Twenty-five years ago this month, Spike Lee released his third feature film and, inarguably, his greatest joint: Do the Right Thing, the story of tensions between the local residents and an Italian-American family in the black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, on the hottest day of the summer. The film was a trenchant exploration of the racial politics of New York City at the time, from incendiary trash-talking to police violence and an ensuing riot — even extending to the graffiti on the wall reading “TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH.” (Tawana Brawley became a political flashpoint in 1987 when, as a teenager, she was found in a trash bag smeared with feces and with racial slurs written on her body; she said six white men had raped her, although a special state grand jury the following year declared that she had fabricated the story.)
It was also a gripping human drama with an amazing ensemble cast, from veterans like Ossie Davis and the late Ruby Dee to first-timers like Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez (who not only stars in the movie, but kicks it off with an unforgettable dance routine to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”). Also on board: Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nunn, Robin Harris, and Lee himself as the pizza-delivering, trashcan-throwing Mookie. Do the Right Thing stands up today as a piece of art, as a milestone in African-American cinema, and as the movie that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date. When Obama related that story to Lee, the director told the President, “Good thing you didn’t choose Driving Miss Daisy.”
We caught up with Lee to discuss the making of the movie. “I’m a sports fan — you might say it was a true team effort,” he told us. “It’s hard to make a good film, and it doesn’t happen very often where everything comes together.”
What was the original inspiration for Do the Right Thing?
I knew I wanted the film to take place in one day, which would be the hottest day in the summer. And I wanted to reflect the racial climate of New York City at that time. The day would get longer and hotter, and things would escalate until they exploded. I’m a New Yorker, so I know that after 95 degrees, the homicide rate and domestic abuse goes up — especially when you get that week-long or so heat wave.
Did you have the title from the beginning?
I had the title before I had anything. I just loved that saying. I had grown up hearing it in Brooklyn: “Do the right thing, do the right thing.”
Did you write the screenplay in two weeks?
The first draft. I’d wake up in the morning and write three or four hours, then I’d quit, carry on with the rest of the day, and come back the next morning.
Were there certain characters that you identified with more?
No, as a writer I want everybody to get a chance to voice their opinions. If each character thinks that they’re telling the truth, then it’s valid. Then at the end of the film, I leave it up to the audience to decide who did the right thing.
What was the hardest part of making the movie?
It was shot over eight weeks, but it couldn’t look like that — it was supposed to take place in one day. That’s hard to do. And the challenge we gave the cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, costume designer Ruth Carter: We wanted audiences to feel the heat. I wanted people to be sweating from watching this film, even though they might be seeing it in air conditioning. Everybody used their skills to convey that feeling of heat. We painted that red wall. In many shots, our great cameraman Ernest Dickerson would put a butane lighter underneath the lens.
Working with actors like Martin Lawrence, Rosie Perez, and Samuel L. Jackson, did you anticipate what their careers would become?
Well, I worked with Sam earlier on School Daze, but it did not surprise me. Sam and I went to the same college, Morehouse College, and I first saw him onstage doing plays. I saw potential for Martin and Rosie, but I was really not worrying about their careers in the future. It might sound selfish, but I was thinking, “We’ve got to get a great performance out of them for this particular film that we’re doing at this time.”
Rosie Perez later said she felt pressured into doing the nude scenes and regretted it. Were you aware at the time that she was not comfortable with it?
Yeah, but she’s come back on that. I was not aware of it at the time.
Did you have a favorite reaction to the film?
I’ll tell you my least favorite: the reviews of David Denby and Joe Klein saying that black people were going to riot after seeing this film. That they [black people] weren’t intelligent enough to make the distinction between what’s happening on screen and what happens in real life — so they would come out of theaters and riot all across America. You can Google it! Blood was going to be on my hands, and I was going to be personally responsible for David Dinkins not being the first African-American mayor [of New York City], because the primary was in that September. That still bugs the shit out of me. I know people might read this and say “Spike, move the fuck on,” but I’m sorry — I can’t. They never really owned up to that, and when I think about it, I just get mad. Because that was just outrageous, egregious and, I think, racist. I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theatres killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.
Do you still believe Tawana told the truth?
Well, I don’t think the story has really come out. One day we’ll find out what really happened.
How has Bed-Stuy changed in the last 25 years?
It’s gentrified now. So is Fort Greene, my neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, so is Williamsburg, so is Bushwick, so is Harlem, so is the South Bronx, so is Brixton in London, so is D.C. — it’s happening all over. I just find it funny that when gentrifiers move to a neighborhood, all of a sudden, services get better and better. Better sanitation, better public schools, more police presence. And the thing that people never really talk about is where do people go in historically neighborhoods of color when the landlord has raised the rent? They get pushed out. It’s not just a problem for people of color. New York City has just gotten so expensive: I don’t care who you are, there’s not enough affordable living. And it’s a detriment to the city if only people who have money can live here. That’s going to make New York City a very boring place.
Is there anything you want viewers to know about Do the Right Thing before they watch it in 2014?
It still holds up! But we look real young.