An Academy Award-winning drama that explores the racial tensions brewing within a 1980s Brooklyn community, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was a big commercial success on release, despite the film containing several elements of controversy.
The multi-talented Lee wrote, produced and directed the film, while also starring in one of the central roles. Below are some things you might not have realised about the film that many consider to be one of the greatest of all time.
20. The film’s title comes from a quote by Malcolm X
Spike Lee took the title for his 1989 film directly from a quote by famed African-American activist Malcolm X. Lee also uses two contrasting quotes in the film: one from Malcolm X and another from his counterpart Martin Luther King. These men were the most influential pioneers of African-American liberation in the 1960s, and both were assassinated before the decade was out.
In Do the Right Thing, Lee quotes Malcolm X’s words, “I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America. And the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need.” Three years after Do the Right Thing in 1992, Spike Lee would direct Malcolm X, a biopic of the man starring Denzel Washington.
19. The opening credits sequence was the result of Rosie Perez dancing for eight hours straight
Do the Right Thing was the acting debut of Rosie Perez, a Brooklyn local who Lee first spotted dancing at a party. Perez’s moves made quite the impression on the filmmaker, as he made these the focal point of the film’s opening titles. The memorable title sequence sees Perez moving ferociously to the sound of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. If Perez looks like she’s set to dance until she drops, this is no accident – as Lee kept her at it for most of the day.
“Spike didn’t tell me he needed anger and angst and exhaustion,” Perez later said, “instead, he just said, ‘I need you to kill it.’ Eight hours later, this man had me still dancing. And when rage and hate just poured out of my body, pure exhaustion, he went, ‘Cut, print it! We got it!'”
18. It stars some huge future stand-up comedians, including Martin Lawrence
The cast of Do the Right Thing features a broad mix of performers, from seasoned pros to newcomers. The film is also notable for casting no fewer than four up-and-coming stand-up comedians in acting roles. The most famous of these is Martin Lawrence, for whom Do the Right Thing was his film debut. As well as being a successful stand-up, Lawrence went on to a major film career, most famously in the Bad Boys and Big Momma’s House movies.
The other stand-ups featured in Do the Right Thing are Steve White, Robin Harris and Steve Park. White and Park both went on to successful acting careers, but Harris (above left, with Frankie Faison) sadly died in 1990 barely eight months after Do the Right Thing was released.
17. Spike Lee wanted Robert De Niro to play Sal the pizzeria owner
When casting the key role of Sal the Pizzeria owner, Spike Lee had lofty ambitions going in. Originally, Lee hoped to cast legendary The Godfather Part II and Raging Bull Oscar-winner Robert De Niro – but the actor declined. Lee remarked later that De Niro saying no “turned out to be a blessing, no disrespect. For it to work, it had to be an ensemble piece, and a star of that magnitude would have changed everything.”
Things worked out just fine, as the part of Sal ultimately went to the lesser-known but still hugely talented Danny Aiello. Such was the power of Aiello’s performance, he landed a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. However, Aiello lost out on this award to regular Lee collaborator Denzel Washington, who scooped the Oscar for his performance in Glory.
16. The crew built a functioning pizzeria from scratch
Although Do the Right Thing was shot on location in Brooklyn, New York, it still employed a lot of movie magic in building its world. The pivotal location of Sal’s pizzeria was not a real place, but a mock-up built by the film’s set department. However, the crew went to great lengths to create a sense of lived-in authenticity to the set. The set had a real, fully functioning pizza oven in which the cast would cook real pizzas.
Other locations that were constructed especially for the movie include the Korean grocery store and the Yes Jesus Last Baptist Church. Some existing locations were also used, including the home of Lee’s Mookie, at 173 Stuyvesant Avenue.
15. Public Enemy wrote and recorded Fight the Power especially for the film
To provide a theme song to Do the Right Thing, New York filmmaker Lee approached one of the most influential New York musical acts of the time. Lee told Time, “I wanted [the film’s theme song] to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy.” The acclaimed rap group agreed, and recorded Fight the Power specifically for use in Do the Right Thing’s title sequence.
Released as a single, the song became a huge hit in its own right, and ranks as one of Public Enemy’s best-loved tracks. The confrontational lyrics also raised a lot of eyebrows at the time (and since) for their blunt dismissal of two major white American icons. Chuck D raps, “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant s*** to me” to which Flavor Flav later adds, “Mother-f*** him and John Wayne!”
14. Rosie Perez was in tears shooting her nude scene
Having to dance for eight hours straight wasn’t the only difficult experience Rosie Perez had shooting her film debut in Do the Right Thing. The actress, whose character Tina is the girlfriend of Lee’s Mookie, also had to perform a nude scene with the actor and director, which she found traumatic to shoot. Perez told the New York Times in 2000, “the atmosphere wasn’t correct… the reason you don’t see my head is because I’m crying. I was like, I don’t want to do this.”
