Today, the block in Brooklyn where Do the Right Thing was shot 25 years ago is hosting a party to celebrate the movie's anniversary. Last night, at a 25th anniversary screening at LACMA, L.A. held its own celebration and showed plenty of love for this most New York of films. That was especially true of Boyz n the Hood director and former USC film student John Singleton, who moderated a pre-screening panel discussion with Spike Lee, Universal executive Tom Pollock, production manager Preston Holmes, casting director Robi Reed, Chuck D. and actors Roger Guenveur Smith (“Smiley”) and Richard Edson (“Vito”).
“I came out of this movie so humbled,” said Singleton, who recalled seeing Do the Right Thing at the old Pacific Theaters on Hollywood Boulevard. “This movie made me know that I could have a vision that was anachronistic of everything that they tell you.”
The screening was part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' retrospective on the director, which traces Lee's work, dating back to his NYU student film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Do the Right Thing, written in two weeks and produced on a $6 million budget, was Lee's third output and undoubtedly his most controversial; both he and Pollock brought up the critics who, at the time, predicted the movie would cause race riots. Pollock was no stranger to controversy – he produced The Last Temptation of Christ.
“He went through the wringer on that one… he had bodyguards!” Lee said. “Tom Pollock is one of the unsung heroes of this film. But whose idea was it to open it on the same day as Batman?”
(If you ask us, the real unsung hero of the film is poor actor John Savage (“Clifton”), who wears a Larry Bird jersey and whose only crime was being the lone white guy in the neighborhood.)
The movie was a first for actors like Martin Lawrence (“Cee”) and Rosie Perez (“Tina”), a former dancer on Soul Train, which was filmed in L.A. Lee and Reed remembered seeing her dancing in a club and later, she auditioned for the role in Reed's house. Her feathered mullet aside, the most memorable part of Perez's performance was dancing to Public Enemy's “Fight the Power.”
Before he had to hop on a plane and fly back to Brooklyn for the block party, Chuck D talked about meeting Lee for the first time in Manhattan, where the director told him he needed an “anthem” for his movie. “When I saw the rough cut in Brooklyn my thought was 'WTF? Who puts a song in a movie 20 times?'” Chuck D said.
Though it was filmed at a time when New York was boiling over with racial tension after events like the Tawana Brawley case, Holmes said the crew was able to keep the peace thanks to security from Nation of Islam members, who “just stood around in their suits and bow ties.” But, according to Edson, they weren't terribly nice to him.
“Every single morning I'd say hello to every single one of them and never once did I get a response,” said Edson. “After four weeks I gave up. I thought 'These guys are stronger than I am.”
Edson said that most of his scenes with on-screen brother John Turturro (“Pino”) were improvised. Also not in the original script was Smith's role. After reading the script, the actor created the character, who stutters and draws doodles on pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X shaking hands.
“The popular propaganda was that these men were diametrically opposed,” Smith said, sounding choked up. “But you could see in the flash of that bulb that they had true love and respect for each other.”
In another poignant moment, Smith recalled how Ossie Davis (“Da Mayor”) never complained about having to do his own stunts in a key scene where the actor saves a boy from an oncoming car: “Ossie Davis came to the set and said, 'It beats picking cotton.'”