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What Critics Said About Do the Right Thing When It Premiered

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Spike Lee’s film was called “a devastating portrait of Black America pushed to the limit” at the same time it was criticized as “a rancid fairy tale.”
Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Following the onset of nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic anti-black racism spurred by Derek Chauvin’s violent killing of George Floyd, social media has found itself talking about Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing once again. The influential 1989 story, about a pizza delivery guy named Mookie (played by Lee) who lives and works in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, culminates in (spoiler alert) police murdering a young black man, prompting neighbors to riot and destroy an Italian American-owned pizzeria. Today, mayors and news outlets are fumbling in their efforts to respond to growing unrest in New York City, focusing more on the destruction of property than the racist law enforcement practices that caused it. The tenor of responses is reminiscent of the critical conversations around Do the Right Thing back in ’89, when some accused Lee of telling a “rancid fairy tale” — claiming he was encouraging unnecessary riots by having Mookie throw a trash can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria — while others praised him for painting “a devastating portrait of black America pushed to the limit.” Lee himself saw parallels between today’s events and his Academy Award–nominated movie, opting to post a new short featuring the death scenes from Do the Right Thing alongside real footage of the deaths of Eric Garner in 2014 and George Floyd last week. In that spirit, we’re revisiting what film critics said about the movie when it first premiered:

“When some white policemen arrive and kill a black boy, the crowd, enraged, riots, taking revenge on the nearest white property. Rather than attacking the police, the rioters attack a symbolic target, and that part of the movie is hard to justify. Defenders will say this is what happens in the ghetto after a police atrocity, but Lee appears to be endorsing the outcome: his own character, Mookie, starts the riot (unbelievably, I thought) by hurling a garbage can through a window, and as the violence gathers steam it’s presented as a form of deliverance; nor does anyone in the community express repentance the next day. Though there’s been plenty of police brutality in New York, Spike Lee the writer and director invented this particular crime; he also created the dramatic structure that primes black people to cheer the explosion as an act of revenge. It’s his fiction; it’s not life.”

[…]

“If an artist has made his choices and settled on a coherent point of view, he shouldn’t be held responsible, I believe, if part of his audience misunderstand him. He should be free to be ‘dangerous.’ But Lee hasn’t worked coherently. The end of this movie is a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible. Lee wants to rouse people, to ‘wake them up.’ But to do what? Those matching quotations are little more than a confession of artistic and moral impotence: My guess is that Spike Lee things that violence solves nothing, but he’d like to be counted in the black community as an angry man, a man ready, despite his success, to smash things. The end of the movie is an open embrace of futility.” — David Denby, New York Magazine

“All these subtleties are likely to leave white (especially white liberal) audiences debating the meaning of Spike Lee’s message. Black teenagers won’t find it so hard, though. For them, the message is clear from the opening credits, which roll to the tune of ‘Fight the Power,’ performed by Public Enemy […] White people are your enemy, even if they appear to be sympathetic. Like Sal, the pizza-store owner. It is Spike Lee himself — in the role of Sal’s deliveryman — who starts the riot by throwing a garbage can through the store’s window, one of the stupider, more self-destructive acts of violence I’ve ever witnessed (if black kids act on what they see, Lee may have destroyed his career in that moment).” — Joe Klein, New York Magazine

“But Lee, whose truest gift appears to be comedy, either lacks the intelligence, maturity, and the sensitiv­ity necessary for drama, or hasn’t the courage and the will to give racial confrontation true dramatic complexity. At heart, he is for now a propagandist, one who reduces the world to a shorthand projected with such force that the very power of the projection itself will make those with tall grass for brains bend to the will of the wind. Though there is much cleverness, the film has no feeling for the intricacies of the human spirit on any level other than that of fast-food irony, no sense of the trickiness of both good and evil, none of the emotional scope that brings artistic resonance. Do the Right Thing, for all its wit, is the sort of rancid fairy tale one expects of the racist, whether or not Lee actually is one.” — Stanley Crouch, The Village Voice

“The ‘power’ isn’t guys like Sal, even though they benefit, modestly, from the biases of the economic system; they’re just guilty by association, responsible for the deaths of young blacks like Raheem only in the most theoretical, distanced way. Although Lee must know this, he’s clearly willing to sacrifice some political clarity for the sake of movie-style power. In order to make himself heard, he has chosen to adopt the belligerent, in-your-face mode of discourse that has been the characteristic voice of New York City in the Koch years. Spike Lee’s movie isn’t likely to cause riots (as some freaked-out commentators have suggested), but it winds up bullying the audience — shouting at us rather than speaking to us. It is, both at its best and at its worst, very much a movie of these times.” — Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker

“Lee will probably be trounced for not taking a clear-cut stand. But how could he? The black community has been struggling for years to reconcile those two philosophies. It would be presumptuous of Lee, not to mention disastrous for the film, to do the thinking for an audience. Lee offers no reassurance, no uplift, no call for all races to join hands and spout liberal platitudes. What he does offer is a devastating portrait of black America pushed to the limit, with the outcome still to be written. There’s only one way to do the wrong thing about Do the Right Thing: that would be to ignore it.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

“Mr. Lee’s particular achievement is in building the tensions so gradually and so persuasively that the explosion, when it finally comes, seems inevitable. He doesn’t deal in generalities. The movie is packed with idiosyncratic detail of character and event, sometimes very funny and sometimes breathtakingly crude.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“Despite the moral wobbliness, especially at the end, the film is not, as some of the advance press has suggested, an irresponsible, hysterical rant. Lee does, at times, paint with a very broad brush. Also, his eagerness to be balanced causes him to be overdeliberate in drawing his characters, and in places the actors can’t rise above the script’s ‘Playhouse 90’-style social consciousness. But ‘Do the Right Thing’ is a movie made by filmmaker working in sync with his times — an exciting, disturbing, provocative film.” — Hal Hinson, The Washington Post

“Some of the advance articles about this movie have suggested that it is an incitement to racial violence. Those articles say more about their authors than about the movie. I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters. Lee does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations. ‘Do the Right Thing’ doesn’t ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

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