But the actress explains, 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!’… I felt like I violated myself.” This experience did not deter Perez from doing another nude scene in White Men Can’t Jump, which she says “was totally my decision, I felt totally comfortable… there I felt empowered by it.” Perez has also since admitted in her autobiography that she was accompanied to the shoot by her brother-in-law – an armed drug dealer – who was there to ensure things stayed above board.
13. Samuel L. Jackson’s opening words are a signature of Spike Lee’s films
The first words we hear in Do the Right Thing come from the distinctive voice of Samuel L. Jackson: “Wake up!” This was neither the first nor the last time that this simple two-word utterance has been used in a Spike Lee film. “Wake up!” were also the last words spoken – by Laurence Fishburne – in Lee’s previous film, School Daze. The director has since made a point of having someone say these words in most of his films.
Wesley Snipes also says the words in 1991’s Jungle Fever; and more recently, John David Washinton says them in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman. Lee persists in putting these words in his films as a nod to his audience, and a reminder that the issues his films discuss are still very relevant today.
12. The film had the highest F-word count in cinema history
Do the Right Thing was rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America on grounds of “pervasive language, some violence and brief sexuality/nudity.” It’s fitting that the MPAA’s description mentions language first, as the film’s use of profanity is extensive. While a wide variety of curse words are used (including offensive racial slurs), Do the Right Thing makes particularly frequent use of the F-word.
This most prevalent of swear words is actually used 240 times throughout Do the Right Thing, a record at the time. As the film runs for a full 120 minutes, that averages out at two uses of the F-word every single minute. At the time this made Do the Right Thing the most F-bomb heavy film ever, although it’s since been knocked down to #33 on that particular chart.
11. Spike Lee wanted the film to help get New York’s then-mayor out of office
Spike Lee has always been outspokenly political in his films and his public persona, and Do the Right Thing is no exception. As well as taking inspiration from a number of real-life murders of African-Americans in 80s New York, the film also directed much of its rage at one key public figure. Lee was a fierce opponent of Ed Koch, the Mayor of New York at the time Do the Right Thing went into production. Many, Lee included, felt that Koch’s policies had harmed the city’s black community and were directly responsible for the real-life deaths that inspired the film.
The director told New York magazine, “We have one scene where our man spray-painted ‘Dump Koch’… we had this plan because the film came out in August and that fall was the Democratic primary. So throughout the film, you hear Mister Señor Love Daddy, played by Samuel Jackson, telling people to vote, vote, vote. And [David] Dinkins won [over Koch in the New York mayoral election].”
10. Spike Lee turned down directing a Run DMC movie to make Do the Right Thing
Do the Right Thing is probably Spike Lee’s single most celebrated film today, but he had already made something of a name for himself beforehand. Prior to Do the Right Thing, Lee had directed two features: 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, and 1988’s School Daze. Around this time, Lee was approached by New York rap superstars Run DMC to direct them in a feature film. The movie, Tougher Than Leather, would cast the rappers as themselves in a madcap homage to 70s blaxploitation movies.
Lee respectfully declined the offer as he already had his heart set on making Do the Right Thing next. Probably not a bad call on Lee’s part, as Tougher Than Leather – ultimately directed by record producer Rick Rubin – wound up being a box office bomb that is largely forgotten today.
9. The film was inspired by two real-life murders
In writing a script intended to highlight the ongoing problem of racial hatred in America, Spike Lee was inspired by real-life events. The first of the two key events from which Lee took inspiration for Do the Right Thing was the shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly African-American woman with mental health problems. Bumpurs was shot dead by an NYPD officer (later found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter) in October 1984, whilst officers were trying to evict her from her public housing apartment under city orders.
The second real-life murder that inspired Do the Right Thing was that of Michael Griffith in 1986. Griffith was a 23-year-old immigrant from Trinidad who was killed after being hit by a car in the Howard Beach area of New York. Griffith was hit by the car whilst trying to escape a group of white men who were attacking him.
8. Spike Lee wrote the script in two weeks
So often the story of a film’s progress from script to screen involves huge amounts of rethinks, rewrites and revisions. Not so much in the case of Do the Right Thing, which Lee incredibly managed to write in just two weeks. Lee told Rolling Stone, “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.” This is not to say that there weren’t still some changes made during production; notably, the film contains at least one character who wasn’t in the script at all.
Smiley, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, was an original creation of the actor himself, who asked his friend Lee for the chance to be part of the film. Do the Right Thing was Lee’s third full-length film as writer-producer-director. He has written all but six of the 20 films he’s made since, and produced all but two.
