Spike Lee has called out the critical response to Do The Right Thing upon its release in 1989, criticising the perception that the film would “incite Black people to riot”.
Lee spoke of the press reaction to his third film while attending the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday (September 10), where he received the Ebert Director Award. The award recognises filmmakers who have “exemplified greatness in their careers”, and is named after the late film critic Roger Ebert, whom Lee said “was very crucial to my career” during his acceptance speech.
“[Ebert] got behind me when those motherfuckers in the press were saying that Do the Right Thing was going to incite black people to riot,” Lee said as he accepted the award from the reviewer’s wife, Chaz Ebert. Lee went on to criticise the perception among critics that his film “could not be shown in the United States”, as well as reviews claiming “Black people … would see the film and take to the streets”.
“The film came out. There were no riots,” Lee added. Elsewhere in his speech, the director lamented the way Do The Right Thing – which focussed on race relations between Italian-American and Black communities within Brooklyn – was reviewed in comparison to other films, describing it as “not an even playing field”.
Lee specifically named critics Joe Klein and David Denby, pointing to the latter’s New York Magazine review of Do The Right Thing. “I know it was a long time ago and you should let some grudges go,” Lee said in reference to the review, claiming it warned audiences to “hope to God that [the film] doesn’t open in your neighbourhood”.
“Thank [you] Roger because he went to bat for me and many years later, we’re on the right side of history/herstory,” Lee concluded.
Responding to Lee’s speech in an email sent to Entertainment Weekly, Denby said his original review only “objected to something at the end” of the film and otherwise found Do The Right Thing to be “generous and alive”.
“I didn’t say the movie was going to start riots,” Denby added, “I don’t know what Spike is talking about.” The reviewer made a distinction between his “[thoughtful] review as a film critic” and Klein’s as “a political analyst”, saying the pair “didn’t coordinate” and that Lee “has lumped us together”.
“What I’m sorry about is not the review but that Spike has never made anything as powerful since then,” Denby wrote. Do The Right Thing earned Lee his first-ever Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and is often cited among the greatest films ever made.
Elsewhere at the Toronto Film Festival, Lil Nas X premiered his documentary Long Live Montero, and Talking Heads hosted a Q&A panel in what was their first public appearance in over 20 years.