Barack Obama, John Singleton and the Academy toast Spike Lee and 'Do the Right Thing'
Yes, another day, another anniversary. But this one is quite noteworthy.
Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" turns 25 on Monday. It is a film I first saw when I was young, but I wasn't at all ready for it. I saw it again in film school and noticed I had grown with it, but it still whipped up complex feelings (as only the best films can). I've revisited it a number of times over the years and come to cherish it as one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever conjured, but the Academy frankly seemed like it was holding its nose just to give it the two nominations it received a quarter century ago.
Kim Basinger had the right idea when the night of the Oscars came. "The best film of the year is not even nominated [for Best Picture] and it's 'Do the Right Thing,'" the "Batman" star said, reprimanding members of the Academy for failing to, well, do the right thing. The oversight was all the more embossed by the safe and tidy race relations drama that was nominated for, and won, Best Picture: Bruce Beresford's "Driving Miss Daisy." But as we all know, the Academy takes baby steps with this stuff. There was really no way in hell "Do the Right Thing" was going to be nominated for Best Picture alongside things like "Dead Poets Society," "Field of Dreams" and "My Left Foot." That's not to disparage those films, but rather to point out the obvious: in your face doesn't cut it with this group.
And that's just what Lee was with his masterpiece. In your face, and in the best possible way. It was the film he was born to make. Any storyteller in this or any other medium will tell you that it's important to have something to say. It sounds easy enough but tapping into it can be torture for a writer. Lee hit a vein and it all came out like a crimson gusher of anger and perspective. With race relations in New York at a boiling point, the Central Park Five case dominating the media and the slaying of Yusef Hawkins still around the corner — all at the tail end of a mayoral tenure from Ed Koch that was notoriously hostile toward African Americans and Latinos — "Do the Right Thing" was the film of its moment. It's so rare for something to grab the zeitgeist by the jugular so absolutely. Yet the Academy could barely be bothered to recognize it.
"I saw 'Do the Right Thing' and the one thing that I really condone is the truth," Basinger said when asked about the Oscars incident a year later. "Whatever truth is, let it come out...I wasn't standing up for blacks or whites or any color, I was just saying, 'Guys, you all are liars. You are leaving out another truth here.'"
One of the film's two nominations came for Danny Aiello's supporting turn. Frankly, he gives the film's most substantial performance, but it nevertheless seemed to underscore things given that none of the African American actors were recognized. (It is worth noting, though, that he lost to "Glory" star Denzel Washington, who became just the fourth black actor to win an Academy Award in history that year.) The other nomination came for Lee's original screenplay. He lost to "Dead Poets Society" scribe Tom Schulman.
But there should have been so many more shots on goal. Obviously Best Picture and, particularly, Best Director should have been in the cards. I would argue Ossie Davis probably should have been in there right alongside Aiello, too. But how about below the line? This movie was on fire.
Ernest Dickerson's photography? Bold and expressionistic in vibrant strokes. Wynn Thomas' production design? Subtle for the location work but absolutely of a piece with the vision Lee was unfolding. Barry Alexander Brown's film editing? An expert and electric assemblage. The sound work on the film is underrated, too; Lee was developing a relationship with Martin Scorsese's team at the time.
(And really, they should have just cooked up an honor for Public Enemy. It was a perfect marriage, music as of-the-moment as Lee's film; landmark album "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" was just under two months away from being certified platinum when "Do the Right Thing" hit theaters.)
Nevertheless, again, the Academy is slow to recognize this kind of thing. And Basinger was right to call them out on it, though she was rebuffed backstage and throughout the evening as a result of being so bold on the world stage. The Oscars were a pretty bland affair overall that year. They didn't quite know what to make of films like "Do the Right Thing," "sex, lies and videotape," "Drugstore Cowboy," etc. But the filmmakers behind those works were the exciting future of the medium.