Aron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Extra Cheese Is Two Dollars”. A 30th Anniversary Appreciation Of Writer/Producer & Star Spike Lee’s Provocative, Controversial & Artistic Achievement “Do The Right Thing”. What Was One Of The Most Important Films Of The 80’s. Now 30 Years Later It’s Still Just As Influential & Important.
It’s no shock that Spike Lee is a controversial and one of a kind filmmaker. After 35 years in the business, he still sticks to what he does best and still deals with controversial issues like racism, politics and urban violence in his films. Known for his candid portrayal of taboo topics, he is a fearless and independent minded filmmaker who lets his films do the talking.
Some find Lee to be a fresh and powerful voice in American cinema, a man who is unafraid to profess his viewpoint even though it may be unpopular with some audiences. Others view his movies to preach potentially incendiary messages, but it is impossible to debate that over the past a decade and a half, Lee has left an indelible imprint upon independent motion pictures. While I’m a fan of the works of Spike Lee, my three favorite films being: “Crooklyn”, “The 25th Hour” and “Miracle At St Anna”. It’s hard to deny “Do The Right Thing” the ranking it deserves of Spike Lee’s greatest film and achievement.
“Do the Right Thing” was Spike Lee’s third motion picture, following “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze”, but this was the movie that put him on the proverbial map. Never before or since, not even with the epic “Malcolm X”, has he courted controversy so aggressively than with “Do The Right Thing”. The movie confronts racism head-on, with the kind of clear-eyed and unflinching attitude that is rarely seen in major motion pictures. Lee does not pander to political correctness, nor does he sermonize.
Spike Lee’s script introduces a group of characters, sets up the situation and allows the events to play out. His approach is even-handed, Lee is the kind of director who provokes knee-jerk reactions, as most of “Do the Right Thing” is presented as a slice-of-life drama examining the everyday lives of a group of characters. However, three-quarters of the way through, something shocking occurs that gets fed by the heat wave that’s scorching the neighborhood, the frustration and tension that has been simmering under the surface for most of the movie causes the events to explode into the open.
The results are shocking, and make a bold and bitter statement about the state of race relations in America, circa 1989. Sadly, while it has gotten better still not much has changed in parts of the world in the nearly 30 years since the movie was released. “Do the Right Thing” does what all enduring and great movies of substance must do, cry out with a loud voice that demands to be heard. “Do the Right Thing” was the most controversial film of the 80’s and 30 years later is still regarded by many to be the most controversial of all time.
“Do The Right Thing” is Lee’s artistic achievement, his provocative masterpiece. Lee is aided by long time cinematographer turned director Ernest Dickerson and a film score by William J. E. Lee, Spike’s father. The movie takes place during one long, hot day in the Bedford-Stuyevesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. But this is not the typical urban cityscape we’ve seen in countless action movies about violence, guns and drugs. People live here. People know one another and accept one another, and although there are problems, they are also a real community.
The neighborhood is a black neighborhood, but two of the businesses aren’t. There is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria that has been on the same corner since before the neighborhood changed. Sal is played by a brilliant Danny Aiello in an Oscar nominated role, who likes to short change people with cheese on their pizzas and charges two dollars extra for it. Sal boasts that “these people have grown up on my pizza.” And in a nearby storefront that had been boarded up for years, a Korean family has opened a fruit and vegetable stand.
Sal is a tough, no-nonsense guy who basically wants to get along and tend to business. One of his sons is a vocal racist. The other is more open toward African Americans. Sal’s ambassador to the community is a likable local youth named Mookie played by writer, producer and director Spike Lee, who delivers pizzas and also acts as a messenger of news and gossip. Mookie is good at his job, but his heart isn’t in it; he knows there’s no future in delivering pizzas.
We meet other people in the neighborhood. There are Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a kind of everyman who knows everybody; Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a vocal militant; Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), whose boom box defines his life and provides a musical cocoon to insulate him from the world; Mother Sister (Ruby Dee, real life wife to Ossie Davis), who is sort of the neighborhood witch. The cast also features early-career work from Samuel L. Jackson and making their acting debuts is Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez.
