How Critics Responded to “Doing the Right Thing” in 1989


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

After the start of nationwide events against police brutality and anti-black systemic racism spurred on by the violent murder of George Floyd’s Derek Chauvin, social media found themselves talking about Spike Lee’s movie Do the right thing once again. The influential story of 1989 about a pizza delivery boy named Mookie (played by Lee) who lives and works in the Bedford – Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, culminates in (spoil alert) the police assassinate a young black man, inciting the neighbors to riot and destroy an Italian American pizzeria. Today, the mayors and press briefings are struggling to respond to the growing unrest in New York, focusing more on the destruction of property than on the racist law enforcement practices that have caused it. The content of the responses recalls the critical conversations around Do the right thing return in 89, when some accused Lee of telling a “rancid fairy tale” – claiming that he was encouraging unnecessary riots by having Mookie throw a trash can out of the window of Sal’s pizzeria – while others l congratulated for painting “a devastating portrait of black America pushed to the limit.” Lee himself saw parallels between today’s events and his Oscar-nominated film, choosing to release a new short film with the death scenes of Do the right thing alongside real footage of the death of Eric Garner in 2014 and George Floyd last week. With that in mind, we revisit what film critics said about the film when it premiered:

“When white police arrive and kill a black boy, the crowd, enraged, moved, takes revenge on the nearest white property. Rather than attacking the police, the rioters attack a symbolic target, and this part of the film is difficult to justify. Defenders will say this is what happens in the ghetto after a police atrocity, but Lee seems to approve of the result: his own character, Mookie, starts the riot (unbelievably, I thought) by throwing a trash can through a window , and as violence accumulates, it is presented as a form of deliverance; and no one in the community expresses repentance the next day. While there has been a lot of police brutality in New York, writer and director Spike Lee invented this particular crime; he also created the dramatic structure that prepares blacks to applaud the explosion as an act of revenge. It’s his fiction; it’s not life. ”


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