Barack Obama, John Singleton and the Academy toast Spike Lee and 'Do the Right Thing'
Today, "Do the Right Thing" has more than earned its place, and the Academy is doing its part to celebrate the film properly on its silver anniversary. "By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective" is underway at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), bringing with it a slew of his landmark works. And AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs was on hand to introduce a special screening and panel conversation moderated by filmmaker John Singleton at LACMA's Bing Theatre Friday night. Singleton was joined on stage by Lee, actors Richard Edson and Roger Guenveur Smith, Public Enemy front man Chuck D, former Universal Chairman Tom Pollock, casting director Robi Reed and producer Preston Holmes.
It was a lively panel, and at the top, Singleton made sure it was clear how much of a lightning strike the film was in his life. "I was 20 years old when I saw this movie at the Pacific Theater on Hollywood Blvd.," he recalled. "I came out of it shaken. I saw Spike walking out with Rosie [Perez] and some of the cast that were in LA, he gets in the car — driven by his buddy Monty Ross, because Spike, at the time, was a true New Yorker: he didn't know how to drive. I couldn't even say anything to the guy. All I felt was that this was the film that was going to change things cinematically in the world. This movie so humbled me as a budding filmmaker, but it inspired me. It made me know that I, too, could possibly have a vision that was anachronistic to everything they tell you works in this business, and possibly have a career."
Chuck D had a plane to catch, so he could only chat for a few moments. But he made them count. He remembered Lee telling him that the film needed an anthem. That was the word he kept repeating.
"In that period of R&B, that's 'Regan & Bush,'" Chuck quipped. "You didn't see black people in film and television, hardly. I mean, there were exceptions to the rule, but for the first time, it was like Spike was putting together a flick and everybody was on alert. He said, 'Look, I'm gonna take it to the next level and I'm gonna discuss the undiscussed. I'm gonna be the voice for the voiceless and we're going to talk about this.'"
Public Enemy was set for a European tour with Run-D.M.C. but before they left they tapped into something with "Fight the Power," which opens the film with an explosion of color and dance and plays throughout on Radio Raheem's (Bill Nunn) boom box. The film helped inform much of the song. Lyrics like "Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me" came from the inspiration of the wall in Sal's Famous Pizzeria, decorated with white celebrities but bereft of the men of color who meant every bit as much, the Bo Diddleys, the Little Richards, etc.
"Spike has said there would be no 'Do the Right Thing' without 'Fight the Power,'" Chuck said. "But there's no way in hell there would have been 'Fight the Power' without 'Do the Right Thing.' Really — who puts a song in a movie eight times??"
Lee talked about how he wanted the film to express a pressurized state. He wanted all of the elements of its production to convey that this was the hottest day of the summer. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson would use butane torches under the lens for a heat ripple effect. Wynn Thomas' art department painted the Corner Men's wall red. They also had to find a very specific block to shoot in so the production could build Sonny's Korean Fruit and Vegetable Stand and Sal's Famous Pizzeria opposite one another. Not only that, Lee wanted the block to have very little trees, so that people could not find respite in the shade.
"When people watched this film in their air conditioned theaters, I wanted them to sweat," Lee said.
The director also praised Pollock as the "unsung hero" of the film, and indeed, it's miraculous that "Do the Right Thing" is a studio movie. Today, no studio would make such a film, and it would likely struggle in the mini-major sector as well. "Was it an easy call? No," Pollock said. "I think we all knew it was going to be good and maybe a little bit controversial, but I don't think that anyone knew that 25 years later we'd be sitting here celebrating it as one of the great movies."
Both Lee and Pollock recalled the film's Cannes debut, which was met by a sliver of outspoken press berating the film, essentially for its galvanizing power. "They did not want this film to come out, saying it was going to make black people run amok," Lee said. "And here's the thing, which a lot of people don't remember: Tom Pollock had done a film called 'The Last Temptation of Christ' before this. He went through the ringer on that one. He had to get bodyguards. So he could have easily said, 'Spike, I can't do this again.' He didn't do that. He stood behind the film and said, 'We're putting it out.'"
Holmes and Reed were both a part of the Academy's new crop of member inductions last week, a fact that Isaacs made sure to note in introducing the panel. Holmes told the story of how, rather than having the standard police presence in the way of security on the Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn location, the production actually hired a contingent of the Fruit of Islam. "None of these guys were ever armed," Holmes recalled. "They just stood around in their suits and bow ties and sold bean pies. But during the entire time we were in that neighborhood, the pre-production, the construction, through the shooting period, there were no incidents whatsoever. The community's respect for the Fruit of Islam was such that they didn't have to do anything. All they had to do was be present."
Reed was praised by Isaacs for the opportunities she has given to actors and actresses of color, and the casting director mentioned that "Do the Right Thing" was, like all of Lee's films, a chance to let actors pushing their own boundaries and be all they could be. "Rosie Perez actually auditioned for that movie at my house," she recalled. "And I remember Spike first telling me about her, it was his birthday party and Rosie was dancing on top of a speaker — doing the butt! She had no acting experience, but it didn't matter, because it was all about instinct and what a person could convey with their truth."