Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is, 25 years after its initial release, universally accepted as many things. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s home to the coolest visual reference to Night of the Hunter in cinema history. It’s the film that ridiculously wasn’t nominated for Best Picture honors at the 1989 Academy Awards, the year in which Driving Miss friggin’ Daisy received that distinction. It’s the angry societal attack that spawned Public Enemy’s classic anti-establishment record ”Fight the Power.” And it’s the motion picture in which Giancarlo Esposito famously lashed out against a pizzeria long before he portrayed Gustavo Fring, a.k.a. the genuine “television villain” article.
Those are just a few of Do the Right Thing’s cultural touchstones—to mention them all here would be to write a college-length thesis paper. That’s what happens when a movie as exceptional and multi-faceted as Spike Lee’s slice-of-Brooklyn-life knockout endures for a quarter of a century.
Not that Do the Right Thing has evolved into a hot-button topic. After its May 1989 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Lee’s film quickly became a polarizing force, generating a firestorm of controversy straight into its June 30, 1989, theatrical opening. How exactly did film critics at the time react to Do the Right Thing? A mix of glowing praise and predictions of the race riots it’d potentially cause, for starters.
In the words of critical giants like David Denby, J. Hoberman, and the late Roger Ebert, here’s a sampling of Do the Right Thing’s first-ever reviews.