"Universal Was Not Afraid": Spike Lee Reflects on the Fearmongering That First Met 'Do the Right Thing'

Do The Right Thing 1 - H - 1989

As the racial drama turns 30 this year, the team behind the groundbreaking $6.5 million film looks back at the turbulent debate over its divisiveness and the rejected ending that Paramount executives had sought: "I said, 'Hell, no f***ing way.'"

Universal is pulling out all the stops for the 30th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing, bringing the new 4K restoration of the lauded racial drama to theaters on Friday and to select one-day only showings on Sunday, June 30, the actual day of its limited release in 1989.

But 30 years ago this month, Universal was being pressured not to release the film, or at least push the pic back out of the summer months for fear of racial unrest. “Tom Pollock, the president of Universal Pictures, was 100 percent behind the film,” director Spike Lee recalls. “Universal was not afraid.”

Adds Lee, “People forget that Tom Pollock had just went through hell with Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ when he received death threats. So, he could have easily said to me, ‘Spike, I can’t put my family through this again.’ He didn’t do that. Tom Pollock was not scared at all.”

As the drama hits its three-decade anniversary, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Lee, as well as editor Barry Alexander Brown, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, costume designer Ruth E. Carter and actors Joie Lee, Richard Edson and Steve Park, about Do The Right Thing’s visceral relevance to political debate in 2019 and the fearmongering that met the film before its release. 

Several New York film critics, Lee claims, fanned the flames of racial divide with their first takes. "The atmosphere was sparked by the racist reviews of David Denby, Joe Klein and Jack Kroll. These reviews were absolute racism. Racism. Blood was going to be on my hands. 'Spike Lee is playing with dynamite.' The film would spark riots," the filmmaker says.

Joie, the filmmaker’s younger sister, who plays the sibling of Spike’s character Mookie, agrees with her brother. She knew the film was special when it was screened in May 1989 at the Cannes Film Festival. “We all went, and it blew my mind,” she says. “The reception, the ovation.” (In a review from Cannes on May 23, 1989, THR columnist Robert Osborne wrote that the film would trigger intense debate about “whether or not it's a dangerous flick” and praised the director, saying that the drama “reaffirms Lee’s position as a filmmaker with audacity, courage and ideas.” Osborne also predicted, "Business will be best in the big cities, and Europe will also like it, judging from the reaction here at Cannes.")

Meanwhile, adds Joie, “back at the ranch [the U.S.], you had white film critics fear mongering about the violence it might incite. They weren’t taking into account that art imitated life, that the film was representational of the sociopolitical and racial climate of the U.S. and, in particular NYC, which was the hotbed of racially motivated hate crimes.”

The racial drama opened over the July 4 holiday corridor in 1989, and, as THR's box office reporter noted days later, “At No. 8, Spike Lee’s controversial new feature Do The Right Thing — contrary to doomsayers’ predictions, incited nothing but good business at its 353 outings — took in $3.6 million, for $10,095 a screen. According to a studio spokesman, the film, which deals with racial tensions, played ‘equally well in the black and white neighborhoods.'" The film eventually took in $27 million at the domestic box office, not adjusted for inflation.

Set on the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing crackles from the opening sequence of Rosie Perez, in her film debut, dancing to Public Enemy’s pulsating “Fight the Power.”

“The rhythm of the film still has a push to it,” says film historian Donald Bogle, the author of Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films and the Filmmakers. “Even the opening is interesting because the actual music we hear — it’s just a bit — is the melody of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ which is considered the Negro national anthem. We then jump into Public Enemy and we see Rosie Perez dancing. There’s something that’s in there that just pulls us in right away before we know it."