In the movie’s final scene, Sal’s conversation with Mookie holds out little hope, but it holds out at least the possibility that something has been learned from the films big tragedy. The way Aiello plays the scene is quietly brilliant. Lee’s writing and direction are masterful throughout the movie; he knows exactly where he is taking us, and how to get there. After we get to the end, however, we understand how, and why, everything has happened.
Lee has fused a political message, gripping drama and a sense of a community comedy with finesse. Whether or not you agree with his provocative views, there’s no doubt about the film’s sheer power and taut originality. Spike proved that he had what it takes and “Do The Right Thing” was proof that he got it.
Spike Lee first got the idea for the film after watching the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “Shopping for Death” where the main characters discuss their theory that hot weather increases violent tendencies. He was also inspired by the Howard Beach racial incident and the shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs. Lee wrote the screenplay in two weeks. The original script included an ending that ends with a stronger reconciliation between Mookie and Sal. As Sal’s comments to Mookie mirror Da Mayor’s earlier comments in the film and hint at some common ground and perhaps Sal’s understanding of why Mookie was motivated to destroy his restaurant. It is unclear and has not been commented on why Lee changed the ending.
Spike Lee had campaigned for Robert De Niro to portray Sal the pizzeria owner, but De Niro had to decline due to prior commitments. Rosie Perez was cast as Mookie’s love interest Tina after Lee saw her dancing at a Los Angeles dance club. Perez decided to take the part because her sister lived four blocks from the set. It turned out to be her film debut, which turned out to be a not so pleasant experience for her. Perez has spoken out about not being comfortable with doing the nude scene in the film:
“My first experience with doing nude scenes was Do the Right Thing. And I had a big problem with it, mainly because I was afraid of what my family would think, that’s what was really bothering me. It wasn’t really about taking off my clothes. But I also didn’t feel good about it because the atmosphere wasn’t correct. And when Spike Lee puts ice cubes on my nipples, the reason you don’t see my head is because I’m crying. I was like, I don’t want to do this”.
The film was shot entirely in a neighborhood of Brooklyn. The street’s color scheme was heavily altered by the production designer, who used a great deal of red and orange paint to help convey the sense of a heatwave. The Korean grocery store and Sal’s pizzeria were built from scratch on two empty lots. The pizzeria was fully functional and the actors actually cooked pizzas in the ovens. During filming, the neighborhood’s crack dealers threatened the film crew for disturbing their business so Lee hired Fruit of Islam members to provide security for the cast and crew.
The film was released to protests from many reviewers, and it was openly stated in several newspapers that the film could incite black audiences to riot.Lee criticized the white reviewers for implying that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture. In a 2014 interview Lee stated “That still bugs the shit out of me,” calling the remarks “outrageous, egregious and, I think, racist,” and further elaborating, “I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theatres killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films”.
“Do The Right Thing” has received numerous accolades, including Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Aiello’s portrayal of Sal the pizzeria owner. It is often listed among the greatest films of all time. In 1999, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” in its first year of eligibility by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The prestigious home video company the Criterion Collection has released “Do The Right Thing” in a two disc dvd with extensive bonus features. The Criterion Collection will be upgrading to a Blu Ray version in July 2019.
Lee has also paid a homage to his film in the 2006 thriller, “Inside Man” with Denzel Washington in a scene where the police provide Sal’s pizza to the hostages. In 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the film, it was praised by Barack and Michelle Obama as being the film they watched on their first date. This was also chronicled in a sequence in “Southside With You”, the film depicting the first meet and first date of Barack and Michelle.
It comes closer to reflecting the state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time and it’s ending still has a shattering effect. Spike Lee is America’s most serious minded moviemakers. “Do The Right Thing” is radical filmmaking at its best; it’ll have you arguing and laughing.