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Review: Spike Lee and Jason Matloff’s Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing

It serves a worthy addition to the growing collection of critical and supplemental material on the making of a landmark film.

Spike Lee and Jason Matloff, Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing

As I wrote two summers ago, I watch Do the Right Thing on an annual basis. It’s as much a staple of my summertime movie-watching diet as It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story are part of many people’s December viewing log. Much as I’d love to watch it more often than that, it just seems a little inappropriate to screen it amid giant snowstorms like the ones that have plagued much of the U.S. this year. But what else are you going to do while cooped up inside? You could always get inside the film on the page.

Do the Right Thing is the subject of a new largely pictorial tome from Ammo Books, and it not only serves as a viewing companion for the movie itself, but also, I found, a worthy addition to the growing collection of critical and supplemental material on the making of this landmark film, including the various DVD commentary tracks and Ed Guerrero’s BFI monograph on the film. But most of all, it serves as a nice counterpoint to St. Claire Bourne’s intimate behind-the-scenes documentary “Making Do the Right Thing” (which can be found on both Criterion’s and Universal’s latest R1 DVD releases).

If the overall arc of Bourne’s hour-long documentary is that of a community changed and, in many ways, touched by the arrival of a prestigious but budget-conscious Hollywood production, this new book serves to turn the spotlight back on the cast and crew and their recollections of what was a reasonably brisk but close shoot. The first 40 pages are devoted to a communal dialogue from those participants who, as it turns out, have differing opinions on what exactly when down on this particular “By Any Means Necessary” production. Regrettably, not all the cast members could be included (R.I.P. Da Mayor and Sweet Dick Willie), but nearly everyone is accounted for and has their say.

Among the anecdotes and revelations that spring from this dialogue:

• Spike Lee (a Democrat) and Danny Aiello (a Republican) fought a lot on the set and still disagree on the heroic qualities of Mookie and Sal. Who knew?

• Spike Lee butted heads with the teamsters to get as many black people as he could working behind the scenes.

• That was ginger ale the red wall “Greek chorus” were forced to drink. And at least one of them wasn’t having it.

• Smiley wasn’t even in the original script. Actor Roger Guenveur Smith more or less pitched his character to Lee and wound up in the film.

• Giancarlo Esposito (half-Italian himself) used the slur “guinea bastard” to get an over-the-top reaction from Danny Aiello, suggesting everyone dug deep within themselves to get to the heart of institutionalized racism.

• The Fruit of Islam (the Nation of Islam’s security guards) were on set and apparently liked John Turturro but didn’t much care for Richard Edson.

• Rosie Perez thinks the opening number may constitute the worst dancing she’s ever had captured on film, largely because she was exhausted for much of the day-long shoot.

• Danny Aiello believes if Lee hadn’t been so confrontational in press conferences for the movie, it may have been up for the Best Picture Oscar.

• Martin Lawrence’s eye was the subject of repeated trauma, and not just during the fight scene in Sal’s.

• Frank Sinatra was hesitant to allow Lee to use his songs in Jungle Fever because of his visage shown in flames at the climax of Do the Right Thing.

• Spike Lee may or may not have prevented Wim Wenders from winning an award at the Venice Film Festival when he served as a member of the fest’s jury. And it may or may not have been payback for Do the Right Thing’s loss to sex, lies and videotape at Cannes (where Wenders was jury head).

The book also includes a reproduction of Lee’s handwritten screenplay, which differs from the final product in a number of ways, but none more glaringly than in the tone of the final minute (the filmed version is wildly superior). But this being a coffee table book, in the best sense, the main attraction is the generous selection of production stills and behind-the-scenes shots—mainly captured by Spike Lee’s brother David. I’m not kidding when I say the book’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t come with a good dozen empty frames and perforated binding. You’re going to want to hang most of this book up on your walls like so many Italians dotting the grungy wallpaper of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.

Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing is available now from Ammo Books.

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