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Thirty-one years later, the power of Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ endures

Rosie Perez and Spike Lee in the 1989 movie "Do the Right Thing."
(Universal Home Entertainment)

The #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown is under way, and voters have chosen “Do the Right Thing” (1989) as their winner for Week 9, dedicated to movies first released in theaters from June 26 to July 2 (between 1975 and 2019). Times film critic Justin Chang sat down with entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp to discuss the greatness of Spike Lee’s film and how it has always spoken to a nation in turmoil.

JUSTIN CHANG: On May 31, Spike Lee released a short video intercutting the final moments of three Black men who died violent choking deaths while in police custody. Two of them, Eric Garner and George Floyd, became powerful symbols of outrage and helped drive #BlackLivesMatter protests nationwide. The third one, Radio Raheem, is a fictional character played by the late Bill Nunn in “Do the Right Thing.” The juxtaposition of fiction and reality doesn’t feel jarring or, worse, self-aggrandizing; it’s shockingly seamless. Rewatching Lee’s 1989 masterpiece in its entirety the other night, up to and including its galvanizing finale, I was reminded anew of how vivid and real it all feels, how forcefully and yet precisely it captures the chaotic choreography of angry protest and police brutality.

Those moments — specifically, the scene in which Raheem’s angry, grief-stricken friends and neighbors destroy Sal’s Famous Pizzeria — drew some hand-wringing criticism from white film critics 31 years ago. For years Lee has dismissed those jabs as racist, and history has vindicated him and the movie on a number of counts. It’s racist to suggest that Black audiences would see the movie and immediately be spurred toward acts of violence and unrest — as if “Do the Right Thing,” powerful and truthful as it is, could hold up a mirror to society any more upsetting than society itself. It’s also telling, of course, that within the context of the story, so few critics took issue with the destruction of a Black man’s life and focused instead on the destruction of a white man’s property. Sound familiar?

In some ways, all those criticisms were the ultimate backhanded compliment to “Do the Right Thing,” a collective acknowledgment of just how close to the bone, how unsettlingly recognizable Lee’s Brooklyn was. To say that it is just as recognizable today, in the era of Garner and Floyd and so many other Black lives taken too soon, is to point out the obvious: It’s hard to think of a moment in the last 31 years when “Do the Right Thing” wasn’t timely. Timeliness, of course, is hardly its only virtue; its relevance is inseparable from the greatness of its filmmaking and the complicated humanity of its storytelling. And while it may be the most trenchant, tough-minded movie we’ve yet had the honor of feting on the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown, it may also be the one that most fits the bill: So palpably does Lee conjure the heat and sweat of the year’s hottest day, I had to watch the movie with the air conditioner and a fan on full blast.

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Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do the Right Thing."
(Universal Pictures)

GLENN WHIPP: The last time I spoke with Lee, he brought up those reviews you mentioned, Justin, citing the critics by name. He does not forget — nor should he. Newsweek critic Jack Kroll fretted how “urban audiences” would react to the movie’s ending, saying that the film was “dynamite under every seat.” Similarly, David Denby in New York magazine decried the ending, writing “if some audiences go wild, [Lee] is partly responsible.” It’s not hard to guess who he meant comprised “some audiences.” Joe Klein, writing in the same publication, lamented the “dangerous stupidity” of the movie’s message, hoping “Do the Right Thing” would open “in not too many theaters near you.”

It’s interesting how “some people” can look at a movie — or a protest or any kind of pointed discussion about racial inequity in America — and completely miss what’s being said. After watching “Do the Right Thing” again the other night, I flipped over to the disc’s bonus features (shout-out to physical media, long may it live) and watched the press conference that followed the movie’s 1989 Cannes Film Festival premiere. Three journalists brought up the Malcolm X quote about violence and racial justice that Lee included in the epilogue, two of them not mentioning (or not aware ... but how could that be?) that Lee also included a contrasting quote from Martin Luther King Jr. The lone journalist who did acknowledge there were in fact two quotes thought Lee should have saved King’s words for the very end because they’re “more beautiful.”

People see what they want to see, I guess, even — especially — with “Do the Right Thing,” a movie Lee made with the utmost care and intention and on his terms. And now every day in the news, we’re watching fear and prejudice continuing to cloud our ability to bear witness to what should be unequivocally clear. “Do the Right Thing” made some people uncomfortable because it told truths from a Black perspective that they did not want to accept. You noted, Justin, many reasons to despair about the movie’s continued relevance, to which I would add one more: The enduring unwillingness we as a nation have to sit with that discomfort, listen and learn.

