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When Do the Right Thing was released a quarter-century ago, few people could have imagined that the $6 million indie about racial tensions in America would one day be hailed as one of the great masterpieces of our time — by the first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the first black president of the United States, no less. But that is precisely what happened on Friday night.
In front of an overflowing crowd on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the film’s writer-director-star Spike Lee signed books, attended a reception and then participated in a Q&A about the film — introduced by Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and moderated by John Singleton, whose career Lee inspired — alongside several of his key collaborators on the project. Present was Tom Pollock, who greenlighted the film while serving as chair of Universal; casting director Robi Reed and production designer Preston Holmes, who were invited to join the Academy last Thursday; actors Richard Edson (Vito) and Roger Smith (Smiley); and hip-hop legend Chuck D, who wrote the song “Fight the Power, which became the film’s anthem.
During a lively conversation — which was somewhat rushed because Lee and Chuck D had to catch redeyes in order to make it back to Brooklyn in time for a Saturday block party celebrating the film’s anniversary — Lee credited Pollock as the film’s “unsung hero” for taking a gamble on provocative subject matter so soon after being embroiled in controversy with The Last Temptation of Christ (1987); Reed recalled casting the acting novice Rosie Perez as Lee’s love interest; Chuck D reminded Lee about an early cut of the film in which “Fight the Power” was used even more than it is in the final cut; and Smith spoiled the film’s ending for those in the audience who had not yet seen it.
Just before the film itself began unspooling, Lee mentioned that there was a surprise for everyone. Then a video appeared on the screen, featuring President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and the audience went wild. You can watch what the Obamas to say at the top of this post, or read it here…
President: “Sorry we can’t be with you today, but we wanted to congratulate Spike and all of you on the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing.”
First Lady: “Do the Right Thing was actually the first movie we saw together, on our first official date.”
President: “We had eaten lunch at the Art Institute of Chicago, gone for a little walk and then I took her to this new movie everybody was talking about, directed by a guy that not that many people had heard of, but it was supposed to be pretty good.”
First Lady: “He was trying to show me his sophisticated side by selecting an independent filmmaker, and it ended up being a pretty good movie — really great!”
President: “So Spike, thank you for helping me impress Michelle, and thank you for telling a powerful story. Today, I’ve got a few more grey 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 our society, and it makes us laugh, and think and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.”
First Lady: “It’s really a testament to your vision and to everyone who helped you make this movie possible, including the great Ruby Dee, who we will remember always. So congratulations, Spike! And we hope you all have a great time!”
President: “Thanks, guys!”
It was somewhat ironic that the host of this gathering was the Academy, the members of which, in 1990, did not nominate Do the Right Thing for the best picture Oscar — and awarded that prize to Driving Miss Daisy, a tamer film about race relations that was made by a white filmmaker (Bruce Beresford). The only noms accorded Do the Right Thing were best supporting actor (Danny Aiello) and best original screenplay (Lee).
But times have changed. Last summer, the Academy’s Board of Governors elected Isaacs as their president, making her the first black person ever to hold that position. This spring, Lee attended the Academy Awards to cheer on 12 Years a Slave, which became the first film directed by a black filmmaker ever to win the best picture Oscar. And this week, the Academy invited perhaps the most diverse group of new members that it has ever welcomed in a single year.
The Academy will be screening Lee’s films until July 22, and are also hosting an exhibit of photographs taken by his brother, David Lee, who has long served as his on-set photographer. On Sunday evening, they will host another Do the Right Thing screening and Q&A in New York, this one attended by Lee and actors Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn and Rick Aiello; film editor Barry Brown; and production designer Wynn Thomas. (Click here for more information.)
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