"As they say, the good stuff holds up," Lee said in a telephone interview a few days before the screening. "People are amazed at how many of the issues that this film dealt with back in 1989 are still with us today."
Some things were different, of course. It was Lee's third film, but it was the first on which he felt confident as a director. "I was finally able to convey to the actors what I wanted," he said.
But there were obstacles — a very short filming schedule, unions that weren't always open to people of color and, when the film was completed, it faced opposition because people thought it would cause riots.
While it focuses on a hot summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, when a scuffle over a boombox results in a racial morass that leaves one man dead, the movie never incited any violence. For many people, particularly young black men, it became a generational rallying cry against racial conflict and police brutality.
"At the theater when I saw the movie, what struck me was that people in the audience became emotionally enraged during the choking scene," said Scott Johnston, 44, of Midtown, who was a 24-year-old sales representative for IBM in Detroit when the film made its debut.
In that scene, the character Radio Raheem played by Bill Nunn is killed by a police choke hold, setting off a riot that destroys the neighborhood.
"I'm a student of history, and when you look at the history of this country, when black people have rioted, it is not just random, it is the cops killing somebody, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the beating of Rodney King. It just took one event to get into that mindset, but it wasn't just random," Lee said.
He is baffled by those who think racism is a thing of the past, or who refer to this as the "post-racial climate."
"I still don't understand that," Lee said.
Neither does Johnston. While he was on a date recently at a Midtown restaurant , another patron handed him a parking stub thinking he was a valet attendant (despite his Armani suit and the fact that most of the valet drivers on site were Caucasians wearing khakis with tennis shoes).
"The reality is, we are still a very racially polarized environment," Johnston said. "Blacks live on the south side of Atlanta, whites live on the north side. As long as we live apart, there will be a misunderstanding of each other."