25 years ago on June 30th, for the first time, audiences watched Mookie put a trashcan through the window of his place of work, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. In the film, this is the culmination of a day of ratcheting tension, simmering and seething in the rising temperature of the hottest day of summer, the kind of day during which a trivial lunchtime altercation about celebrity photos on the wall can escalate toward a senseless death by afternoon and a riot by nightfall. But outside the story of the film too, it’s hard not to read it on a metaphorical level. With “Do The Right Thing,” Spike Lee seemingly with pre-planned calculation, smashed up the existing edifice of the independent film industry, dazzling many, but sending some prognosticators screaming for the hills — some of whom straight-out accused Lee of irresponsibility in directly inciting race violence. Jack Kroll, for instance, writing for Newsweek asked “in this long hot summer, how will young urban audiences — black and white — react to the film’s climactic explosion of interracial violence? … this movie is dynamite under every seat.”
All that seems almost comically “the sky is falling!” now, but at the time the film was so new and so raw and so brash and so explosive with ideas that you can see how it could have felt dangerous to those inclined to alarmism. To the rest of us, however, it simply felt important, instantly epochal in a way few movies ever are (most have “classic” status conferred on them long after the fact and only after a great deal of revisionist beard-stroking). Whichever side you were on, of whichever divide the film highlighted, you just knew that “Do The Right Thing” was going to change things.
One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses…Ooh, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Left-Hand Hate KO-ed by Love. — Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)
It was a surprise to audiences, that trashcan through the window of our complacent summer of ‘89, but maybe not so much to the director, cast and crew who in large part seemed to believe in the project’s exceptional nature from the very outset. Lee has never been the most retiring or modest of filmmakers, but watch any of the making-ofs, or behind-the-scenes footage from the film (many excerpts from which are available on the 20th Anniversary Special Edition release), or any of the contemporary interviews with those involved and you can’t help but be struck by how many of them seemed truly to understand that they were participating in something remarkable, even before a foot of film had been shot. It’s a concept that always fascinates us: I mean who, before they go out and make their masterpiece, announces loudly and clearly to all within earshot “I am going to make my masterpiece!” And who the hell can get everyone to believe them?
Clearly, Spike Lee could. By that stage already the vanguard of black New York filmmaking with just two features under his belt (“She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze”), Lee was stepping up to a much bigger pitch with “Do the Right Thing,” tackling the impossibly sensitive issue of racism in a much more front-and-center, foregrounded way than he had in his previous films, an urban romance and college-set musical respectively. Even those films’ most ardent admirers (star Ossie Davis refers to “School Daze” in which he also appeared as “a masterpiece” at an initial table read for ‘DTRT’ which we do feel might be overstating it a bit) couldn’t really have predicted the scalpel-like precision of “Do The Right Thing,” which has, in addition to its wonderful sense of vibrant, jumbled-up, colorful life a kind of narrative discipline that his messier earlier efforts had scarcely hinted was possible. But armed with the screenplay and his hot new thing status, Lee went shopping for investors at Hollywood studios.
I’m just a struggling black man trying to keep my dick hard in a cruel and harsh world. — Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito)
Having been burned by a change of regime at Columbia, who financed “School Daze” under David Puttnam but whom Lee would accused of botching the promotion when Puttnam was replaced by Dawn Steel, Lee instead brought “Do The Right Thing” to Paramount and Touchstone. The former was apparently Lee’s first choice possibly, as is suggested in William Grant’s essay in the collection “Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing” in part because Paramount Communications owned the Knicks and Lee hoped for a season ticket. But when Paramount started to get gun shy about the ending, wanting Lee to reel it in a little and have a more unequivocal reconciliation occur between Sal (Danny Aiello) and Mookie, Lee took it to Universal instead, who came in under his requested budget of $8m but granted him artistic freedom and final cut.
That choice, to reject the higher budget and paycheck in favor of less money but more hands-off support and personal control, is surely one of the most fateful that Lee made, as it’s impossible to see how the film’s giddy, high-wire balancing act, it’s knife-edge ambivalence and uncompromised complexity, could have survived any sort of committee interference. Especially that damn trashcan; Lee’s friend, frequent collaborator and ‘DTRT’ co star John Turturro even told Mark Kermode back in 2006: “I read the script and liked it, even though I had some problems with the ending. I still do actually, but I’ve always been honest about it.” And Tom Pollock, head of Universal who greenlit the film said of Lee’s reasons for leaving Paramount: “They just couldn’t understand why Mookie throws the trash can through Sal’s window. Quite honestly, I didn’t understand either, until it was explained to me by Spike.”
But of course Lee has never explained why Mookie throws the trashcan through the window (though he has claimed on several occasions that it has only ever been white people who’ve even asked him that question). Nor why Mookie goes back afterward to demand his pay from Sal, nor why Sal pays up, nor why Mookie initially rejects his grudging largesse, only to then pick up the extra money anyway. Or rather, he has never explained whether he believes any of these actions or behaviors is “the right thing” or not. And that’s where the whole baffling “Spike Lee’s films are racist” nonsense is shown up for the crazy it is: we simply cannot think of any film whose point of view on racism is more a reflecting pool of the prejudices and cultural indoctrination of the person watching, because the film itself is near-impossible to call on that front. Where David Denby, then of New York Magazine saw Lee’s potential irresponsibility particularly located in the ending which was “a shambles…an open embrace of futility” others, ourselves included, find the ambiguity and even-handedness of the ending to be one of the film’s greatest achievements (Lee referred to Denby recently in a Rolling Stone article: it clearly still rankles). It is provocative in the best way, in that it provokes you to make your own moral decisions about the characters without ratifying one approach or the other. Is this futility or is it simply an acknowledgement of, and a refusal to compromise on, the complexity of its themes?