7. Nearly every shot in the film features the colour red
Do the Right Thing may deal with harsh and realistic subject matter, but it’s still very much a heightened, stylised piece of filmmaking. This is noticeable not only in the camerawork and editing but in the film’s bold use of colour in the set designs. Whether it be walls, props or items of clothing, nearly every shot in the film features the colour red.
This was a deliberate effort on the part of Lee and company to try and convey the feeling of a heatwave. “I did a lot of research on psychology,” cinematographer Ernest Dickerson was quoted as saying. “[We] stayed in the warm range: yellows, reds, earth tones, ambers, and tried to stay away from blues and greens, which have a cooling effect.”
6. Members of the crew were threatened by drug dealers
Do the Right Thing was shot entirely on Stuyvesant Avenue, which is located in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Filming in a real Brooklyn neighbourhood led to members of the crew being threatened by drug dealers, who were angry that their business was being disturbed. Because of this, Lee and his team were forced to take extra measures to ensure their safety during the shoot.
To this end, they enlisted the Fruit of Islam – an offshoot of the influential organisation The Nation of Islam – to provide security. Samuel L. Jackson recalls, “Once the Fruit of Islam cleaned out the crack houses, it was quiet in there, nobody bothered us.” Jackson says that local drug dealers would often speak to the actors and filmmakers in a threatening manner, but insists things were otherwise “harmonious.”
5. Spike Lee ditched Paramount Pictures after they demanded a happy ending
Up until relatively late in the day, Lee and company were all set to shoot Do the Right Thing for Hollywood studio Paramount. However, there came a significant change of plan during pre-production when it became clear that Paramount had very different ideas about what the film should be. Lee recalls receiving notes from the studio pushing him to give the film a feel-good happy ending.
“They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing We are the World,” Lee later revealed. “They told me this on a Friday, and on Monday morning we were at Universal.” Lee would later credit Thomas Pollock, the head of Universal at the time, for continuing to support Do the Right Thing through the controversies it faced on release.
4. An episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents inspired the film
We all know that Spike Lee is a prolific and celebrated filmmaker, but did you know that before he found this career he was also a professor of film? Lee earned a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television from New York University prior to making films of his own. His academic knowledge of cinema is in evidence in Do the Right Thing, which pays homage to some major figures in the film history. One of Lee’s main inspirations behind the story was an episode of TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled Shopping for Death, which explores the theory that hot weather makes people more violent.
Lee also pays tribute to the 1955 classic Night of the Hunter through Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem. Nunn wears knuckle rings reading ‘love’ and ‘hate’ in homage to the knuckle tattoos worn by Robert Mitchum in the 1955 film – and Nunn also directly quotes Mitchum’s monologue in explaining their significance.
3. Some critics suggested the film could incite riots amongst its black audience
Do the Right Thing was a highly divisive film on release, polarising opinions among film critics. Some heaped praise on the movie: notably, America’s most famous critics of the time, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, named it the best film of 1989. However, others were angered by the film, and suggested it was likely to incite riots among black audiences.
Spike Lee was justifiably enraged by such suggestions, which he blasted for their flagrant racism. Years later, the director would say that this response from critics “still bugs the s*** out of me.” Lee explains, “I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.”
2. Kim Basinger publicly blasted the Academy for not giving it a Best Picture nomination at the 1990 Oscars
Do the Right Thing received two nominations at the 1990 Academy Awards, neither of which it won. Danny Aiello got a Best Supporting Actor nod, while Spike Lee was recognised in the Best Original Screenplay category. However, there were many in Hollywood who felt the film was unjustly overlooked by the Academy – and one perhaps surprising champion of the film declared as much very publicly. Kim Basinger, then at the height of her fame after Batman, appeared onstage at the Oscars to introduce Dead Poets Society, one of the nominees in the Best Picture category.
Visibly nervous, Basinger diverged from the script to chastise the Academy for snubbing Lee’s film. The actress declared, “We’ve got five great films here, and they’re great for one reason: They tell the truth. But there is one film missing from this list that deserves to be on it because, ironically, it might tell the biggest truth of all. And that’s Do the Right Thing.” Lee (who’d never met Basinger at the time) would finally win his first Oscar in 2019, landing the Best Adapted Screenplay award for BlacKkKlansman.
1. Barack and Michelle Obama saw the film on their first date
Do the Right Thing helped break new ground for black people in Hollywood, as well as inspiring broader debate of race relations. On top of this, it turns out the film had a special role to play in the lives of two of the most significant African-American figures in the modern world. Former President of the United States Barack Obama has revealed he and his wife Michelle went to the cinema to see Do the Right Thing on their first date.
“He was trying to show me his sophisticated side by selecting an independent filmmaker,” Michelle was later quoted as saying. When Do the Right Thing marked its 25th anniversary in 2014, the President – still in office at the time – recorded a video message to thank Lee for helping him impress Michelle.