On a weekend where record temperatures were being recorded in New York City, and elsewhere in the U.S., it's appropriate that two of the best films in theaters, "Magic Mike" and "Take This Waltz," both revolve around long, hot summers. And it's doubly appropriate that Saturday also marked the anniversary of perhaps the definitive heatwave movie: Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing." Of course, Lee's masterpiece isn't just a look at Brooklyn over a boiling hot summer day, it's also one of the greatest American films in the history of the medium, one whose critical reputation has only grown since Kim Basinger's protestation on stage at the Oscars the following year that it was the best film of 1989, and yet hadn't been nominated (although Danny Aiello got a nod, as did Lee's screenplay).
Set on the hottest day of the summer, the film stars Lee himself as Mookie, who works at neighborhood pizzeria Sal's Famous, owned, as you might expect, by Sal (Aiello). Sal's a good guy, and his son Vito (Richard Edson) is friends with Mookie, but elder son Pino (John Turturro) holds much of black community around him in contempt. Things start to come to a head after Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) fights with Sal over the lack of black faces on his Wall Of Fame, which starts a conflict that will end with tragic consequences.
With the film having been released 23 years ago today, on June 30th, 1989, and Lee returning to Brooklyn next month for his latest film "Red Hook Summer," it seemed like a good opportunity to pick out 5 facts you might not be aware of about his breakout film, one of the finest achievements of his career. And for those who've never seen the film, the Criterion Collection DVD is absolutely wroth seeking out, while for those of you on the other side of the pond, our pals at Permanent Plastic Helmet are hosting a screening at the Clapham Picturehouse in London on Thursday.
Despite his studio debut "School Daze" flopping, Spike Lee was still a hot property, and his third film "Do The Right Thing" was originally set up at Paramount. The script came together, but at the last minute, however, the studio decided they wanted a happier ending; as Lee told New York Magazine, "They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing 'We Are the World.'" Three days later, the film was set up at Universal, where Lee was given final cut over the picture. There also could have been a much bigger star involved. Lee wanted Robert De Niro to play pizzeria owner Sal, but according to the filmmaker, "He wouldn't do it." Danny Aiello took the role instead, turning in a career-best performance. Matt Dillon was also an early prospect to play Sal's racist son Pino, before John Turturro got the gig (side-note: Richard Edson, who plays the other brother, Vito, was the original drummer for Sonic Youth).
2. Lee cast Rosie Perez after meeting her at his birthday party.
The film's notable not just for the storming central performances by Lee and Aiello, but also for early gigs for many actors who'd go on to long careers: Samuel L. Jackson, who plays DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy, and Giancarlo Esposito (now best known as Gus Fring on "Breaking Bad") in the couldn't-be-more different role of Buggin' Out, both get early showcases here, after having appeared in "School Daze." It also marks the screen debut of stand-up Martin Lawrence, who'd go on to be a major star, but perhaps Lee's most unforgettable discovery was siren-voiced Rosie Perez as Mookie's girlfriend Tina. Perez had never acted before, but had been a dancer on "Soul Train." Lee met her by accident, and decided to change Tina to be a Puerto Rican to showcase her. The director would later relate their meeting: "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."