Walking the streets of Brooklyn now is quite a different experience than it was, say, about 25 years ago. Or is it? One might posit the same issues are still here, just repackaged. And based on the detailed representation of this urbanized-gentrified-evolving city in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” the filmmaker wouldn’t disagree.
At this weekend’s screening of the film sponsored by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lee was present with the cast to answer a few questions and look back on this Bed-Stuy-based classic. Not only did they talk about the making of the movie, but where Brooklyn is headed if we keep ignoring the issues of racism and inequality that have been here since (at least), well, the first day “Do The Right Thing” began shooting. Lee discussed several inspirations for the film, including those who lost their lives in the police brutality cases, the many who are still held back because of Brooklyn’s racial climate, and the economic culture of the city that is still very much the same as it was all those years ago. Moderated by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the evening was a mix of reflections about the movie, but also its social impact and how it still reflects the problems in our culture today.
The context of the social and racial climate of the time came up fast, and Lee said the inspiration for the film was all around him, noting “It’s Howard Beach, it’s Yusef Hawkins, it’s Bensonhurst, it’s Mayor Ed Koch, there you go, Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, all of that stuff was happening at the time in New York City." Muhammad also brought up the the Central Park 5 case of April 1989 that found five African-American teenagers arrested and eventually convicted for allegedly raping a white woman; the convictions were overturned decades later after the men had served 18 years in jail.
“Yep, and Donald Trump put a full page ad in the New York Times for a million dollar reward leading to the rest of the perpetrators who raped the woman,” Lee said, still sounding angry. “People forget that he took out a full page ad in New York Times, Google it.” [The quintent were finally exonerated and just a few weeks ago were given a $40 million settlement between the five of them.]
“That was the racial hysteria of New York City at that time,” Lee said. “And many critics—Joe Klein, David Denby—said this film was going cause race riots all across America…they thought this film was going make black people run amuck and riot.”
“That’s pure racism,” he added. “That African Americans would go to movies, and not have the intelligence to make the distinction from what’s on screen and what’s real life. How many white Americans have seen Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator” films? But we African Americans, we don’t have the ‘intelligence’ for that … and they thought this film would entice Black folks to riot. And that was the climate at that time. Google it. Read those reviews.”
The rest of the evening wasn’t as heated and thankfully even got lighthearted (though Lee recalling his mother’s screaming reaction to the death of Martin Luther King as a child was quite somber). Though before that temperature shift, Lee couldn’t resist one underlining of the film’s unapologetic power.
“The reason why I’m here today is because we told truths. That’s all it was. We told truths,” he said. “We predicted what would happen. LA uprising, Rodney King verdict, we predicted it. John Savage’s character, that Larry Bird jersey, Boston Celtics shit, steppin’ on Buggin’ Out’s Air Jordans, we predicted gentrification… The reason why we’re here today is because we told truths. That’s all it was. We told truths. If we did not tell the truth, we would not be here. [Though] it’s happening all over the world and to think everybody neglects to talk about where the people go when they get displaced. Bottom line, where do they go?” [ed. Some might find it amusing that Lee’s own wife recently teased him that he’s part of the reason there is gentrification in Brooklyn.]
Actor Danny Aiello thanked Spike Lee for helping him become the “Jackie Robinson of black film,” but the actor also noted the role of Sal in the film made him notorious with the public. “People would stop me on the street, angry: ‘You killed Radio Raheem!’ I actually had to change my phone number,” the actor told Variety in a separate interview. Aiello also stopped the evening for a moment to praise Lee for showing up at his son’s funeral (Danny Aiello III, who acted as his father’s stunt double in the riot scene) asking to give an unrehearsed and unplanned eulogy.
For his part, Bill Nunn (aka Radio Raheem) was looking … well, a little old. But the man is 60 years old now. He might have been blasting Public Enemy from his boom box speakers, but he was no kid at the time. “I was not some young kid from Brooklyn, I was a 35-year-old man from Atlanta,” he stressed. “So that’s the secret to me capturing a young black man from the city. I was faking it.”
Improv was apparently a big part of the movie, an element that threw some of the actors off. “It was my first real movie. I just wanted to keep my lines straight, but everyone was improvising around me,” Rick Aiello, who played a NYC police officer recalled to Variety. “Spike gave us parameters, but it was still tough to keep up. Everyone’s going off book, I’m saying, ‘Holy shit.’ ”
Nunn laughed in commiseration. “Raheem didn’t say that much, which I liked,” Nunn explained to the trade. “I wasn’t riffing too much.”
Also onstage with the cast was Joie Lee, Rosie Perez, editor Barry Alexander Brown, production designer Wynn Thomas and producer Jon Kilik, and talk then shifted towards the movie’s controversial ending, one that’s still incendiary today. Universal didn’t like the finale and its ambiguity about whether the peaceful or violent path was the “right thing.” “They wanted something with more of a up-with-people-image,” production designer Wynn Thomas said. “You know, everything’s OK.” Thomas explained that the studio asked Lee to consider some kind of change, possibly getting Mookie to do a 4th-wall breaking direct address to the camera on a stoop in Brooklyn.
What that address would have said, the filmmakers didn’t say. “Do you remember that Spike?” Thomas asked? “Hell no,” Lee responded to much laughter. “I don’t remember that.”
According to story, Universal didn’t want Mookie to pick up the money that Sal threw at him in their final exchange; presumably his moral stance had to above any financial concerns. “I remember the two of us coming back from a flight [after a meeting with the studio] and [Spike saying], ‘He can’t pick up that money.’ And I said, ‘you’ve been broke and I’ve been broke.’ You might for a moment say, ‘Ohh…’ But once you walk away, you don’t got no job. You’re gonna pick up that money.”
It’s unclear if it was a compromise or not, but Thomas said Lee finally settled on the closing credit quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Thomas also added that the character of Smiley (played by Roger Guenveur Smith) didn’t exist in the script. “That’s the only picture taken between Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Lee said of the photo the character Smiley carries around with him in the picture.
“We’re forced to grow up with each other in New York City and learn,” Thomas said about all the disparate cultures living on top of each other in New York and all its boroughs. “And that’s what ‘Do The Right Thing’ captures really well. We’re all in this together … until we’re not. That’s the legacy of ‘Do The Right Thing.’ At some point you have to choose sides and that’s where this film comes in.”
For more "Do The Right Thing" appreciation, you can read our 25th anniversary legacies essay. Below, you can watch excerpts from another conversation about the film with Lee and the filmmakers moderated by John Singleton.