How I Made It: Spike Lee on ‘Do the Right Thing’

Photo: Universal Pictures/Photofest

Several people have surprised me by saying that one of the movie’s biggest legacies is the impact you had on diversifying New York film crews.
Do the Right Thing was my first union film. I looked at the rosters, and for the most part, it was white males. Especially the Teamsters. So we had some conversations.

This was your third film. What was different?
That’s when I became a director. She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze, I really didn’t know what I was doing. And the biggest indicator of that was the acting. Do the Right Thing was like the first film where I really felt comfortable working with actors.

Your cast was nearly very different.
Originally, I wanted Robert De Niro. He wouldn’t do it. And it turned out to be a blessing, no disrespect. For it to work, it had to be an ensemble piece, and a star of that magnitude would have changed everything. So Danny Aiello was great. Then we had Sam Jackson—before he was Samuel L. It was Martin Lawrence’s first film. The great Robin Harris. Ossie and Ruby, Frank Vincent, John Savage, Bill Nunn, my sister Joie Lee, John Turturro. Richard Edson, who I knew through Jim Jarmusch, two years ahead of me at NYU … It was a hella fine cast, hella fine.

You met a few actors by accident.
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.

How did the script come together?
I had the title of it before I had anything else. Then it was bits and pieces—it was going to take place on the hottest day of the summer on one block in Bed-Stuy. Then I added the whole Italian-American–African-American conflict, which I’ve touched on in three films, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Summer of Sam, and now my new film, Miracle at St. Anna, which is about the black soldiers who fought in Italy during World War II.

Why do you keep coming back to that?
The reason for this is very simple: My family, we were the first black family to move into Cobble Hill. At that time, it was predominantly Italian-American. The first day they called us niggers. But after that, it was cool.

One of the people you dedicate the film to is Eleanor Bumpurs.
Eleanor Bumpurs—[the police] had already shot her finger off. Then they killed her with a shotgun. Sixty-six years old. Mayor Koch, he was the one responsible, I feel, because he was giving the signals, the wink-wink, like it’s open season.

You specifically wanted the film to hurt Koch, right?
We have one scene where our man spray-painted dump koch. And also we had this plan because the film came out in August and that fall was the Democratic primary. So throughout the film, you hear Mister Señor Love Daddy, played by Samuel Jackson, telling people to vote, vote, vote. And Dinkins won.

Do the Right Thing never won an Oscar.
Remember what Kim Basinger did? Onstage she said, “The best film of the year is not even nominated, and it’s Do the Right Thing.” I didn’t even know her. But when Driving Miss Motherfucking Daisy won Best Picture, that hurt … No one’s talking about Driving Miss Daisy now.

Was the studio prepared for the controversy when the film came out?
At the last moment, Paramount asked me to change the ending. They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing “We Are the World.” They told me this on a Friday; Monday morning we were at Universal.

New York’s former political columnist Joe Klein and its former film critic David Denby had very strong reactions.
One of the big criticisms was that I had not provided an answer for racism in the movie, which is insane. And what’s even more insane is people like Joe Klein and David Denby felt that this film was going to cause riots. Young black males were going to emulate Mookie and throw garbage cans through windows. Like, “How dare you release this film in summertime: You know how they get in the summertime, this is like playing with fire.” I hold no grudges against them. But that was twenty years ago and it speaks for itself.

Around the tenth anniversary of the film, you said that not much had changed—Diallo and Louima were in the news. How does it look to you now?
The way Bloomberg is handling stuff is a world away from Giuliani and Koch—and how Dinkins handled Crown Heights, too. I’m optimistic, but we’re going to hell in a handbasket. Fuck recession, we’re in a depression. I’m blessed, I can afford to send my children to private school. But where’s the affordable housing? You can’t afford Bed-Stuy!

What do you think of Obama?
I’m riding my man Obama. I think he’s a visionary. Actually, Barack told me the first date he took Michelle to was Do the Right Thing. I said, “Thank God I made it. Otherwise you would have taken her to Soul Man. Michelle would have been like, ‘What’s wrong with this brother?’ ”

Does this mean you’re down on the Clintons?
The Clintons, man, they would lie on a stack of Bibles. Snipers? That’s not misspeaking; that’s some pure bullshit. I voted for Clinton twice, but that’s over with. These old black politicians say, “Ooh, Massuh Clinton was good to us, massuh hired a lot of us, massuh was good!” Hoo! Charlie Rangel, David Dinkins—they have to understand this is a new day. People ain’t feelin’ that stuff. It’s like a tide, and the people who get in the way are just gonna get swept out into the ocean.

Back to the New York Canon Main Page

How I Made It: Spike Lee on ‘Do the Right Thing’