Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind the Making of “Do The Right Thing”

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Do The Right Thing changed the game. Before this movie, there were no filmmakers who were speaking about the racial dynamics in New York  neighborhoods the way Spike Lee was. The movie took movie goers by storm, educating a lot of people along the way. Though Do The Right Thing cost $6.5 million dollars to make, it eventually grossed $27.5 million at the box office and the American Film Institute eventually dubbed it one of the greatest movies of all time. You’ve memorized the plot. You remember how you mourned for Radio Raheem. And you know how the movie touched you. But, we bet you don’t know these behind the scenes secrets.

What inspired the film?

This film was inspired by an actual incident in Howard Beach area of Queens borough. If you’re not familiar this is what happened. Three black men went into a pizzeria in Queens, after their car broke down. Shortly after, a group of white teenagers yelled a racial epithet at the three men and a verbal altercation took place. Later, the white teens returned with 7-9 friends. The three black teens tried to run. One escaped, one was beaten with baseball bats, tree limbs and fists and the third was killed when he was run over by a car in the middle of the melee.

How long did it take Spike to write this?

Apparently, Spike Lee was so gassed up about this whole Howard Beach incident, he wrote Do The Right Thing in just two weeks. As a homage to the men involved in the Howard Beach incident, you can hear rioters in Do The Right Thing screaming “HOWARD BEACH, HOWARD BEACH!” after Radio Raheem is killed. Raheem’s death was also inspired by the real life death of Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who died in police custody.

Robert De Niro could have been Sal

Spike Lee approached De Niro about playing the role of Sal, the pizzeria owner, but De Niro, being the superstar he is, had already committed to another project and was unable to star in the film. As much of a genius as De Niro is, this movie was going to be a gem, a classic whether he decided to lend his talents to the film or not.

How did Rosie Perez get this role?

Before Do The Right Thing, Rosie was known in the industry as a choreographer. But just because she danced for a living didn’t mean that she was oblivious to other issues. In a club where both Rosie and Lee were in attendance, Spike was hosting a “booty contest.” (Apparently, these were his immature days.) Well, Rosie wasn’t having that. She got on the microphone, and shouting, accused Spike Lee of sexism. The two had a bit of an argument and during that time, Spike saw her acting potential. So he cast her in his next movie.

Rosie and the ice cube

When she signed up to be a part of Do The Right Thing, Rosie Perez was a still a college student. A college student who’d just lost her virginity, she claims. So naturally, she was a bit uncomfortable about the ice cube scene with Mookie (Spike), where she was full frontal. In an interview, which was later featured in Spike Lee’s memoir, Perez said she felt exploited by the scene. “I had just lost my virginity in college. I found [the scene] much more exploitative than what I had read [in the script]. Eventually I burst into tears and I said, ‘Don’t keep filming.'” Apparently, there was a riff between Perez and Spike because of all this. But thankfully they were able to work it out.


Tawana Told the Truth

If you know this movie, down to the background details, then you may have noticed that there is a wall with the words, “Tawana Told The Truth” spray painted on a brick wall. So what is this about? In 1987, Tawana Brawley was a fifteen year old girl, who accused six men, one of them a police officer, of raping her. Later Brawley recounted her statement, claiming it was sexual abuse and not rape. A year later, a jury ruled that she was not raped and had made up the story. Despite the ruling, some in the black community were still outraged by how the media covered the story, including releasing the name of a minor and playing on racial stereotypes.

Speaking of the media

Before the movie was released in theaters, several newspapers were claiming that the movie would encourage riots in the theater. But when the movie was released in the summer of 1989, there was not a single act of violence associated with the release of the movie. Spike Lee later criticized the media for projecting this stereotype onto the black community.

Did Mookie do the right thing?

Movie watchers have argued whether or not Mookie did the right thing by throwing the garbage can through Sal’s window. Though he destroyed Sal’s pizzeria, it also distracted the mob from killing Sal himself. Spike doesn’t take too kindly to the question. In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a book about the political, social and history of the movie, Lee noted that only white viewers have ever asked him this question, revealing, in his opinion, that they value white property (Sal’s Pizzeria) over the black life (Radio Raheem).


What do you think, is this movie a classic in your book?

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