"I wanted to deal with that syndrome where people might toss around the word ‘n—r,’ but some of their favorite athletes or entertainers are black," Lee explains to EW. "How does a person reconcile that?”

By Marcus Jones
June 11, 2020 at 01:34 PM EDT
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On a phone call in late April, before the current protests over the killings of black Americans like Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor began, director Spike Lee told EW that his 30-year-old masterpiece, the film called Do the Right Thing, "grows in stature every year as new generations are introduced to it — and it's not going to stop."

As racism continues to be at the epicenter of the national conversation, Lee finds himself currently discussing his 1989 film, depicting instances of racial tension and police brutality in one Brooklyn neighborhood, practically as much as his new Netflix film Da 5 Bloods, out Friday.

Universal Pictures

Lee wrote the first draft of the Do the Right Thing screenplay in two weeks, inspired in part by the theory that summer weather brings more violence with it. EW asked the Oscar-winning writer-director to choose a scene from the film to dissect and he selected the classic two-hander between his character, Mookie, and racist pizzeria colleague Pino (John Turturro).

John Turturro is a beast,” says Lee of his scene partner. “I was very much intimidated doing that scene.” The tension eventually explodes into a famous montage of characters from different races reciting racial epithets directly into the camera, making their implicit bias now explicit.

Read below to see the handwritten annotations Lee added about his self-described "bona fide classic film of American cinema" (we're not arguing), as well as numbered footnotes that elaborate on how he crafted the scene, and his intention behind it.

Courtesy of Spike Lee

1. Rosie Perez is a natural, and her long career has proven that,” says Lee. “At the same time, she'd never been in a film before. She'd been on television with Soul Train and In Living Color, but when you're in front of the camera [saying] lines, it's different. We rehearsed, we rehearsed, we rehearsed, and I would just tell her what we need, and she would do it. I also gave her leeway to ad-lib too. A lot of those outbursts where she was cursing Mookie out left and right, that was not scripted, that was just her going into her history.”

2. “Danny [Aiello] knew that character, so he didn’t go start [shadowing] people. He wasn't going around New York City going to pizzerias. He knew that guy. He knew Sal.”

Courtesy of Spike Lee

3. “John Turturro and I had very good chemistry between us. We're great friends, and he's such a great actor. I was very much intimidated doing that scene with John because, a lot of the scenes in the film where I'm acting at least, I'm not really an actor. The other people in it are, but this was just me and John on either side of a cigarette machine. Luckily, I got through it. John Turturro is a beast.”

4. “Mookie don't give a s---. And Sal, played by the late great Danny Aiello, and Turturro, his character [Pino], they're very much in the right to get on Mookie's case. Mookie's a slacker. Mookie wants to do the least amount of work as possible.”

Courtesy of Spike Lee

5. “Turturro took the phone call, took down the order, told his father, ‘Mookie's doing this,’ hung up, and then he used the N-word. Now it became more of an intellectual thing where Mookie had to be very slick, using his brain to get Pino all mixed up because he's using this word ‘n—r,’ but he's heard Pino all the time tell him all who his heroes are, and all his heroes are black. I wanted to deal with that syndrome where people might toss around the word ‘n—r,’ but some of their favorite athletes or entertainers are black. How does a person reconcile that?”

6. “That's the way Mookie has to deal with Pino. Mookie cannot kick Pino's ass. He has to go another route. He has to use his brain. And then, it's like a trap... The way Turturro played that, and you see on his face when that light bulb goes off in his head like, ‘Dang. Mookie got me. Mookie got me heads up here.’”

7. "While I was at NYU, Jim Jarmusch was there two years ahead of me. So, when Stranger Than Paradise hit, he was our hero. Richard Edson [was in] Stranger Than Paradise."

Courtesy of Spike Lee

8. “That is the point in that scene because Pino, when he's talking, it's not based upon fiction. I've heard these arguments. I've heard this argument where the most racist people, their favorite athlete, entertainer, or comedian, is black. To rationalize that, they have to, they form a group called the super-n—s. And the super-n—r is loved for his athletic abilities, the way the super-n—r can dance, the way the super-n—r can sing. But here's the caveat. Super-n—s to these people ain't n—s.”

9. “For the most part, [people] don't say what they're thinking, but I just wanted to put this montage where everybody says what's on their mind, no filter... I don't think I was necessarily condemning it. I was just saying, 'This is some honest sh-- right here.' That's what it's about. And in a lot of ways, that sh-- is funny. It's a funny thing for me that all these people are just throwing out this viciousness. Growing up they tell you, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never [hurt me]…’ but words hurt. Words hurt, especially when you're young.”

Courtesy of Spike Lee

10. “Some of the actors, not John, [would say], ‘Well, I don't feel comfortable.’ F— that. I said, ‘You got to say these lines like you mean it. No one's going to hold it against you. They know you're acting, you don’t have to worry about it. But right now, you’ve got to bring it like you f—ing mean it. We need honesty.’”

11. “I think people know what he's about when [Officer Long] shows up. I don't think it's a surprise to me. I don't think anybody felt surprised it was him that did the Eric Garner chokehold before  [the death of] Eric Garner.”

For more from Entertainment Weekly’s celebration of summer’s best pop culture, order the June issue now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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