Updated: Spike Lee's C-U March
CHAMPAIGN — Director Spike Lee came in like a lamb and went out like a lion.
His arrival at Willard Airport on Friday was solitary and unsung, but the audience at the 2014 Roger Ebert's Film Festival — no seats empty — cheered when his acting credit appeared in "Do The Right thing" while Rosie Perez danced militantly. Earlier, there was a cheer for "A Spike Lee Joint."
Introducing the film, Chaz Ebert said it was the first movie that made her husband cry, at a 1989 Cannes Film Festival showing.
"Spike, you have a lot to answer for. You made my husband cry!"
When the director walked on stage, he said he was sorry he'd never made it to Ebertfest while its namesake was still alive.
"But I'm here now!" Lee said to a roar of approval.
The writer, director and star of the 1989 classic "Do The Right Thing" talked about the 35-millimeter print.
"This is bigger than your wide screen," he said to digital fans who didn't know how good projection can look.
And Lee taunted some Chicago supporters in the crowd.
"Bulls fans, you're not getting Carmelo Anthony!" he said of the player on his much-beloved Knicks.
Chaz Ebert noted that Roger was one of the earliest champions of the "do-it-yourself" filmmaker, whose "She's Gotta Have It" was made for $175,000.
Roger Ebert wrote of "Do The Right Thing":
"I have been given only a few film-going experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw 'Do the Right Thing.' Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul. In May of 1989 I walked out of the screening at the Cannes Film Festival with tears in my eyes."
After landing at Willard Airport at 4:50 p.m. Friday alone and almost unnoticed, Lee went almost immediately to the Virginia Theatre.
Lee arrived at Willard without an entourage, but with a hefty backpack, nondescript jacket and a cap. His large eyeglass frames hooded his eyes.
In the seconds before he entered a waiting white GMC SUV, Lee said he was excited about his latest project, "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus," which he also co-wrote.
The director has been quiet about the movie, although it's probably the first time someone nominated for two Oscars has ever had a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds. Imdb.com estimates the film's budget at $1,250,000.
"We're in post-production," Lee said. "We hope it will be in the theaters in the fall."
Lee has described it as a movie about human beings who are addicted to blood, but has said it is not a vampire movie.
In his Kickstarter campaign, Lee said he has a history of putting money in his own films, self-financing "Red Hook Summer," for instance.
Matthew Gladney left "Capote" slightly early and was surprised to see Lee already there three hours before the showing of "Do The Right Thing."
Lee posed for pictures with cadets from Lincoln's Challenge in Rantoul and others.
Jameel Jones, the director of cultural arts for the Champaign Park District, said the director/writer/star "was superfriendly," as he walked around unaffectedly.
Lee also stopped in at Guido's and Big Grove Tavern.
Danny Aiello starred as Sal the pizzeria owner, a father figure to Lee's Mookie in "Do The Right Thing."
Aiello won an Oscar nomination for it.
Aiello was not at Ebertfest but recently did an email interview with The News-Gazette.
He said he was surprised by how well the film has stood up, and said he didn't think it would be so successful in 1989.
"Not at the time. It stood up more than I had expected," Aiello said.
"At first I thought it was entertaining, nothing more than that; as a kid I grew up in that kind of neighborhood, and knew how tough it was there; stealing, drugs, etc. However, none of that was evident in this film, therefore it did not ring true for me. It seemed like a fairy tale."
Aiello changed his mind later.
"I realized Spike did not want those things clouding the judgment of the audience, he wanted racial issues to be observed when the characters were clear of mind, and not as a result of something they drank or stuck in their arm. In other words, it was their true feelings being expressed and Spike wanted to create dialogue about race only, and not give anyone a crutch to say, he only said it because he was stoned."
Aiello said he got along well with Lee during the filming.
"It was fun working with Spike. However, we are opposites in every way. He loves Michael Jordan and I love Larry Bird. He's a liberal and I'm a conservative," Aiello said.
It was a family affair for Aiello, a stunt-performer turned actor.
"The happiest memory of the shoot for me was working with my sons Rick and Danny III. Rick played the police officer that killed Radio Raheem and my son Danny III was the stunt coordinator," he wrote. "I truly learned from Siskel and Ebert just how important this film was to become. They were right!"
— Lee praised Roger Ebert for supporting the film when other white critics concentrated on the damage done to a white-owned pizzeria instead of the death of a major black character at the hands of the New York police.
Chaz Ebert said her husband lauded the even-handed treatment of race relations in a movie that famously ends with contrasting quotes by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X.
Lee noted in particular that some white critics worried about black audiences seeing the film because they thought the Malcolm X quote "was a coded message for us to riot."
He noted that the quotes were added in post-production. The film does not tell viewers what to think, Lee said. He wanted the audience to determine what the right thing is, using complex characters in opposition, such as Sal the pizzeria owner, and Buggin' Out, who calls for a boycott of Sal's Place.
— He and Chaz Ebert talked about the actors who started their careers in the film, including Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, Giancarlo Esposito and Samuel L. Jackson — who was in the credits as "Sam Jackson."
— Lee noted that his film accurately predicted the gentrification of his neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York, with a character played by John Savage.
He said he would have played for the Mets, but "my genetics conspired against me."
— Chaz Ebert pointed out that Lee was called "an angry black man."
"If you really want to see me angry, see me courtside at a Knicks game," he responded.
He added that labels helped critics diminish the work of artists.
"This is a very angry movie," he added.
— Lee said he couldn't "get 'Malcolm X' made today unless we had Denzel (Washington) in tights and a cape."