According to something called New York City Weather Archive, temperatures in New York on June 30, 1989 were relatively mild. That's ironic since what played out in local movie theaters on that day was sweltering: Spike Lee's third film, the sweat-soaked "Do the Right Thing," debuted on the final day of June in 1989. The drama put Lee on the map as a filmmaker, was first-date material for Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, and started conversations about race relations that continue to this very day.
But 25 years later, Lee still bristles to the reaction three prominent white writers had to his film. The 57-year-old director has often criticized former New York Magazine critic David Denby, former New York Magazine political columnist Joe Klein and former Newsweek critic Jack Kroll for their views on his film.
"They said black people would riot, and run amuck, after seeing the film. That is what they wrote," Lee told Deadline.com's Mike Fleming in an interview back in May. "It was such a condescending ... to think that black moviegoers don’t have the intelligence to discern what is on screen, and that they would duplicate what Mookie was doing, was ludicrous. If you have some time, please, please, please Google those articles by Jack Kroll, David Denby, and Joe Klein. To me, it was pure, uncut, unfiltered racism. Those articles basically said to white moviegoers, please don't go. If you are in the same theater with black people, it's not going to end well."
Heeding Lee's advice on the 25th anniversary of "Do the Right Thing," HuffPost Entertainment did Google those reviews. Quotes from the quarter-century old pieces are below.
David Denby, New York Magazine, June 26, 1989
The explosion at the end of the movie, an outburst intimate in scale but truly frightening, should divide the audience, leaving some moviegoers angry and vengeful, others sorrowful and chastened. Divided himself, Lee may even be foolish enough to dream, alternately, of increasing black militance and of calming it. But if Spike Lee is a commercial opportunist, he's also playing with dynamite in an urban playground. The response to the movie could get away from him.
If an artist has made his choices and settled on a coherent point of view, he shouldn't be held responsible, I believe, if parts of his audience misunderstand him. He should be free to be "dangerous." But Lee hasn't worked coherently. The end of this movie is a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible. Lee wants to rouse people, to "wake them up." But to do what? Those matching quotations [from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X] are little more than a confession of artistic and moral impotence: My guess is that Spike Lee thinks that violence solves nothing, but he'd like to be counted in the black community as an angry man, a man ready, despite his success, to smash things. The end of the movie is an open embrace of futility.
Jack Kroll, Newsweek, July 3, 1989
[In this long hot summer, how will young urban audiences -- black and white -- react to the film's climactic explosion of interracial violence? [...] People are going to argue about this film for a long time. That's fine, as long as things stay on the arguing level. But this movie is dynamite under every seat.
Kroll's review is not online, but it was excerpted in a piece written by Jason Bailey for The Atlantic. Read Bailey's full article on Lee and "Do the Right Thing" here.
Joe Klein, New York Magazine, June 26, 1989
If Lee does hook large black audiences, there's a good chance the message they take from the film will increase racial tensions in the city. If they react violently -- which can't be ruled out -- the candidate with the most to lost will be David Dinkins.
It is Spike Lee himself -- in the role of Sal's deliveryman -- who starts the riot by throwing a garbage can through the store's window, one of the stupider, more self-destructive acts of violence I've ever witnessed (if black kids act on what they see, Lee may have destroyed his career in that moment).
Klein's column focused on how "Do the Right Thing" would affect the mayoral candidacy of David Dinkins. (Dinkins would be elected Mayor of New York City later that year.) His full op-ed piece can be found here.
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