Lee’s Mookie is a delivery man from the local pizza joint, Sal’s, owned by the Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello). John Turturro plays Sal's volatile racist older son, Pino, and Edson is his younger son, Vito, who is friends with Mookie. The neighborhood is filled with distinct personalities, including the alcoholic Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who watches the world from her window. Bill Nunn plays Radio Raheem, an imposing young man who walks around blaring Public Enemy on his boom box and dies when the police get him in a chokehold. Giancarlo Esposito is Buggin’ Out, Mookie’s friend who wants Sal to remove pictures of Italian-Americans from his wall and replace them with black stars. And Perez plays Tina, Mookie’s girlfriend. As the day progresses, racial tensions rise, causing the death of Raheem and the destruction of Sal’s.

Before landing at Universal, Do the Right Thing was originally set up at Paramount. “At the last minute, Paramount wanted Mookie and Sal to hug at the end of the movie,” Lee recalls. “I said, 'Hell, no fucking way.' I had a friend who was an executive at Universal. It was a Friday. I called him up and he got the script that day. He gave to it [executive] Sean Daniels. And Daniels read it and gave it to Tom Pollock. Friday, the end of the workday, we’re at Paramount. Monday, we were at Universal.

"Tom Pollock told me, ‘Spike, make the film you want, but it can’t be a penny over $6.5 million.' We came in under. It was a 40-day shoot."

"At the time of Do the Right Thing, we were still pretty young and pretty green,” recalls editor Brown, who has worked with Lee for over three decades, earning his first Oscar nomination for 2018's BlacKkKlansman. “I remember we did a screening of a film to listen to our sound mix, and Spike invited Jonathan Demme. After the screening, when Spike and I were beginning to talk about what we’d like to do and tweaking, Demme came over and said, ‘You guys are in the big leagues now.'"

Park, who plays Sonny, the Korean owner of a grocery store not welcomed by the community, had just started acting when he went into audition for Do the Right Thing. “I remember walking in the room,” he says. “Spike was there, and I told him I loved his work. After my audition, he told me right there I got the part. He stood up and I gave him a big hug.”

Park recalls two off-the-cuff moments in the film during the riot sequence. "I was grateful to Spike for keeping them in the movie,” he says. “‘You and I are same!’ was a line I improvised after yelling, ‘I not white! I not white!’ And when the cops are driving away with the dead body of Radio Raheem in the back seat, you see my character come up from behind the squad car."

Edson agrees that Lee allowed the cast to improvise, but added that “he was also very tough. He ran a tight set. I mean, it was loose, but when it was time to work, it was time to work. He didn’t take any shit from anybody.”

Lee did his own bit of improv involving handling a light in a scene in the back of the pizza parlor where Pino is bullying Vito over his friendship with Mookie.

“Spike goes, ‘Well, why don’t you guys come up with something and see what happens?”’ says Edson. “Just before Spike goes 'Action,' he hits the light, so it starts swinging back and forth. John comes at me so hard and so quick, I was completely thrown. John is a real strong actor and he put everything he had into it. Then about 30 seconds into it, the DP says ‘Cut.’ Everybody turns and looks at the DP and he said, ‘We ran out of film!’”

Lee gave cinematographer Dickerson, costumer designer Carter and production designer Wynn Thomas orders that their work had to reflect the hottest day of the year. “Everybody worked in unison,” notes the filmmaker. “I told them in preproduction, ‘When people watch this film, even if they are sitting in a fucking air-conditioned theater, they have to be sweating.'”

Dickerson, who has been a director since the early 1990s, had been working with Lee as his DP since they were students at NYU. “One of my influences in cinematographer is Jack Cardiff,” he says. “His work on Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death — his use of color in those influenced me."

Dickerson and Lee weren’t going for a documentary feel with Do the Right Thing. “We were definitely going after a stylized feel to get the audience to feel what the characters would be feeling,” says Dickerson. “We were trying to create more of an experiential cinema. We wanted to put the audience right in the middle of the story, and that always dictated how I used the camera and how Spike wanted to use the camera."