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Spike Lee on the set of "Do the Right Thing."
(Universal Home Entertainment )

CHANG: That unwillingness you mention, Glenn, is a pretty damning indictment of white (and white-adjacent) fragility in this country. And yet: At the risk of sounding naively optimistic, there are certainly reasons for hope as well as despair. I’m hardly alone in noting that something feels different about the intensity and duration of the current protests, that after years and years of struggling and grieving, something in the body politic seems to have finally shaken loose. And to bring it back to “Do the Right Thing”: While the movie was hardly unloved in its day — it was a commercial hit, earned rave reviews and received two Oscar nominations from an academy whose idea of racial truth-telling that year was “Driving Miss Daisy” — its much more widespread canonization now is, in itself, a hopeful sign.

Part of this, of course, is due to the industry’s growing acceptance of Lee himself, no longer a gifted young enfant terrible but an established, authoritative and hugely important filmmaker. He may have left Cannes empty-handed in 1989, but he is now one of the festival’s darlings (and was supposed to be the first Black president of the Cannes jury before the COVID-19 pandemic struck). He won a lot of awards, including a screenwriting Oscar, for “BlacKkKlansman,” which drew a clear connection between its astonishing ’70s-set story and the resurgence of white nationalism under President Trump. The ideas that Lee grapples with in that film and in “Do the Right Thing” — and which he has spent his whole career grappling with — may still make “some people” uncomfortable. But it’s also clear that more than a few Americans, including many white Americans, by now find them indisputable.

At the end of “Do the Right Thing,” we see King and Malcolm X in a photograph, the one that Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) affixes to the wall of that burned-down pizzeria. It reminds you that this entire movie has been a conversation, a dialectic, a picture that structures its powerful argument around a series of arguments. Those arguments can take many different forms, some as casual as the everyday back-and-forth between Da Mayor and Mother Sister (played by the great Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee), and some as hilarious as the piss-taking banter of ML (Paul Benjamin), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison) and Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris).

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You hear it perhaps most vividly in the sharp exchanges between Mookie (Lee himself) and his employer, Sal (Danny Aiello). Sal doesn’t see himself as racist — he certainly isn’t as overt in his bigotry as his son Pino (John Turturro) — and like almost everyone he tries, in his best moments, to do the right thing. It isn’t enough. And yet the depth of Lee’s compassion for him, and for all his characters, is unmistakable. “Do the Right Thing” may climax in death and destruction, but it endures, in no small part, because of how forcefully Lee floods the screen with life.

Spike Lee and Danny Aiello in the movie "Do the Right Thing."
(Universal City Studios)

WHIPP: The vibrant life in that Bed-Stuy block in Brooklyn is one of, oh, about 100 reasons I can watch “Do the Right Thing” annually and never grow tired of it. I feel like Lee’s team rarely receives the credit they deserve, so indulge me as I salute cinematographer Ernest Dickerson for all those fluid crane shots and character-revealing camera angles and the way he uses color, production designer Wynn Thomas for building Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and the Korean grocery store across the street, Barry Alexander Brown’s tight, propulsive editing, Bill Lee’s beautiful score and costume designer Ruth E. Carter for the sea of graphic tees and biker shorts and jerseys and medallions, evoking what a hot summer day in Brooklyn looks like. All LOVE, no HATE.

These elements — along with an exceptional cast that includes Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence in their film debuts — invite you into the conversation that takes place on the neighborhood stoops and streets, the beefs, the resentments, the love. There is, as you say Justin, compassion and understanding for everyone we meet in the film, with the exception of New York’s Finest, who we see meting out systemic hate and a choke-hold murder, and that [expletive], entitled bicyclist who scuffs Buggin’ Out’s pristine Jordans and serves as an early harbinger of aggressive, thoughtless gentrification. (Quick shout-out to the great Giancarlo Esposito for his electric turn as Buggin’ Out.)

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The movie doesn’t end when Mookie throws the trash can through Sal’s window, a scene that has prompted people to ask Lee over the years if Mookie did the right thing. (Lee told me: “I’ve never been asked that question by a person of color.”) “Do the Right Thing” ends the next morning with Mookie returning to the burned-out Sal’s, asking for his wages. Words are exchanged, bills are crumpled and then we see Samuel L. Jackson’s radio DJ forecast another hot day. Life goes on, hardships will continue and nothing is resolved.

At that Cannes press conference, a journalist declared that “Do the Right Thing” takes a “very despairing view of even the possibility of an amicable relationship between the races.” Lee didn’t see it that way. But he also said that it would have been dishonest to have a “Steven Spielberg ending where we’re all holding hands and singing ‘We Are the World.’” Instead, Lee left it up to the audience to wrestle with what they’d seen and form their own conclusions. Three decades later, we’re still grappling with this movie and we probably will be engaging with it three decades from now.

Nobody has ever made a better movie about race in America. Celebrate its artistry. Mourn its relevancy. Fight the power. Vote in November.

The L. A. Times Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown

Who: Times sports and culture columnist LZ Granderson and Soraya Nadia McDonald, Culture critic, The Undefeated, in conversation with Times film critic Justin Chang on Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing”

When: 6 p.m. July 9

Where: Free virtual event will be livestreamed on the L.A. Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube, as well as TwitterTwitter
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