The Inside Story of Do The Right Thing
We revisit the controversial 1989 release of Do The Right Thing in an extract from Kaleem Aftab's authorized biography of Spike Lee, Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It.
Back in the summer of 1989 no cinema release exuded more heat — in every respect — than Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing: a slice of New York life inspired by real events but dynamised in its execution by Lee's singular skills and passionate convictions. In this edited extract from Kaleem Aftab's authorised biography Spike Lee: That's My Story And I'm Sticking To It (2005, Faber and Faber (UK)/W.W. Norton (US)), Aftab revisits the issues that drove Lee to write his original screenplay, and some of the elements that contributed to the movie's controversial reception eighteen months later.
As Spike Lee sat down to research and write his third picture at the start of 1988, 15-year-old Tawana Brawley's claims that she had been abducted and raped by a group of men — some carrying police badges — were making headlines on a daily basis in New York and nationwide. Brawley later retracted her claims, but told others that, although penetration did not occur, other types of abuse, some sexual in nature, certainly had. Forensic tests found no evidence of sexual assault: this was only one of many discrepancies in Brawley's story. The politically ambitious Pentecostal preacher Al Sharpton, and two attorneys, Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, used the Brawley case to highlight their conviction that the police and the judicial system were racist and corrupt; but they refused to recant even as evidence mounted that Brawley had lied. Spike Lee also ignored the growing evidence against Brawley, and decided that his forthcoming film wall would feature a graffito proclaiming 'Tawana Told the Truth.'
On December 20 1986, a few months after She's Gotta Have It had established Spike as a New York celebrity, a 23-year-old African-American construction worker named Michael Griffith was killed after being chased by an Italian-American mob in Howard Beach, Brooklyn. Griffith was with two black friends, Cedric Saniford and Timothy Grimes, when their car broke down in front of a pizza parlour. They wandered inside, hoping to call for help, and when they were refused the use of the phone they sat down to eat. Soon after, two police officers answering a call citing 'three suspicious black males' walked in, but left as soon as the realised the calls were unwarranted. Thereafter, a group of white men — among them John Lester, Scott Kern and Jason Landone — chased the black youths out of the pizzeria towards a gang of accomplices waiting with baseball bats. Grimes escaped after he pulled a knife; Saniford was knocked unconscious, and, as a severely beaten Griffith tried to stagger away from his pursuers, he wandered onto the busy Belt Parkway where he was hit and killed by a passing automobile. New York erupted, witnessing its largest black protest rallies since the civil rights movement.
Spike had previously conceived of a film called Heatwave to be set on the hottest day of the year. 'In New York you have eight million people on top of each other,' he points out, 'and people get crazy when it's hot. Things start to get frayed. If you bump into someone, you might get shot.' Piecing together his story, Spike wondered what might happen if a black person was murdered by police on a hot, humid New York summer day. He then borrowed details from the true-life accounts: from Howard Beach, the baseball bat, the pizzeria, conflict between blacks and Italian-Americans, and a call issued by blacks to boycott pizzerias for one day in protest at the Griffith death. But as he acknowledges, 'There were many different things that influenced Do The Right Thing. There was also a big incident in Brooklyn College, where black students and white students were fighting over what music was being played on the jukebox. In terms of the racial climate in the city at that time, Mayor Koch had really polarised a lot of New Yorkers.'
Spike was determined to contribute to the downfall of Koch, who had been Mayor of the Big Apple since 1978: 'We knew that when the film came out, it would be right before the Democratic primary for mayor. We felt that we could have a little bit of influence… and every time we could nail Koch, we would. Though, interestingly enough, people like Joe Klein and David Dedley wrote that the film would hurt David Dinkins' chance of becoming mayor.' In fact Dinkins went on to be elected New York's first black mayor, and from this experience Spike developed a unique and contentious personality as the one American director who consistently made pertinent and up-to-date political comments in his films, timed to put across his own point of view at the moment of the movie's release.
Spike wrote Do The Right Thing at a furious pace, taking only twelve days to complete the first draft. The opening line of the script was the very same cry of 'Wake Up!' that had served as the ambiguous end to School Daze. 'That is a call to everybody, not just African-Americans, to look at what is going on around them', Spike contends.
Many who saw an early cut of Do The Right Thing quickly formed the view that Lee and the 40 Acres production team had improved beyond recognition. Jonathan Demme was invited to a screening at the mix stage and eagerly told the filmmakers 'You're in the big leagues now'. Do The Right Thing was unveiled to the world in a competition berth at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1989, and was considered a favourite for the coveted Palme d'Or. Co-producer Monty Ross remembers: 'Miramax were distributing sex lies and videotape and Steven Soderbergh saw Do The Right Thing, and whenever he would pass us in Cannes he would show great respect to Spike. Then at the final awards ceremony, when sex lies and videotape won the Palme d'Or, I remember that Steven looked right at Spike and they looked at each other, and Steven had this shocked expression that said, 'I won!' But he knew Do The Right Thing was the better film at Cannes that year…'
Spike returned to New York to discover that the screening at Cannes had several leading American film critics up in arms about the incendiary nature of his film. David Denby in New York magazine, Richard Corliss in Time, and Jeanne Williams of USA Today all argued that Do The Right Thing was of no value except as agit-prop to incite the black community to riot. This criticism met with fury within 40 Acres. Monty Ross says, 'That is folks not doing their homework. Black people do not riot because they go see a movie. It's not that intense. It's not like it used to be in the sixties where it was expedient to start a riot. When black folks go to the movies, they've given up their money and, just like everybody else, they're thinking first of all it better be a damn good movie…'
As Ross notes, one benefit of the intense media interest in Do The Right Thing was that it ensured the film would be one of the most keenly anticipated releases in a summer otherwise dominated by Tim Burton's Batman: 'When the New York Times dedicates, like, six weeks in its editorial section to talking about the neighbourhood and crime and the mayoral election, all in connection to this film — you scratch your head a little bit and say, 'Wow.' That made a tremendous impact. I think that what Spike wanted to get across is that you can make a film that gets people thinking about issues, and can also be entertaining.' Actor Bill Nunn ('Radio Raheem') recalls, 'There was a sudden shift in expectation, this was a Spike Lee Joint that raised the bar to the next level and entered mainstream American consciousness. I think it's a historical moment in film — and one of those films that students are going to be watching in the future.'