On this day in 1989, the writer-director Spike Lee’s third feature film, Do the Right Thing—a provocative, racially charged drama that takes place on one block in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, on the hottest day of the year—is released in U.S. theaters.
The block in question is home to Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, the only white-owned business in the neighborhood. Mookie (played by Lee) delivers pizza for Sal (Danny Aiello); he is friendly with Sal’s younger son, Vito (Richard Edson), a fact that angers Vito’s brother, Pino (John Turturro), who resents the black majority in the neighborhood. As various characters talk and circulate around Sal’s and the nearby Korean-owned convenience store, tensions build to the breaking point, and violence breaks out, with tragic consequences. Among Do the Right Thing’s memorable supporting characters are the neighborhood staples Da Mayor and Mother-Sister (real-life couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee); Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who continually blasts Public Enemy’s rap song “Fight the Power” from his massive boom box; Mookie’s sister (Joie Lee, Spike’s own sister); his Puerto Rican girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez, making her feature film debut); and the smooth-talking radio disc jockey Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson).
Upon its release, Do the Right Thing caused a sensation for its incendiary portrayal of race relations, including specific allusions to some notorious recent events in New York. Some critics, including David Denby (then of New York magazine) speculated that the film would incite black audiences to anger and violence. In an interview with New York magazine in April 2008, the always-outspoken Lee recalled of the controversy: “One of the big criticisms was that I had not provided an answer for racism in the movie, which is insane. And what’s even more insane is people like Joe Klein [who also wrote about the film for New York] and David Denby felt that this film was going to cause riots. Young black males were going to emulate Mookie and throw garbage cans through windows. Like, ‘How dare you release this film in summertime: You know how they get in the summertime, this is like playing with fire.’ I hold no grudges against them. But that was 20 years ago and it speaks for itself.”
Nominated for two Oscars—Best Supporting Actor for Aiello and Best Original Screenplay for Lee—Do the Right Thing was later called “culturally significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress and stands to this day as one of Hollywood’s most notable portrayals of modern-day racial tensions.