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.
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."
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."