Do the Right Thing, the critically acclaimed 1989 comedy-drama produced, written, and directed by Spike Lee, is regarded by many as one of the greatest films of all time.
The picture, which stars the likes of Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee himself, tells the story of a typical Brooklyn neighbourhood and the overriding racial tension. “Salvatore ‘Sal’ Fragione (Danny Aiello) is the Italian owner of a pizzeria in Brooklyn,” the official film synopsis reads. “A neighbourhood local, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), becomes upset when he sees that the pizzeria’s Wall of Fame exhibits only Italian actors. Buggin’ Out believes a pizzeria in a black neighbourhood should showcase black actors, but Sal disagrees. The wall becomes a symbol of racism and hate to Buggin’ Out and to other people in the neighbourhood, and tensions rise.”
Widely regarded as a pioneering and culturally significant release, the public and critical reception to Do the Right Thing marked equal amounts of racial controversy as the film’s brilliant screenplay. While some reviewers claimed that the picture could “incite black audiences to riot”, Spike Lee hit back at the critics with unrelenting passion. “That still bugs the shit out of me,” Lee said on reflection of suggestions that black audiences would be in some unable to hold back their emotions after watching a film.
Lee would go on to call the comments “outrageous, egregious and, I think, racist.” Later, while offering a comparison, the director added: “I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theatres killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.”
Not only did Do the Right Thing whip up debate around its content, but it would also shine a light on the issues surrounding what many people consider to be the pinnacle of cinematic achievement; the Oscars. While the film was nominated for two Academy Awards in the categories of ‘Best Supporting Actor’ and ‘Best Original Screenplay’, it somehow failed to secure victory in either. What’s more, Do the Right Thing was a glaringly obvious omission from the most coveted of categories when it was snubbed for ‘Best Picture’ and Spike Lee was overlooked for ‘Best Director’.
What compounded the misery for many fans of Spike Lee’s masterpiece was watching ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ win Best Picture at the 1990 Oscars, a feeling that was outlined on the biggest stage when Kim Basinger took to the podium to present the award. “We’ve got five great films here, and they’re great for one reason: They tell the truth,” Basinger said. “But there is one film missing from this list that deserves to be on it because, ironically, it might tell the biggest truth of all. And that’s Do The Right Thing,” she added while being met with a round of applause.
Regardless of its near misses upon its release, Do the Right Thing remains Spike Lee’s lasting legacy. A project filled with integrity, sincerity and, poignantly, righteousness. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on this day in 1989 and won the prestigious Palme d’Or, offers a cinematic experience more real than anything that has proceeded it.
Here, we enjoy a glimpse behind the scenes in its creation.