For the destruction of Sal’s and the riot after Radio Raheem’s death, Dickerson brought in friends who were DPs to operate the B and C cameras. “Spike asked me to supervise the storyboarding of it because he was getting really busy pulling together so many elements together," he says. "I actually worked with Jeff Balsmeyer, who was the storyboard artist. Over a period of a couple of weeks, I sat down with Jeff and I would do thumbnails and then from that, he would do the actual drawings.”

Those storyboards were also used to show the stunt people and special effects what was needed and what the camera angles were, so “everything they were going to use for the fire could be put out of camera range. It was a controlled burn,” explains Dickerson.

Carter, the Oscar-winning costumer designer of Black Panther who began working with Lee on 1988’s School Daze, had many conversations with the director about the costume design: “Because he had very colorful and special names [for the characters] — Mother Sisters, Da Mayor, Mookie — we had a conversation about growing up, about people in our neighborhood and who these people are.”

Carter took notes from those conversations and visualized it: “Sometimes, I do a mood board. With Spike, it becomes a bit more creative. I have done collage work that shows how the characters interact with their neighborhood. So, I will have location photos, as well as ideas for the characters. Sometimes, pictures from fittings. I share with him in mainly fitting photos because sometimes concepts can be very broad. He really engages when we start seeing how were dressing the people.”

Because it was the hottest day of the year, Carter wanted to saturate the colors to “make things pop,” adding a lot of “the styles and fashions of the day had color blocking.” The costumes, she noted, were a “collage of colors and color blocking, so when they went from day to night, those colors would stay very vibrant. Even if you didn’t see the faces, you would see the colors."

Do the Right Thing is perhaps almost too relevant today. “Here in New York, we have the case of Eric Garner, who was killed with a choke hold,” says Bogle. “We have been through a period where we’ve been told we were living in a post-racial rage, which we never were. And now, it’s rather obvious that the familiar tensions and conflicts are still with us.”

Dickerson feels that in "this America, Trump’s America, things have gotten a lot worse, especially in terms of civil rights, in terms of what people of color are feeling in America. I think in the film, that danger is always on the edge, it’s just outside the frame. I think we’re feeling the dangers that film was highlighting more today than they did 30 years ago."

Lee had been inspired to write Do the Right Thing based on real incidents that had happened to African-Americans, most notably the death in 1983 of artist Michael Stewart, who died following his arrest by New York police for spray-painting graffiti on the New York subway, and 1986’s murder of Michael Griffith, who was killed when he was hit by a car in Howard Beach after he was chased by a mob of white youths who had beaten him and his friends.

When he heard of Garner’s death in 2014, Lee called up Brown and said, “'Come on up to 40 Acres. I want to put something on the internet.' So, Barry came over to my office. We intercut between the real-life life murder of Eric Garner and the murder of Radio Raheem, based on the real-life murder of Michael Griffith. It’s eerie to cut back and forth between Radio Raheem and Eric Garner. It’s like this shit is still happening."

Needless to say, the drama did not incite riots in the summer of 1989. Do the Right Thing, which was Lee’s third film, cemented him as a major director. He earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and Aiello received one for best supporting actor. The movie was later deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1999.

Then, in 2014, President Barack Obama revealed that Do the Right Thing was the film he and first lady Michelle Obama saw on their first date. Such acclaimed African-American filmmakers as the late John Singleton and Ryan Coogler have been influenced by Lee, who received an honorary Oscar in 2015.

And though he’s had highs and lows in the past 30 years, Lee had one of his biggest critical hits in last year's BlacKkKlansman, for which he earned a best screenplay Oscar and a best director nomination.

“Spike has an incredible work ethic,” says Joie. "Spike possesses a lot of first-born qualities. He always has something to say on everything; conversely, he can also be a man of few words. Being the eldest, Spike has to shoulder a lot of responsibility. Spike is driven. Spike is a pioneer.”

Thirty years ago, she adds, “I didn’t know that I could improv or didn’t think I could, or trust. But it’s his style to improv and he encourages it. Being directed by my brother, there is a shorthand. He gives you a lot of freedom.”