have not liked all of his films, but I have always liked and admired the fact that he does it his way. He makes no apologies, good or bad. It's very inspiring when times get tough to see that he's still here over 20 years. That's amazing.
We have Barack Obama in office. Do you think times have changed significantly since “Do the Right Thing” in 1989?
They've changed significantly to an extent that the hip-hop generation and Barack Obama's generation – I don’t necessarily think he was part of the hip-hop generation, but the time his age reflections – took full advantage of all the doors that were broken down for him and for us. Racism still exists and it's still ugly. Barack Obama did not change it over night. I heard someone on “Oprah” say, "When Barack Obama got elected to be President you could never complain for being a Black person." I was like, “Shut the f*ck up! Sit the f*ck down!” I was so angry when I was watching that. If they still act in a racist way you're saying we don't have a right to complain because Barack Obama is President? When there are racist obstacles in front of us? I see it in my arts education charity, which is in 50 schools, you see it. You see how teachers treat kids of color different. You see how teachers treat kids of color who are of lower class differently. It's still here, despite the fact that he's become President. But, saying that it has changed, it definitely has changed... somewhat. But it hasn’t changed completely. I still think we have a long way to go.