Do the Right Thing

25 years ago on June 30th, for the first time, audiences watched Mookie put a trashcan through the window of his place of work, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. In the film, this is the culmination of a day of ratcheting tension, simmering and seething in the rising temperature of the hottest day of summer, the kind of day during which a trivial lunchtime altercation about celebrity photos on the wall can escalate toward a senseless death by afternoon and a riot by nightfall. But outside the story of the film too, it’s hard not to read it on a metaphorical level. With “Do The Right Thing," Spike Lee seemingly with pre-planned calculation, smashed up the existing edifice of the independent film industry, dazzling many, but sending some prognosticators screaming for the hills — some of whom straight-out accused Lee of irresponsibility in directly inciting race violence. Jack Kroll, for instance, writing for Newsweek asked "in this long hot summer, how will young urban audiences — black and white — react to the film's climactic explosion of interracial violence? ... this movie is dynamite under every seat."

All that seems almost comically “the sky is falling!” now, but at the time the film was so new and so raw and so brash and so explosive with ideas that you can see how it could have felt dangerous to those inclined to alarmism. To the rest of us, however, it simply felt important, instantly epochal in a way few movies ever are (most have “classic” status conferred on them long after the fact and only after a great deal of revisionist beard-stroking). Whichever side you were on, of whichever divide the film highlighted, you just knew that “Do The Right Thing” was going to change things.

Do The Right Thing Radio Raheem

One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses...Ooh, it's a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he's down. Left-Hand Hate KO-ed by Love. — Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)

It was a surprise to audiences, that trashcan through the window of our complacent summer of ‘89, but maybe not so much to the director, cast and crew who in large part seemed to believe in the project’s exceptional nature from the very outset. Lee has never been the most retiring or modest of filmmakers, but watch any of the making-ofs, or behind-the-scenes footage from the film (many excerpts from which are available on the 20th Anniversary Special Edition release), or any of the contemporary interviews with those involved and you can’t help but be struck by how many of them seemed truly to understand that they were participating in something remarkable, even before a foot of film had been shot. It’s a concept that always fascinates us: I mean who, before they go out and make their masterpiece, announces loudly and clearly to all within earshot “I am going to make my masterpiece!” And who the hell can get everyone to believe them?

Clearly, Spike Lee could. By that stage already the vanguard of black New York filmmaking with just two features under his belt (“She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze”), Lee was stepping up to a much bigger pitch with “Do the Right Thing,” tackling the impossibly sensitive issue of racism in a much more front-and-center, foregrounded way than he had in his previous films, an urban romance and college-set musical respectively. Even those films’ most ardent admirers (star Ossie Davis refers to “School Daze” in which he also appeared as “a masterpiece” at an initial table read for ‘DTRT’ which we do feel might be overstating it a bit) couldn’t really have predicted the scalpel-like precision of “Do The Right Thing,” which has, in addition to its wonderful sense of vibrant, jumbled-up, colorful life a kind of narrative discipline that his messier earlier efforts had scarcely hinted was possible. But armed with the screenplay and his hot new thing status, Lee went shopping for investors at Hollywood studios.

I'm just a struggling black man trying to keep my dick hard in a cruel and harsh world. — Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito)

Do The Right Thing Buggin

Having been burned by a change of regime at Columbia, who financed “School Daze” under David Puttnam but whom Lee would accused of botching the promotion when Puttnam was replaced by Dawn Steel, Lee instead brought “Do The Right Thing” to Paramount and Touchstone. The former was apparently Lee’s first choice possibly, as is suggested in William Grant’s essay in the collection “Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing” in part because Paramount Communications owned the Knicks and Lee hoped for a season ticket. But when Paramount started to get gun shy about the ending, wanting Lee to reel it in a little and have a more unequivocal reconciliation occur between Sal (Danny Aiello) and Mookie, Lee took it to Universal instead, who came in under his requested budget of $8m but granted him artistic freedom and final cut.

That choice, to reject the higher budget and paycheck in favor of less money but more hands-off support and personal control, is surely one of the most fateful that Lee made, as it’s impossible to see how the film’s giddy, high-wire balancing act, it’s knife-edge ambivalence and uncompromised complexity, could have survived any sort of committee interference. Especially that damn trashcan; Lee’s friend, frequent collaborator and ‘DTRT’ co star John Turturro even told Mark Kermode back in 2006: “I read the script and liked it, even though I had some problems with the ending. I still do actually, but I've always been honest about it.” And Tom Pollock, head of Universal who greenlit the film said of Lee’s reasons for leaving Paramount: "They just couldn’t understand why Mookie throws the trash can through Sal’s window. Quite honestly, I didn’t understand either, until it was explained to me by Spike.”

Do The Right Thing

But of course Lee has never explained why Mookie throws the trashcan through the window (though he has claimed on several occasions that it has only ever been white people who’ve even asked him that question). Nor why Mookie goes back afterward to demand his pay from Sal, nor why Sal pays up, nor why Mookie initially rejects his grudging largesse, only to then pick up the extra money anyway. Or rather, he has never explained whether he believes any of these actions or behaviors is "the right thing" or not. And that’s where the whole baffling “Spike Lee’s films are racist” nonsense is shown up for the crazy it is: we simply cannot think of any film whose point of view on racism is more a reflecting pool of the prejudices and cultural indoctrination of the person watching, because the film itself is near-impossible to call on that front. Where David Denby, then of New York Magazine saw Lee’s potential irresponsibility particularly located in the ending which was “a open embrace of futility” others, ourselves included, find the ambiguity and even-handedness of the ending to be one of the film’s greatest achievements (Lee referred to Denby recently in a Rolling Stone article: it clearly still rankles). It is provocative in the best way, in that it provokes you to make your own moral decisions about the characters without ratifying one approach or the other. Is this futility or is it simply an acknowledgement of, and a refusal to compromise on, the complexity of its themes?