Do the Right Thing burst into theaters in the summer of 1989 like a trash can crashing through a plate-glass window. Spike Lee’s third film was a stylized, blistering, and vibrant examination of late-’80s racial tensions that straddled the high fence between political and fun. To inhabit his vision of Brooklyn — one block in Bed-Stuy on the hottest day of summer — Lee assembled a formidable cast that included everyone from new discoveries like Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence to established icons like the married actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and even Lee himself, as the pizza-toting Mookie. Twenty-five years after they shot the film, we brought many of them back to the original Stuyvesant Avenue location for the photo shoot. (John Turturro and Steve White, who both spoke to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY for this story, were not available to attend the shoot.) The years and circumstances may have changed, but it’s still impossible to fight Do the Right Thing’s power. ”This movie still means something and it’s still being watched,” says Lee. ”Even after all this time, it lives and breathes.”
A New Spike Lee Joint
Up-and-coming young filmmaker Spike Lee had already made a name for himself with She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze when he first started writing what would be his most ambitious work to date. Among his influences were flash-point incidents of racial violence in New York such as the 1986 death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, the shooting death of Eleanor Bumpurs by the NYPD, and the police-brutality case of Michael Stewart. The director, then 30, started with a title, Do the Right Thing, and went from there.
Spike Lee Director/Mookie
I wrote Do the Right Thing in, I think, 12 days, from March 1 to March 13, 1988. It was shot that summer. I knew it’d take place on one block in the non-gentrified neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. I remember as a kid watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents about this [man] who was doing this study that after a certain temperature, the murder rate goes up. People get agitated, it just becomes crazy and combustible. And at this time there was the Howard Beach incident, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Ed Koch and his policy towards people of color…all that factored in. It was going to be what we hoped was an honest portrayal of the race relations in that present-day New York City.
John Turturro Pino
I remember the script had a black leather cover. I thought there was something exciting about it and it dealt with a world that I knew. I grew up in Hollis, Queens, until I was 6, and then I got bused out to a school that was all-black for junior high school. Spike grew up in an Italian neighborhood and I grew up in a black neighborhood, so we both kind of had similar experiences with this kind of stuff, from all sides.
Bill Nunn Radio Raheem
Spike said, ”Hey, I want you to do this.” He had me in mind to do Mister Se¨or Love Daddy at the time, the DJ character. But I’m so glad it worked out the way it did. Radio Raheem was really good for me because I like those characters that don’t have a lot of lines but they’re kind of significant to the story. I thought of Steve McQueen because I liked Steve McQueen’s silence a lot in movies.
Ruby Dee Mother Sister
[Spike’s] father was a musician, and it was through that connection that Ossie [Davis] and I got to know Spike. When I first saw him, I thought he looked so young, like a teenager. I didn’t know he was the boss of the joint. But he smoothed any doubts that I had because he knew exactly what he wanted.
Rosie Perez Tina
My earliest memory of making the film is when Spike told me to go see hair. This is my first movie, so I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. So the hair guy tells me to sit down and he says, ”I’m going to give you a little cut.” And he proceeds to shave the side of my head. I thought I was going to die. I go, ”What the f— are you doing?” He goes, ”Spike told me to give you the Salt-N-Pepa!” And I go, ”Are you kidding me? You don’t cut a Puerto Rican’s hair!” So I say to Spike, ”This motherf—er cut my hair! Why didn’t you tell me?” He goes, ”That’s what happens on movies.” I said to him, ”First of all, that Salt-N-Pepa s— is outdated. Second of all, YOU CUT MY F—ING HAIR!”
Making the Neighborhood
The film production took over a stretch of Stuyvesant Avenue for nine weeks, enlivening the mostly empty block with its own makeshift fictional community.
Lee We hired the Fruit of Islam for security. There was a crack spot on the block, so the Fruit of Islam made them go around the corner.
Samuel L. Jackson Mister Se¨or Love Daddy
Once the Fruit of Islam cleaned out the crack houses, it was quiet in there, nobody bothered us. The occasional time when you roam off set and go to a store in the neighborhood, some guys would say something to the effect of ”You acting motherf—ers came in here and ruined our business, we’re gonna f— you up.” I’d be like, ”Well, you know, I haven’t always been an actor, so I’m not gonna stand here and take an ass whupping.” But other than that, it was harmonious.
Perez Well, I was living with my sister, Carmen, and her common-law husband during shooting, and she was four blocks from set. So for me it was ”Okay, I’m just going to walk down the road and film something.” Not a long commute. But for others I remember them being very wary of the neighborhood and being on constant guard.
Ricky Aiello Officer Gary Long
It was a little uncomfortable [playing] a police officer in that neighborhood. We had a great time. But if you’re in a police uniform, you’re not going to be the hero of the neighborhood.
Turturro It was dangerous, but it was a good vibe. It was real. A lot of times you go on movie sets and it’s like a medical office and there’s something austere and antiseptic about it, and this movie was just the opposite.
Jackson I was always stuck in that radio station. They only came in there when it rained and they had to shoot stuff in a covered set. So I’d be in there just kinda looking out the window watching them shoot everybody else, wondering if I was ever gonna get on camera. Half the time I’d be in there asleep, because I’d been up pretty much the night before f—ed up, hanging out with my friends. [Laughs] Bill Nunn actually lived in my basement, in my brownstone.
Nunn We called it ”The Cave.” The Cave was up on 143rd between Broadway and Amsterdam. That’s where we ended up a lot, having fun.
Giancarlo Esposito Buggin Out
Bill went to school with Sam at Morehouse. Spike was there at the time, so that was one group that was tightly knit and more mature adult versions of our younger group — Martin Lawrence, Roger Smith, myself. Then you had Ossie and Ruby as our patriarch and matriarch.
Steve White Ahmad
The [big concern] was cursing out all the neighbors. Here is this icon [Ossie Davis] and I gotta do it like I did it at the audition, but Ossie wasn’t at the audition, the real Ossie Davis. So on the day of the shoot I went up to him, and with my legs quivering I said, ”Excuse me, sir, I hope you don’t mind. I gotta be a little mean here and curse you out.” And he was like, ”Bring it on, whippersnapper. Do your job.”
Frankie Faison Coconut Sid
It was truly like being a part of a neighborhood. We’d come to work, get into our characters, and sit around and talk. What you see in the film is pretty much what it was like on the set. It felt like we had a society all to ourselves.