Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do The Right Thing is a touchstone of modern cinema, particularly when it comes to how it focuses on race relations and cultural tensions, even in a place as diverse as Brooklyn. The film’s most iconic scenes are the climax when Mookie (Lee) throws a trash can into his employer Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria shop after police kill Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). Mookie’s actions incite a riot among those in the mostly Black neighborhood, leading to the destruction of the pizzeria. The next day, Mookie comes to Sal for his pay, in which a tense discussion happens about culpability and responsibility, leaving the two characters at a shaky impasse.
The film doesn’t give audience members the closure they might want or expect, nor does it give them a tidy story about race relations. But according to Lee’s interview with The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg for the outlet’s Awards Chatter podcast, the film’s initial production studio, Paramount Pictures, wanted that type of ending.
While Lee said it “wasn’t challenging” to get Paramount to sign off on making Do the Right Thing, it was a challenge when it came to what kind of resolution the studio wanted at the end of the film.
“They [Paramount] wanted to do it, but at the last minute, a week before going into pre-production, they wanted a script change,” said Lee. “They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug at the end of the movie…I wasn’t doing that, so I called up my friend Sam Kitt, who was the executive at Universal. He got it that Friday. He got it to [former Universal Pictures Production President] Sean Daniels, he got it to [former Chairman of Universal Pictures] Tom Pollock, and a couple of days later, we were at Universal.”
In recent days, with the release of Green Book, films about race relations have been put under a more intense microscope with how much Hollywood still invests in creating films from a white perspective. More often than not, the onus is on Black characters in these films to find common ground with the white characters instead of vice versa. You could argue that Paramount wanted the same thing for Do the Right Thing regarding the idea of Mookie and Sal hugging it out. What Paramount missed is that there is nothing to hug out. The film is about the messiness of racial tensions, which often doesn’t involve niceties or hugs. If such an ending happened, you could argue that it would affect the statement the rest of the film wants to make, especially the riot scene.
Thankfully, as Lee told Fienberg, Universal allowed him to make the film the way he wanted to make it. For that, we should be grateful that Lee’s vision was able to come to the theaters untarnished.