The opening sequence of the vibrant and then-controversial Spike Lee joint, Do the Right Thing, is arguably the greatest opening credits in film history. Straight out the gate, the blended record scratchin’ and musical buildup in the beginning of Public Enemy’s anthemic track, “Fight the Power,” blares throughout a Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn—Stuyvesant Ave between Quincy Street and Lexington Ave to be exact— with various silhouette poses of feature film newcomer Rosie Perez flashing across the screen simultaneously.
Once the beat drops, artificial red lighting illuminates Perez who is rockin’ a short, tight-fitting red dress with the neighborhood’s brownstones as her backdrop.
Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson captures her aggressive and seductive moves from pelvic thrusts in a blue spandex bodysuit and a leather jacket to shadowboxing that turns into her now-iconic punch-body poppin’ moves in boxing trunks, a sports bra, and boxing gloves.
Many may be unaware of this tidbit, but that opening sequence was inspired by the opening credits of George Sidney’s 1963 comedic musical, Bye, Bye Birdie, starring Ann Margaret as Kim. “I was 6 years old when my mom took me to see that,” Spike Lee revealed in an open letter to his daughter and son on Kickstarter. “Let’s think about that for a second. A 6-year-old Black kid from Brooklyn is being dragged to Radio City Hall by his mother to see some dumb movie (I thought that at the time), and it had such an impact it reappeared 25 years later out of nowhere from my distant memories. I don’t know about you but I think that is some POWERFUL SHIT.”
In Spike’s Do the Right Thing book—a companion to the film published in 1989 that is filled with journal entries, productions notes, the script, and storyboards—he penned:
“I’ve been listening to ‘Cool Jerk’ by the Capitols. It’s a real classic, fast and upbeat, and it brings to mind summer in the city. This may be the song for the opening credits sequence. I see Rosie Perez dancing to ‘Cool Jerk’ all over Brooklyn at the first heat of dawn. Rosie doing the Cool Jerk on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the promenade, and on various rooftops.”
As you can see, that idea was scrapped. Twenty-five years later, Rosie Perez would reveal to journalist Sarah Larson from The New Yorker that the original ’60s dance sequence was pulled at the last minute due to Public Enemy coming aboard. Choreographer Otis Sallid, who also created the dance number for Lee’s School Daze, and Rosie would have to create something new and fresh within a short amount of time.
“It was supposed to be Cool Jerk. We were doing sixties-style dancing. At the last minute, Spike said he changed his mind, [due to] hiring Public Enemy. We had to come up with a new deal in a day and a half. When it came time to shoot, Spike didn’t tell me he needed anger, angst, and exhaustion. Instead, he just said, ‘I need you to kill it.’ I thought, O.K.—I thought I killed it in the first hour. Freakin’ eight hours later, this freakin’ man had me still dancing. I had tennis elbow, my knee was swelling. So I forgot about the lyrics, the original words—you know, Elvis, John Wayne? To me, it was all Spike, Spike, Spike, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you! And, when like rage and hate just poured out of my body, pure exhaustion, He went, ‘Cut, print it! We got it!’”
The fact that Rosie’s facial expressions were unsettling, her movements were hostile, and she never smiled, it certainly added to the essence of the film. It’s such a masterpiece.
Watch the opening credits of Do the Right Thing below.