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Do The Right Thing at 30: fascinating facts about the groundbreaking Spike Lee film

The legendary film explored racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighbourhood during a blistering heat wave.

The legendary film explored racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighbourhood during a blistering heat wave

Spike Lee's film Do The Right Thing turns 30 this year. Here are some fascinating facts about the groundbreaking film. (40 Acres and a Mule)

It was set in a Brooklyn neighbourhood on one of the hottest days of the year — and that rising heat became a metaphor for the racial and social tensions that were reaching a boiling point.

Spike Lee's legendary 1989 film Do The Right Thing took an unflinching look at racism in its many forms, and his funny, thoughtful and at times brutal screenplay landed the young filmmaker his first Oscar nomination, as well as widespread acclaim.

Do The Right Thing turns 30 this year, and to mark the occasion, we've gathered fascinating facts about the film — from the area where it was shot to the origin of Radio Raheem's rings to Rosie Perez's feelings about her steamy scene. 

[Warning: videos contain strong language and violence]

Spike Lee was a young director

If you watch the trailer and think, "Spike Lee looks really young," it's because he was. When he released his first feature film, She's Gotta Have It, he was just 29; when he released Do The Right Thing he was 32. Since 1983, his company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced more than 35 films.

It was inspired, in part, by Alfred Hitchcock

Do The Right Thing takes place on a single day during a heat wave in a non-gentrified area of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. "I remember as a kid watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents about this [man] who was doing this study that after a certain temperature, the murder rate goes up. People get agitated. It just becomes crazy and combustible," recounted Lee in an interview. "And at this time there was the Howard Beach incident, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Ed Koch and his policy towards people of colour … all that factored in. It was going to be what we hoped was an honest portrayal of the race relations in that present-day New York City."

Lee wrote the screenplay in just two weeks

Do The Right Thing's powerful, witty and brutally honest dialogue landed the film a best original screenplay Oscar nomination, but astonishingly, the script didn't take long for Lee to write. In fact, he wrote the first draft in just two weeks. Said Lee in a Rolling Stone interview, "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."

Sal's Pizzeria wasn't real 

The set designers did a remarkable job of making Sal's Pizzeria look like an old Brooklyn storefront, but the building was created entirely from scratch on a vacant lot at the corner of Stuyvesant and Lexington Avenues. The set was so authentic, however, that the pizzeria was fully functional and the actors reportedly cooked pizzas in the ovens. The Korean grocery store across from Sal's was also built on an empty lot. The Yes Jesus Last Baptist Church was an existing building, but it was given a false front. Mookie's home was the real deal, though, and sits at 173 Stuyvesant Avenue.

It was a rough neighbourhood

At the time, the neighbourhood where they filmed was heavy on drugs and crime, so the production hired the Louis Farrakhan-led group the Fruit of Islam to provide security. "Once the Fruit of Islam cleaned out the crack houses, it was quiet in there, nobody bothered us," remembered Samuel Jackson in an interview. "The occasional time when you roam off set and go to a store in the neighborhood, some guys would say something to the effect of, 'You acting motherf--kers came in here and ruined our business, we're gonna f--k you up.' I'd be like, 'Well, you know, I haven't always been an actor, so I'm not gonna stand here and take an ass whupping.' But other than that, it was harmonious."

The film featured real-life couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee

Fellow actors, poets, playwrights, authors and civil rights activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee — also a married couple — were friends of Spike's father Bill Lee, and were cast as Mother Sister and Da Mayor in the film. 

Lee wanted a different actor to play Sal

Sal's Pizzeria is a central hub in the film, and features a photo wall of famous Italian-Americans, from Frank Sinatra to Al Pacino to John Travolta — but it turns out one of those stars could have been in the film.  "A lot of times the way you want it isn't necessarily the way it should be. For example with Do The Right Thing, my first choice to play [Italian-American pizzeria owner] Sal was Robert De Niro," said Lee in a CBC interview. "Now Robert's one of the greatest film actors of all time but an actor of his stature and weight would have tipped the scale too much. So it worked out having Dan Aiello do that role and Robert DeNiro saying he didn't want to do it." For the role, Aiello landed a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.

Lee's dad composed and performed much of the soundtrack

Public Enemy's hit Fight the Power — which Lee commissioned from the group — has a powerful presence in the film, but Lee's father Bill also composed and performed much of the score. The soundtrack did well, reaching number 68 on the Billboard 200, and number 11 on the Top R&B/Hip-hop Albums chart. Spike's sister Joie also appears in the film, playing his character Mookie's sister Jade.

Costume designer Ruth E. Carter wanted to capture the colours of Brooklyn

Costume design legend Ruth E. Carter began her film career with Spike Lee, first working on School Daze, then on Do The Right Thing. At the time, said Carter in a q interview with Tom Power, Brooklyn was a Mecca for African arts. 

