By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Lee’s empathy — and his ability to summon it from us — is likely the source of the greatest, dumbest controversy of his career, a controversy that’s about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. In 1989, a clutch of white journalists and critics assailed the upcoming release of Do the Right Thing as a reckless provocation certain to inspire riots.
”People should read the reviews of Joe Klein and David Denby today,” Lee says. He whistles. “David Denby wrote that I was going to be the reason that David Dinkins would not be the first black mayor and that I planted dynamite under every seat.” He whistles again.
And now the movie is canonized. Have they ever apologized?
Lee stares silently.
Denby and Klein — they didn’t trust audiences?
”They didn’t trust the black audience,” Lee says. “They thought the black audience would run amok and riot all across the country.”
How could they miss the movie’s ambivalence and sadness?
This time he actually shrugs. “You’ll have to ask them that.”
Now widely considered one of the great films of the past 25 years (if not the greatest), Do the Right Thing is something of a black neighborhood block party, stuffed with hilarious talk, indelible characters, killer music, and the kind of gorgeous, red-tinted photography appropriate to a film — a joint! — set on the hottest day of summer. Its good feelings curdle as the heat rises and the day passes, building to a white-on-black murder at the local pizzeria and a small black-on-white riot at the local pizzeria — both pained and tragic, and both deeply moving.
Lee promises that 2014 will see anniversary screenings, but probably won’t see the likes of a new Do the Right Thing, which at the time won full distribution by Universal, a risk that seems unlikely for any studio to take today: “Today everyone has this home-run philosophy, where they used to be satisfied with a double or a triple, as far as box office goes. Now they’ll give you a penny or you get $20 million. There’s no in between, or very little. There’s no midrange, and that’s the wheelhouse where the intelligent films are made.”
Of course, digital technology and Kickstarter offer a tireless creator like Lee the chance to make some of the movies he wants — at the sacrifice of the certainty of getting them into theaters.
Lee seems incredulous when I tell him I saw Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever at a mall in suburban Kansas. “You mean Kansas City, right? We played Kansas?”
Those movies did. The charming, challenging Red Hook Summer didn’t. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus probably won’t, either.
”Red Hook’s around,” he says. “The film is always going to be there, and people will discover it when they discover it. No one saw The 25th Hour when it came out, and now I can’t go out without people telling me it’s their favorite. It got voted the best film of the — how do people say that? — the aughts?”
(In fact, the AV Club named it the second-best film of that not-yet-named decade, just behind Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)
Lee, undeterred, as if he’s cheering on his beloved Knicks: “The best film of the aughts!”’
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