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Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' turns 20

The 1989 film about racial tensions in a New York neighborhood got people talking. They still are.

May 24, 2009|Jason Matloff

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.

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