Released 20 years ago this month, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was one of the most controversial films of its time. It was praised in many quarters for its script, direction, photography, acting and music, and singled out by some prominent critics as a rich and multifaceted drama about racism, police brutality and the dynamics of an urban community. Others condemned it as contrived, unrealistic, shrill, even irresponsible—a potent work of propaganda intended to stoke racial resentment, perhaps even incite violence.
That there were no notably violent incidents at theaters showing Do the Right Thing is a matter of public record. But one doubts this was merely a lucky break on Lee’s part. A close look at the movie’s construction confirms not just its entertainment value and political relevance, but its generosity of spirit. Do the Right Thing is not a film-as-argument. It’s a film about arguments. More specifically, it’s about the roots of the grievances people hold and the anger they unleash.