Lee's movie is in part inspired by the December 1986 incident in the Howard Beach section of Queens, N.Y., where whites attacked and chased three blacks outside of a pizza parlor, causing one to be killed when he fled into traffic. The director dedicated his film to Howard Beach victim Michael Griffith.
Set on the hottest day of the summer, with tempers hot and temperatures thermometer-bursting, Do the Right Thing hip-hops to the rhythms of "Fight the Power" by rap group Public Enemy. Although the film couldn't be more local, taking place on a Bed-Stuy block where home boys grumble that the Italian-American pizzeria and the Korean-American greengrocery are minting money off their predominantly black clientele, its theme of urban inferno is universal.
The most powerful film among an unusually impressive lineup of American independent entries in Cannes' official competition, Do the Right Thing establishes Lee, 32, as a director of world stature, one who delivers on the promise of She's Gotta Have It (1986) and School Daze (1988). Moreover, Lee's presence here in the company of his star, Ossie Davis (the director of the 1970 breakthrough film Cotton Comes to Harlem), and supporter Melvin Van Peebles (director of the 1971 surprise hit Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) establishes Lee's continuity with the godfathers of black film.
Lee's attitude, however, is a contrast with that of the older generation. As Davis reflected at the news conference after Do the Right Thing, "Twenty years ago, I tried to get inside Hollywood. Spike's strategy is to stay outside so that Hollywood has to reach out to him and deal with him on his terms."
Lee might define his terms in opposition to recent white-directed films about the black experience. His uncompromising movie, which ends with an uneasy truce between a black pizza-delivery man named Mookie (played by Lee) and the white pizzeria-owner Sal (Danny Aiello), lacks the reassuring epiphanies of The Color Purple. Unlike Mississippi Burning, which suggested that the victims of the civil-rights movement were black and its heroes white, in Lee's film there are victims of every color, but the heroes are young blacks who fight violence with violence. This stance caused much distress among some white journalists who, at the news conference, challenged the director about the apparent contradiction of a film that concludes with one quote by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. disavowing violence and another
from Malcolm X defending it in the case of self-defense.
Sporting mottled-gray Nikes and a Malcolm X T-shirt, Lee thwacked the ball back to one who asked, "Doesn't advocating violence in the name of self- defense play both sides of the fence?"
"Sometimes if you didn't use self-defense, you would be annihilated," Lee asserted.
Discussing the chain reaction of white violence, black violence and white police brutality depicted in his fiery film, the director held, "Non-violence had its time. But when they're being hit on the side of their heads with bricks, young black Americans aren't going to turn the other cheek and say, 'Thank you, Jesus.' "
To an American critic who suggested the film was more sympathetic to its black characters than to its white ones, Lee tersely explained, "My film is told from the point of view of a black director. Steven Spielberg did The Color Purple from the point of view of a white director. Alan Parker did Mississippi Burning from the point of view of a white director. I don't think my point of view should be criticized."
To another American journalist who asked Lee why he did not depict drug problems in the ghetto, the director returned, "When you see Working Girl or Rain Man, you don't ask where the drugs are. So why do you ask when you see a black movie?"
Breaking into a grin, Lee added, "If this movie is not 'about' drugs, it's
because I thought racism was a big enough subject for one film."
To a French journalist who rhapsodized about Do the Right Thing's daring critique of racism in the United States, the director clarified, "I don't think we should think this film is only about America. It's about racism. Do you think that here in France, Algerians and West Indians are treated equally?"
As he does in his film, Lee gave a colorful performance at the news conference, seizing the opportunity to elaborate on issues that Do the Right Thing raises. "You cannot come to any movie and expect to find the answer for AIDS, for racism. Filmmakers present problems so that the talk can start."
Lee looks forward to the dialogue that his movie inevitably will provoke. ''Just because Eddie Murphy is the number-one movie star and Prince and Michael Jackson are number-one music stars and Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the world, that doesn't mean everything's OK. There is a huge black underclass and what they face on a daily basis is what my movie is about," he said.
About the supercharged coda of his film, Lee defended his use of quotes
from the martyred black leaders. "The ideals of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are not contradictory. They are intertwined," he said. For those who like their movie conflicts clearly resolved, Lee anticipates problems with Do the Right Thing. But, he said, "I think it would have been false to have a Spielberg ending with everybody holding hands, singing, 'We Are the World.' "
Before coming to Cannes, Lee was quoted to the effect that his fondest hope for the film - which comes out June 30 - is that it helps unseat New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who is running for a fourth term. During his news conference, Lee characterized Koch as "a polarizer of races in the city" and the man who created the racial climate that has boiled over into violence such as Howard Beach.
"I don't know if the film will defeat Ed Koch, but I hope so," he declared on Friday. "There's an election in November and people have to . . . register and vote him out." The register-to-vote message is one repeated several times during Lee's film.
After the news conference, Lee did not have time to worry about his film's black-tie premiere that evening as he was in a full-court press with what he would describe the next day as "a five-on-one with every journalist in the world for 15 minutes."
For the actor-director who cast his sister Joie as Mookie's sister in the movie, the gala was a family affair. Lee was escorted by Joie and brother Cinque, who is in Cannes as a star of Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train.
There were two hitches. First came when Melvin Van Peebles' actor-son Mario was prohibited from entering the gala by guards who disapproved of the black jeans under his dinner jacket. The senior Van Peebles lent him his trousers and sat out the premiere in the men's room, thus preventing the godfather from giving his godson Spike a standing O.
Second was Lee's concern about how he would get a play-by-play of the Knicks-Chicago Bulls contest in a country that thinks hoops are earrings. Over drinks Saturday afternoon, Lee explained, "I got the results and some of the plays by calling Sportsphone in New York."
Clad in a red-satin Knicks jacket, Lee was philosophical about his team's defeat at the nimble hands of the Bulls' Michael Jordan. Remember, Jordan is the star of the "hang time" ads that Lee directs for Nike.
Lee will not take bets on his own chances for major awards here, though he is quick to bet a buck that in the NBA finals, the Detroit Pistons will beat the Los Angeles Lakers, a team looking for its third consecutive championship. ''There won't be a 'three-peat,' " insisted Lee.
Perhaps not for the Lakers. But with his third feature, Lee has a certified ''three-peat."