On a weekend where record temperatures were being recorded in New York City, and elsewhere in the U.S., it’s appropriate that two of the best films in theaters, “Magic Mike” and “Take This Waltz,” both revolve around long, hot summers. And it’s doubly appropriate that Saturday also marked the anniversary of perhaps the definitive heatwave movie: Spike Lee‘s “Do The Right Thing.” Of course, Lee’s masterpiece isn’t just a look at Brooklyn over a boiling hot summer day, it’s also one of the greatest American films in the history of the medium, one whose critical reputation has only grown since Kim Basinger‘s protestation on stage at the Oscars the following year that it was the best film of 1989, and yet hadn’t been nominated (although Danny Aiello got a nod, as did Lee’s screenplay).
Set on the hottest day of the summer, the film stars Lee himself as Mookie, who works at neighborhood pizzeria Sal’s Famous, owned, as you might expect, by Sal (Aiello). Sal’s a good guy, and his son Vito (Richard Edson) is friends with Mookie, but elder son Pino (John Turturro) holds much of black community around him in contempt. Things start to come to a head after Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) fights with Sal over the lack of black faces on his Wall Of Fame, which starts a conflict that will end with tragic consequences.
With the film having been released 23 years ago today, on June 30th, 1989, and Lee returning to Brooklyn next month for his latest film “Red Hook Summer,” it seemed like a good opportunity to pick out 5 facts you might not be aware of about his breakout film, one of the finest achievements of his career. And for those who’ve never seen the film, the Criterion Collection DVD is absolutely wroth seeking out, while for those of you on the other side of the pond, our pals at Permanent Plastic Helmet are hosting a screening at the Clapham Picturehouse in London on Thursday.
1. Spike Lee wanted Robert De Niro to play Danny Aiello’s role.
Despite his studio debut “School Daze” flopping, Spike Lee was still a hot property, and his third film “Do The Right Thing” was originally set up at Paramount. The script came together, but at the last minute, however, the studio decided they wanted a happier ending; as Lee told New York Magazine, “They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing ‘We Are the World.'” Three days later, the film was set up at Universal, where Lee was given final cut over the picture. There also could have been a much bigger star involved. Lee wanted Robert De Niro to play pizzeria owner Sal, but according to the filmmaker, “He wouldn’t do it.” Danny Aiello took the role instead, turning in a career-best performance. Matt Dillon was also an early prospect to play Sal’s racist son Pino, before John Turturro got the gig (side-note: Richard Edson, who plays the other brother, Vito, was the original drummer for Sonic Youth).
2. Lee cast Rosie Perez after meeting her at his birthday party.
The film’s notable not just for the storming central performances by Lee and Aiello, but also for early gigs for many actors who’d go on to long careers: Samuel L. Jackson, who plays DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy, and Giancarlo Esposito (now best known as Gus Fring on “Breaking Bad“) in the couldn’t-be-more different role of Buggin’ Out, both get early showcases here, after having appeared in “School Daze.” It also marks the screen debut of stand-up Martin Lawrence, who’d go on to be a major star, but perhaps Lee’s most unforgettable discovery was siren-voiced Rosie Perez as Mookie’s girlfriend Tina. Perez had never acted before, but had been a dancer on “Soul Train.” Lee met her by accident, and decided to change Tina to be a Puerto Rican to showcase her. The director would later relate their meeting: “March 20, 1988: ‘School Daze’ had just come out. ‘Da Butt,’ by EU, was a huge hit — I did the video. So we had my birthday party in L.A. at this club called Funky Reggae. There was this girl dancing like mad on a speaker. I said, ‘Will you please get down before you break your neck and I get sued?’ She cursed me out. I never heard a voice like that. I said, ‘What’s your name?’ She said, ‘Rosie Perez.’ That’s where I got the idea that Mookie should have a Puerto Rican girlfriend.”
3. The mark the film left on the neighborhood is still visible.
Lee is one of the great chroniclers of Brooklyn, and was obviously committed to shooting in the area. In the end, a block on Stuyveysant Avenue, between Lexington and Quincy, was selected, and Lee used The Fruit of Islam, Louis Farrakhan‘s security guards, to clear drug dealers away from the location. Not a lot had to be done, although production designer Wynn Thomas had to build both the Korean convenience store, and Sal’s pizzeria from scratch. Lee also wanted a color scheme that emphasized the heatwave, from the backdrop to Perez’s dance in the opening sequence to the wall in front of which ML, Coconut Sid and Sweet Dick Willie sit; it’s hard to find a frame of the film without red in it somewhere, thanks to the efforts of Thomas and DoP Ernest Dickinson. The cinematographer also kept lit cans of Sterno next to the camera to give a hazy, shimmering look throughout the film. The burning of Sal’s pizzeria means that it obviously can’t be found now, but tourists will find that its site remains an empty grass plot, never filled in, and should also be able to spot both the red wall and the mural featuring Mike Tyson.
4. References to the film can be found throughout Lee’s other films.
The return of Lee as Mookie in the upcoming “Red Hook Summer” is welcome, but is far from the first time that the lines between Lee’s pictures have blurred. For instance, the argument about stepping on the Air Jordans was recycled from a scene cut from the script of “She’s Gotta Have It,” while Laurence Fishburne‘s pleas to ‘Wake up!” at the end of “School Daze” are picked up by Samuel L. Jackson at the beginning of “Do The Right Thing” (Lee also tips his hat to his previous film by a t-shirt worn by a kid saying ‘Da Butt’ — a song by Experience Unlimited performed in “School Daze.”) Meanwhile, Michael Rapaport‘s character in “Bamboozled” riffs on Buggin’ Out when he tells Damon Wayans “Look at all the brothers on the wall,” while the hostages in “Inside Man” are fed pizza from Sal’s Famous. Perhaps most crucially, Rick Aiello and Miguel Sandoval, who play Long and Ponte, the two cops that kill Radio Raheem, return, billed as the same characters, in “Jungle Fever,” and Aiello would also reprise Long in “Clockers.”
5. The Obamas saw the movie on their first date.
On its release (after having premiered at Cannes a month before, where it failed to win anything; Lee has hinted that he had his revenge on jury chair Wim Wenders by denying him a prize at the Venice Film Festival years later), the film proved hugely controversial. This wasn’t necessarily a surprise — Lee had argued with Aiello, a staunch Republican, throughout shooting about the subject matter — but the venom of some of the reviews was particularly ridiculous, with David Denby predicting that it would lead to riots and that Lee was “playing with dynamite in an urban playground” and he’d be responsible if “audiences go wild.” As it turned out, no riots took place, but the film did leave its mark on the country nevertheless. President Obama told Lee at a fundraiser that the director hosted at his house in New York in January that “On my first official date with Michelle I took her to see ‘Do The Right Thing’… the movie had just come out, and I was showing my sophistication in selecting this independent filmmaker, and she was impressed. I think you helped me out that day.” Certainly a better choice than “The Karate Kid Part III,” which was released on the same day…