On Christmas Day, 1987, the 30-year-old Brooklyn-based filmmaker Spike Lee started working on the script for his third feature. His first, the 1986 surprise hit “She’s Gotta Have It,” was a trailblazing romantic comedy about young upscale African Americans, and his sophomore effort, “School Daze,” a musical look at black college life, was in the can and set to be released two months later. In this new project, Lee wanted to examine the racial tension that enveloped New York City at the time, most of which was due to an incident that occurred in the predominantly white Howard Beach section of Queens a year earlier: A group of white youths attacked three black men outside a pizza place for simply being the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood. One of the black men, 23-year-old Michael Griffith, was chased onto the Belt Parkway and was struck and killed by a car.
The new film, which Lee titled “Do the Right Thing,” wound up detailing how a single block in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant — one with the white-owned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria at its heart — erupted in racial violence on the hottest day of the year. It featured a striking visual style, an idiosyncratic blend of comedy and tragedy, and an extraordinary ensemble cast including Danny Aiello as Sal, the pizzeria owner; Lee as Mookie, an unambitious deliveryman; and Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, the local drunk. It also instantly established Lee as a major talent who couldn’t be ignored or dismissed.
When “Do the Right Thing” was released, audiences and critics were divided. Vincent Canby hailed it in the New York Times as “a remarkable piece of work,” and Roger Ebert, in his four-star Chicago Sun-Times review, added that it came “closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.” On the flip side, Lee was criticized for a drug-free presentation of a crack-ravaged neighborhood and for being recklessly incendiary. In his review in the June 26, 1989, issue of New York magazine, David Denby said that “the end of this movie is a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, [Lee’s] partly responsible.” Jack Kroll in Newsweek called the film “dynamite under every seat.” The critics’ fears underestimated the audience — no riots resulted.