“1989, the number, another summer,” so goes Public Enemy’s renowned rap anthem.
But it wasn’t just another summer for American cinema. Twenty years ago this week, the year that “Do the Right Thing” exploded onto the screen was a pivotal one. Not only was Spike Lee’s American masterpiece about boiling racial tensions on a Brooklyn block released in U.S. theaters, but so was Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape,” Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy,” and Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” — all sophisticated, daring movies that received both significant critical and box-office success, and in a few cases, studio support. In a sense, 1989 was the year that American independent cinema first came of age.
“The time was so ripe,” says John Pierson, who famously gave Spike Lee $10,000 to complete “She’s Gotta Have It” and sold “Roger and Me” to Warner Bros for $3 million.
“You had these people with some degree of success and it was like let’s take it to the next level,” he says, citing directors like the Coen brothers and Spike Lee. “Some of the smarter young studio execs were forward-thinking, like this is the new wave, let’s see if they can make ‘real’ movies that still have an edge.”
“Do the Right Thing” producer Jon Kilik concurs. “After Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles and the Coen brothers’ ‘Blood Simple’ and ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ it really felt like there was a movement happening,” he says. “From ’86 and ’87, you could just feel that building in a special and unique way.”
If Spike Lee’s second film “School Daze” was mishandled by newly installed leadership at Columbia Pictures, souring the director’s relationship with Hollywood, “Do the Right Thing,” backed by Universal Pictures, provided a model for mutually beneficent success between maverick filmmakers and major entertainment companies, according to Pierson.
Remember, this was before all the studios had specialty divisions. If “Do the Right Thing” were released today, insiders suggest its backer would likely be Universal subsidiary Focus Features, rather than the big studio.
“It was a good relationship,” says Sean Daniel, who was Universal’s president of production at the time. While Daniel admits a certain level of reluctance among top brass at the conglomerate — “How could it not make studio management nervous,” he says — “I wouldn’t want to overstate it. There was not a fight about creative control. The studio was very much behind the movie,” he says, “and the owners of the studio didn’t question us.”
Kilik notes the rules were essentially the same as today: As long as Lee worked within the constraints of strict financial limitations — in this case a budget of $6 million — “you can make what you want if you have shown them you have the talent and the ability to succeed,” says the producer.
Pierson calls the collaboration between Lee and Universal, “a key signature moment,” he says, “because it paved the way for studios to think they could get involved with somebody like Spike, and for filmmakers to think it was a good option for them.”
Indeed, at a special cast-and-crew reunion screening at New York’s DGA Theater on Monday night, Lee opened his introductions by giving a shout-out to former Universal Pictures president Tom Pollock, who was also in attendance, specifically thanking him for supporting the movie. Current studio boss David Linde was also on hand for the event.
“He was very crucial because when this film debuted at Cannes, this stuff started that it would ’cause riots, and there was pressure on Tom Pollock to not release the film, or at least wait until after summertime — because you know how black folks get in the summertime,” Lee told the laughing crowd. “He had just went through this with Martin Scorsese’s ‘Last Temptation of Christ,’ where he got death threats,” added Lee. “So Tom Pollock could have easily folded under pressure. But he did not.”
— this article continues on the next page —
A number of people who worked on the film attended Monday’s screening, including producers Kilik and Monty Ross, editor Barry Brown, sound editor Philip Stockton, sound mixer Tommy Fleischman, hair stylist Larry Cherry, costume designer Ruth Carter and Lee’s father and composer Bill Lee, as well as actors John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Danny Aiello, Joie Lee, Rosie Perez, and the legendary Ruby Dee, among others.
Kilik remembers the producers had high hopes that the film would actually get made at another studio, Paramount, with a bigger budget — at least $10 million (as opposed to Universal’s $6 million) — and with “a big movie star like Robert DeNiro,” he recalls.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, none of those things happened,” says Kilik. “But the most important thing did happen: At 6 AM Monday morning, the last week in June, we were shooting.”
“That’s the lesson for all independent filmmakers,” continues Kilik. “The movie has to come first, by any means necessary. If you don’t get the budget, if you don’t get the cast, if you don’t get the studio, none of that really matters, as long as you just keep at it and get your movie made. It means you have to be driven and passionate and even stubborn, like Spike is. But you can’t be so stubborn those obstacles stop you.”
With its infamously provocatively climax — Lee’s pizza-delivery character Mookie throws a trash can through his employer’s window — “Do the Right Thing” was also brazenly political in a way that few American films were at the time. Notably, Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” was also released in 1989, but that film focused on long-digested 1970s traumas.
Lee, on the other hand, was capturing the present, inspired by recent incidents of racial injustice in New York, such as the police killing of Eleanor Bumpurs, a black woman being evicted from her home, and the murder of an African American man in Howard Beach by local teenagers. The film’s level of social impact, along with accusations that it would incite civil unrest, came as a surprise to executives at Universal. “We thought it was going to be something powerful,” recalls Daniel, “but that was outrageous.”
Industry insiders agree that the Lee had tapped into something vibrant and current. “Whether it was Spike or Michael Moore or the other young filmmakers,” says Kilik, “there was a greater urgency and ability to more quickly reflect what was happening.”
New York producer Ted Hope, who at the time was producing his first feature, Hal Hartley’s debut “The Unbelievable Truth,” agrees. “Here was a movie that felt right of the moment, about the world that we lived in, that was infused with a level of energy that very few movies were, and had ever been. It was on fire,” he says. “You’ve got to wonder, how do we follow from that? How did we lose our way? Wouldn’t it be nice to see something that fresh today?”
Producer Sam Kitt, an acquisition executive at Universal who championed the project at the time, points out the film’s influence on other filmmakers “of every stripe” remains, “because not only what was said, but how it was said: the boldness of the conception, the design of the movie, and how much could be done and how much impact you could have with a limited amount of money.”
Lee Daniels, director of Sundance winner “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” says “Do the Right Thing” specifically inspired him to “roll the dice” and produce “Monster’s Ball.” “I had an idea of what cinema was about and about what black cinema was about, but this was modernized,” he says. “It was so eloquently executed and had such an unabashed flair, it sort of gave me the liberty that this type of work could be done.”
Brooklyn-based director Jim McKay sums up the thoughts of many filmmakers who were inspired by the movie. “Not only was it an incredibly made film, but politically, it really made you confront a lot of shit,” says McKay, director of “Girlstown” and “Our Song.” “I don’t think I ever left a film with more — more questions, more thoughts, more energy.”
Twenty years on, “Do the Right Thing” still packs a punch. But, perhaps not as much as some had once feared. At Monday night’s screening, Lee joked about the dangers that the new DVD release for the film could cause. “Let’s hope it doesn’t start riots again across the country.”