One day you’re gonna be nice to me. We may both be dead and buried, but you’re gonna be nice. — Da Mayor (Ossie Davis)
Central to that complexity was the kind of authenticity Lee got by shooting on location in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy — the film was shot exclusively on Stuyvesant Avenue between Quincy Street and Lexington Avenue. The disruption this caused the local residents and the occasionally comical responses to it form the backdrop to one of the “making of” featurettes on the Special Edition, as meetings and block parties are held to get the locals behind the project, while production designer Wynn Thomas did such a good job creating facades for the Korean-owned store and Sal’s Pizzeria that apparently people kept trying to buy groceries and slices from the nonplussed set builders.
But Lee’s insistence on that location also had financial and industry ramifications: as he recounts in his own book on the making of the film, it was his first union crew, and when he discovered that most unions didn’t have as many black members as he wanted to hire, he negotiated for concessions in this regard, seemingly contributing to a precedent that stands to this day. It feels like at every step of the process, Lee and his team were trying to attempt a kind of praxis: a production that would in its very ethos reflect the story that the film wanted to tell. And that is a story that is as much about what unites a community as what divides it.
Now for the life of me, I haven’t been able to figure this out. Either them Koreans are geniuses or we blacks are dumb. — ML (Paul Benjamin)
This aspect of ‘DTRT’ is the maybe less attention-grabbing, and certainly at the time inspired far fewer impassioned/alarmist op-eds, but with the passage of years it has emerged as one of the film’s most enduring undersung legacies. The Brooklyn Lee depicts is not just the tinder pot of ethnicities and cultures rubbing up in constant friction against one another (the film’s famous “racist rant” montage sequence is a particularly concise, and very funny, illustration of that), it is also a portrait of a diverse, divided, difficult but undeniably close community. Contrast its portrait of the borough with the hellish, crack-addled, gang-run hoods that provide the settings for so many of the subsequent films from the black urban filmmakers for whom Lee opened the gate, and you can see how much of his reputation as a scaremongerer and a shit-stirrer, at least on the basis of this, his most controversial film, is overstated. If he really was such an agent provocateur, shouldn’t the scales be tipped more in favor of once side than the other? And should there be such affection for the way life is lived on that block?
Who told you to buy a brownstone on my block, in my neighborhood, on my side of the street?…Man, motherfuck gentrification. — Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito)
As much as there is anger and horror at the way trivial arguments can escalate to fatal conclusions, almost as though they have a life of their own and the people involved are helplessly swept along in the stream, there is also a throughline of great compassion, even love for the other side of that coin: the neighborhood’s vibrancy (which Ernest Dickerson’s photography brings busting to life), the color and noise and music and social interaction, of which the majority is conducted with the good humor of benign familiarity. Lee may be angry about racism and the economic and social oppression of America’s black population (as should we all be), but there is also a ferocious pride in his identity even if that identity has been forged in injustice, marginalization and deprivation. Life, as shown in “DTRT” is teemingly complex, and its complexities breed bigotry and ambiguity and mess, but perhaps all that mess, that comes from different people of different backgrounds living on top of one another, is preferable to gentrified homogeneity or atomization; it is certainly more vital.
I wanna get paid. — Mookie (Spike Lee)
Lee famously lost out to Steven Soderbergh at Cannes that year (we have an in-depth account of the history and impact of “sex, lies and videotape” here), an award that to film historian Peter Biskind “ratified the turn away from the angry, topical strain of the indie movement that had its roots in the 1960s and 1970s and toward the milder aesthetic of the slacker era.” Which may be true but it also may simply be a matter of timing. Not that we’re suggesting “Do the Right Thing” was ahead of its time so much as it was precisely on time while the film establishment was lagging behind. Consider also that it was nominated for two Oscars (Screenplay and Supporting Actor for Aiello) but won neither, in a year that Hollywood to gave its highest prize to the complex, vibrant, fearless, authentic and deeply incisive portrait of racial tension that was ”Driving Miss Motherfucking Daisy.”
My people, my people, what can I say; say what I can. I saw it but didn’t believe it; I didn’t believe what I saw. Are we gonna live together? Together are we gonna live? — Mister Senor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson)
“Do The Right Thing” is eternally, rightly memorialized as a galvanizing, challenging landmark in film history, but, especially with the benefit of hindsight we can see also as a celebration of a neighborhood way of life that is on the cusp of disappearance, if not already entirely gone. So yes, within the tight confines of the story, the arc is so ambivalent as to perhaps lend itself to a pessimistic, laissez faire reading, but like all great movies, “Do The Right Thing” lives beyond its limits, spilling outside the frame and beyond the span of that one hot day in summer. And out there in the wider world of the film, there is a sense of a diverse, vibrant, lively community that is worth fighting for, if it could just stop fighting itself. And that conclusion is anything but futile, or depressing or incendiary, it simply feels to us like a deeply held truth.
Or maybe even a triple truth, Ruth.
Here’s Lee talking briefly about the film prior to a 20th Anniversary screening:
And here’s Rosie Perez dancing. Fight the power, people.