“Do The Right Thing” was on the horizon by the time Spike Lee had established his name and reputation as a rising filmmaker. In telling this particular story, he would have an ally who had already helped him to build and refine his unique and direct visual style.
“We were trying things out, learning on the job, and getting paid for it” is how Ernest Dickerson described his early collaborations with Spike Lee to the Chicago Reader. The two had met while attending film school at NYU, and Lee was taken with Dickerson’s obvious talent as well as their shared love of classic film, an aesthetic that would become a touchstone for their collaborations. In “Do The Right Thing,” the opening credits were directly inspired by the 1963 musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” per Slate.
Besides helping Lee with his student films, Dickerson also shot his debut feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” and for a relatively low-budget black-and-white drama, it’s got visual flare and dynamism to outclass most movies. Even if it features one of Spike Lee’s most regrettable narrative decisions, the movie shimmers thanks to Dickerson’s magnificent work. And it was a far cry from Dickerson’s first feature gig, on John Sayles’ 1984 film, “The Brother From Another Planet.”
Even given Lee’s 1988 HBCU musical “School Daze,” “Do The Right Thing” would be something new for both of them. “School Daze” was a color film, highly stylized around its central performances and college drama. But “Do The Right Thing,” dealing with a low-key story about a pizza delivery guy on a fateful day, would be something different: expressionistic but unmistakably set in the real world.