Spike Lee was a little-known filmmaker working in New York when he wrote, directed, and starred in Do the Right Thing in 1989. An examination of the Bed-Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant) neighborhood of Brooklyn, the film dealt frankly with issues of race, poverty, and gender. But while the majority of the film is peaceful enough, it ends on an extended, and shocking, outpouring of public anger that eventually spills over into a flat-out riot — specifically a riot fueled by black denizens of the area, angry at a white man.
Some critics immediately pounced on the film for inflaming racial tensions, even accusing it of actively promoting violence. Joe Klein of New York magazine declared that the film’s message to black youth was that “White people are your enemy” and “The police are your enemy.” Other publications, such as Newsweek, claimed that white people, too, would be riled up by the film. Suddenly, Spike Lee wasn’t so little-known anymore. He had become, overnight, a lightning rod in the film community, and considered an artistic provocateur.
Let there be no doubt, however, that Lee did the right thing. The film is widely hailed as a masterpiece today, whose themes are still relevant nearly 30 years later. The true point of the film is not to cause violence, but to help understand its root. The title itself isn’t meant to be ironic, but rather a call to action. The only question is, what does the right thing look like in a complex world? The film may not hold the answer, but it adds intelligently to the conversation.