October in Britain is Black History Month, and for Deptford Cinema that means a sweeping retrospective of director Spike Lee’s joints. Since his breakout first feature She's Gotta Have It back in 1986, African-American filmmaker Spike Lee has built an incredibly diverse, politically-charged, and hugely respected filmography, from mainstream heist thrillers like Inside Man to this year’s topical Cannes-winning police drama BlackKklansman. Eight films from across four decades make up the season.
As part of each screening at Deptford Cinema, ticket holders will get a set of programme notes that explore the context of each film’s production and reception. As a taster, reproduced below are the notes from the screening of Do The Right Thing, Lee’s explosive third film which gained him Oscar nominations and much notoriety, and remains perhaps his signature piece of work. An appropriate film to kick the season off then!
Lee made his directorial debut with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, which returned millions on its tiny independent budget. School Daze followed in 1988, but it was Do the Right Thing that made him a household name and media personality, cementing his status as a directing force to be reckoned with.
Among the audiences flocking to this controversial new release, which opened in American cinemas on 30 June 1989, were the young Barack Obama and his future wife Michelle, who remember going to see the film on their first date.
The film ends with quotes by both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X: provoking the audience to consider the different approaches of each in light of what they have seen occur in the film. The above quotes are followed by a dedication to the families of: Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart.
Lee developed the idea for Do the Right Thing after a discussion with Robert De Niro. The two had conversed about a 1986 incident at Queens, NY’s Howard Beach, in which a group of African-American men were attacked in a neighborhood heavily populated by Italian-Americans, and one of the victims was struck by a car and killed while attempting to flee. Apparently De Niro was Lee’s first choice for the character of “Sal,” but when De Niro decided against the role, he suggested Danny Aiello, who was eventually cast.
Principal photography began 18 Jul 1988, filming took place on one block in Brooklyn, NY, on Stuyvesant Avenue, between Lexington and Quincy.. The dilapidated and poverty-ridden street was transformed by the film crew, with new constructions including a working pizza parlor that doubled for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, and a radio station that replaced a burnt-out building. Several of the characters’ residences were set in a former crack house that had been shut down by production, and the brownstone that doubled as the home of the only white resident, “Clifton,” had been a vacant building beforehand. On the Saturday preceding the start of principal photography, Spike Lee hosted a large block party in order to establish a positive relationship between the residents of the neighborhood and the filmmakers. Filming on the $6.2 million production was completed 14 Sep 1988.
For the final confrontation between Aiello’s “Sal” and Giancarlo Esposito’s character, “Buggin Out,” Lee allowed the actors to improvise as they slung racist remarks at one another. Esposito, who was half-Italian and half-African-American in descent, told HR that filming the scene had been cathartic.
The film showed in competition at the Cannes International Film Festival on 19 May 1989. Critical reception was largely positive. Lee’s unique style was lauded by NYT’s Vincent Canby, who described the young filmmaker as “the most distinctive American multi-threat man since Woody Allen.” Echoing that sentiment in her 30 Jun 1989 LAT review, Sheila Benson stated that Lee was a “director working with absolute assurance and power.” However articles in Newsweek, Village Voice, and New York accused Do the Right Thing of promoting violence and expressed concern about potentially volatile reactions from moviegoers. However, no violent incidents were linked to the film’s 30 Jun 1989 opening in 360 theaters across the U.S., and Lee conveyed his disappointment in the negative backlash.
“As a writer I want everybody to get a chance to voice their opinions. If each character thinks that they’re telling the truth, then it’s valid. Then at the end of the film, I leave it up to the audience to decide who did the right thing. “ - Spike Lee, Rolling Stone interview.
“I’ll tell you my least favorite [reaction to the film]: the reviews of David Denby and Joe Klein saying that black people were going to riot after seeing this film. That they [black people] weren’t intelligent enough to make the distinction between what’s happening on screen and what happens in real life — so they would come out of theaters and riot all across America. You can Google it! Blood was going to be on my hands, and I was going to be personally responsible for David Dinkins not being the first African-American mayor [of New York City], because the primary was in that September. That still bugs the shit out of me. I know people might read this and say “Spike, move the fuck on,” but I’m sorry — I can’t. They never really owned up to that, and when I think about it, I just get mad.” - Spike Lee, Rolling Stone interview.
The Spike Lee Mixtape season runs October 11- November 6. See here for tickets and dates.