This brought the discussion to Edson and Smith, who play Vito and Smiley respectively in the film. Edson recalled a story about how on his first day, the camera ran out of film during his first take with John Turturro. "I was not expecting what John was going to do," he said. "He came at me pretty strong. So I was so happy when the camera ran out of film. It was a good moment for me to, like, gather my thoughts!"
Smith, meanwhile, had no role in place when he first read the script. He had starred in Lee's "School Daze" before, and the director gave him a copy of the "Do the Right Thing" script prefaced with a Malcolm X quote. He basically just told the actor to read it and come back with any ideas he might have for a character in the film.
"I came back to Spike in the morning and he was speaking with the late, great Robin Harris and Martin Lawrence," Smith said. "I came up with this guy who walked up and down the street trying to sell these personally colorized photographs of Malcolm X shaking hands with Martin Luther King. Whenever I had seen that photograph, it always shocked me because the propaganda about these men, of course, is that they were diametrically opposed. But you can see in the flash of that bulb that they had true love and respect for each other. Now the image is a standard piece of international iconography, and of course the film was the first date of our president and his wife. If they had gone to see 'Driving Miss Daisy,' it might have turned out differently."
Indeed, on that last note, the evening had a surprise in store as President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama appeared on the Bing Theatre screen to offer a note of thanks and appreciation for the film. The President recalled eating lunch with his wife to be at the Art Institute of Chicago and going out for a walk before catching this movie everyone had been talking about.
"He was trying to show me his sophisticated side by selecting an independent filmmaker, and it ended up being a pretty good movie," Mrs. Obama quipped.
"Spike, thank you for helping me impress Michelle and thank you for telling a powerful story," the President said. "Today I have a few more gray hairs than I did back in 1989, you don't look like Mookie anymore, but 'Do the Right Thing' still holds up a mirror to society and it makes us laugh and makes us think and challenges each of us to see ourselves in one another."
It's a great thing when you do something and 25 years later people are still talking about it. That's how Lee put it, in the simplest of terms, before turning over the theater to his masterpiece. "People don't understand: filmmaking is mother-f*cking hard," he said. "If it was easy to make a great movie, every one of them would be great. This was one of those magical moments where everybody came together. This was a complete team effort where everybody contributed in front of and behind the camera. Everyone understood their role."
There will be another screening and panel discussion of the film Sunday for the closing night of New York's BAMcinemaFest at the BAM Harvey Theater. Lee will be on hand along with actors Danny Aiello, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn and Rick Aiello, as well as production designer Wynn Thomas and film editor Barry Brown. That's a hot ticket if you can catch it.
The "By Any Means Necessary" Spike Lee retrospective runs through July 27 at LACMA. Other screenings include "She's Gotta Have It," "Bamboozled," "Malcolm X" and "4 Little Girls."