"There were a lot of small vendors that had small store shops that sold African print clothing. That was a big part of Do The Right Thing, to bring the culture into that film into the pop culture of the time. And there was a woman who was painting T-shirts. Her name was Nasha and she was a Brooklyn resident with a small storefront and these beautiful hand painted T-shirts and I bought one for Radio Raheem," she remembered. "We really wanted Do The Right Thing to reflect the neighborhood but also enhance the story so it's like an urban fairytale.

"So we were inspired by Brooklyn, we were inspired by the neighborhood and we were inspired by the times. And we weren't afraid of using colours and having colours represent the African diaspora of this neighbourhood."

Radio Raheem's LOVE/HATE rings came from a local Brooklyn jewellery shop 

In the film, central character Radio Raheem wears rings that on one hand spell "LOVE," and on the other that spell "HATE." (They were inspired in part by Robert Mitchum's Love and Hate tattoos in Night of the Hunter.)

"It's a tale of good and evil," explains the character, who later dies at the hands of police, in the film. "One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, LOVE, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses — the right hand is coming back."

"It took a while to get them done," remembered costume designer Carter. "So the first rings that Radio Raheem wore were like a prototype. They were made out of wood and spray painted just so he could have something on his hands as he began to film. We finally got them and he did his scene where he does the whole prose about love/hate."

Rosie Perez cried during the nude scene

Actress Rosie Perez had never been in a nude scene before Do The Right Thing, but it did not go well, in part because she was afraid of what her family would think. "But I also didn't feel good about it because the atmosphere wasn't correct," she said in a New York Times interview. "And when Spike Lee puts ice cubes on my nipples, the reason you don't see my head is because I'm crying. I was like, I don't want to do this. I felt like Irene Cara in Fame. It was like, 'Wait a minute, I feel so wimpy, this is not who I am.' So that was my first experience, and it was horrible."

Perez later appeared nude in White Men Can't Jump, but said it was different because it was her decision and done on her terms. "[The] director was so cool and Woody Harrelson was like, 'Well, whatever you want is cool with me.' So there I felt empowered by it. But with Do the Right Thing it was like, 'Now I'm the object, here's the shot.' And the reason why I cried was not so much because I felt violated as because I was angry at myself, because I wanted to say, 'Say something! Get up!' So that's how I felt violated. I felt like I violated myself."

The crew used all kinds of tricks to convey how hot it was

The fact that New York was in the grips of a heat wave was essential to the plot of the film, and the crew went to great lengths to convey that sense of stifling swelter. "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," said Lee. "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."

At first Mookie couldn't break the window

In the pivotal riot scene at the end of the film, Lee's character Mookie breaks the window of Sal's pizzeria — but it didn't happen as easily as it looks. The moment involved multiple tries, and eventually, prepping the glass so it would more easily break. "The first time I tried it the garbage can didn't break it. So we had to score it so then it broke the third time," remembered Lee in an interview. "We shot that riot sequence over four or five nights."

The film almost had a different ending

According to Lee, at the last minute, Paramount got cold feet and asked him to tone down the conflict-heavy ending. "They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing We Are the World," he recounted in an interview. "They told me this on a Friday; Monday morning we were at Universal."

Reviewers said they feared the film would cause audiences to "go wild"

Do The Right Thing won rave reviews, but some reviewers, including New York's David Denby, seemed to imply that it could incite riots — and that Lee would be responsible. "The end of this movie is a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible," he wrote. The review became Lee's least favourite.

"That [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 … 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, because the primary was that September," said Lee in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone.

"That still bugs the s--t out of me. I know people might read this and say 'Spike, move the f--k 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," he said. "I don't remember people saying people were going to come out of theatres killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films."

It was the film that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date

A couple decades before Barack Obama ran for president, he and his future wife Michelle LaVaughn Robinson (now Obama) went out for lunch at Chicago's famed Art Institute and then caught a screening of Do The Right Thing

"Actually, Barack told me the first date he took Michelle to was Do the Right Thing," Lee later recounted. "I said, 'Thank God I made it. Otherwise you would have taken her to Soul Man. Michelle would have been like, 'What's wrong with this brother?' "

At the Oscars, Driving Miss Daisy won best picture

Many argued that Do The Right Thing should have won best picture in 1990, or at very least landed a nomination, but instead Driving Miss Daisy — which features an African-American chauffeur (Morgan Freeman) who drives a wealthy white retired schoolteacher (Jessica Tandy) — landed the top honour. On stage that year, Kim Basinger famously said, "The best film of the year is not even nominated, and it's Do the Right Thing."

At this year's Oscars, where he won his first Oscar for best screenplay for BlacKkKlansman, Lee referenced Do The Right Thing (and by extension, the Oscar snub) in a few ways. He leapt into the arms of actor Samuel Jackson, who appeared in many of Lee's films beginning with Do The Right Thing; he wore Radio Raheem's LOVE/HATE rings; and after Green Book, which features a white driver chauffeuring African-American jazz musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), won best picture, Lee quipped, "I'm snakebit. Every time someone is driving somebody, I lose. But they changed the seating arrangement."

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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