Do the Right Thing is a powerful movie about *taboo alert* race in America. It’s a provocative film that has managed to maintain a relevancy and a poignancy that has always gone underappreciated despite its brilliance. Spike Lee, the film’s writer, director, and producer, offers a project that highlights the challenges of cultural diversity and the tensions that can (and do) arise in a multicultural society like America.
Do the Right Thing revolves around a Black character named Mookie (Spike Lee) who lives and works in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. (For those of you that don’t know, “Bed-Stuy” is a historically Black enclave in New York City.) Mookie delivers pizzas for an Italian American-owned pizzeria called Sal’s (usually on foot, which I’ve always found hilarious). When New York City police murder a young Black man from the neighborhood, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), an ensuing riot claims the pizzeria in an act of civil disobedience. (Sound familiar?) The circumstances of the film, which are meant to represent the societal plight of Black Americans in a post-Jim Crow era, force viewers to evaluate their moral positions on issues like race, economics, and social justice.
To begin to appreciate the brilliance of Do the Right Thing we must look at the legacy of race in America. *Steel yourself* And unfortunately, that legacy starts with slavery. The United States has always projected a persona as being the land of the free, where everyone has equal opportunities, and is treated fairly. However, its true self is quite different from its idealistic image. Institutional racism has undermined its façade of social equality for centuries. Do the Right Thing is a not-so-subtle indictment of America’s legacy of Jim Crow Laws, redlining, and overaggressive policing. (Shout-out to Rudy Giuliani!)
That context colors the significant amount of literature that covers Do the Right Thing. And because I know that information is typically only reviewed by scholars or film industry nerds (like me), I’ll break it down for you:
Upon its release, Do the Right Thing earned significant critical acclaim, and many film critics predicted the film's enduring impact. Roger Ebert gave it a four-star review in the Chicago Sun-Times, and called the film "one of the best and most important films of the year." Janet Maslin (The New York Times) praised the film's "ambition, strength, clarity and devastating power." Vincent Canby (The New York Times) praised the film for its "raw power" and "extraordinary visual style." Time Magazine described the movie as "the best film of the year" and praised it for its "intense visual and aural energy." Rolling Stone called it "a blazing, funny, ugly, and beautiful masterpiece" and praised its "brilliant performances and unforgettable characters."
I say all that to say, people need to love this movie! Its powerful storytelling, bold visual style, and incisive exploration of complex social issues definitively proved that a Black person could make a movie about Black people and achieve Hollywood success doing it. The movie grossed $37 million on a $7 million budget. I offer that bit of trivia because people in a capitalist society seem to care about stuff like that. Numbers don't lie!
However, none of that stopped some people from sandbagging the movie. Joe Klein, a political columnist for New York Magazine, wrote a review in 1989 that criticized the film's lack of a “clear message.” *insert quizzical face emoji* David Denby, a movie critic for the same magazine, argued that Do the Right Thing "gives us no way to think about the suffering that it shows." *insert exasperated face emoji* Jack Kroll’s 1989 review in Newsweek reads, of the film’s depiction of violence, that “this movie is dynamite under every seat.” *insert facepalm emoji* Being contrarian is one thing, but being oblivious or willfully ignorant is another.
And Spike Lee has always taken the high road out of this kangaroo court. Lee has always vehemently defended Do the Right Thing, but not in an unhinged, Adolf Hitler-Mein Kampf sort of way. Lee's responses to criticisms have always been rooted in advocating for social justice and calling attention to the deep-seated inequalities and injustices that exist in American society. Ultimately, Lee has been a vocal and influential voice on issues of race and social justice throughout his career and Do the Right Thing is the epitome of those efforts.
Do the Right Thing is currently streaming on all major platforms.