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It’s easy to see why Spike Lee — whose BlacKkKlansman premieres at Cannes on Monday — had high expectations for Do the Right Thing at the 42nd edition of the fest in 1989.
Even before the fest began, his film was the frontrunner. Weeks before it screened, a headline in a front-page story in The Hollywood Reporter said the dramedy “paces U.S. in Cannes competition.” Once they saw it, critics were ecstatic. Reviewing for THR, Robert Osborne called it “a chunk of spunky entertainment and a piece of spirited moviemaking.”
So when the Palme d’Or was presented to Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, Spike was blindsided, and he blamed jury president Wim Wenders for the loss. He’d heard the German filmmaker found his lead character Mookie “unheroic.” Lee said jurist Sally Field told him Wenders was “just hatin’” on the movie and that fellow jurors didn’t understand why, at the end, Mookie tosses a trash can through a window.
Lee’s film won nothing, while videotape took not just the top prize but also the best actor nod for James Spader. “Wim Wenders had better watch out cause I’m waiting for his ass,” Lee said after the snub. “Somewhere deep in my closet I have a Louisville Slugger bat with Wenders’ name on it.” (He said in a 2013 interview with Pharrell Williams that this “was a very immature statement … it was stupid.”)
As for Do the Right Thing, the $6.5 million production ($13 million today) went on to earn $37.2 million worldwide ($75 million). And in 1999, the Library of Congress pronounced it “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” in placing it on the National Film Registry. “What really upset Spike even more,” says former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock, who released the film, “was when Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award and he wasn’t even nominated.”
A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter’s May 13 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.
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