On this day in 1989: Do the Right Thing premiered

Brooklyn (and Barack Obama) has been celebrating the 25th anniversary of Spike Lee’s controversial classic Do the Right Thing.

Samuel Wigley

Do the Right Thing (1989): Spike Lee and crew on location

Do the Right Thing (1989): Spike Lee and crew on location

Over the weekend, a summer block party was held in the area around Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant and Lexington Avenues in honour of the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing, the film that immortalised the neighbourhood on screen.

Erykah Badu, Dave Chappelle, Wesley Snipes, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Chuck D were among the more famous revellers joining director Spike Lee to celebrate the film, partying beneath official street signs that now bear the name ‘Do the Right Thing Way’.

Set over 24 hours in the searing heat of a New York summer, the film stars Lee himself as Mookie, the delivery boy whose dismissal from an Italian pizzeria by his bigoted boss becomes the spark for a night of rioting. A milestone in black American filmmaking, it proved a sensational talking point upon release, with many critics fearing the film would incite copycat violence.

Lee made his directorial debut with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, which returned millions on its tiny independent budget. School Daze followed in 1988, but it was Do the Right Thing that made him a household name and media personality, cementing his status as a directing force to be reckoned with.

Among the audiences flocking to this controversial new release, which opened in American cinemas on 30 June 1989, were the young Barack Obama and his future wife Michelle, who remember going to see the film on their first date.

In a surprise video message at an anniversary screening in Los Angeles last week, Obama reminisced: “We had eaten lunch at the Art Institute of Chicago, gone for a little walk and then I took her to this new movie everybody was talking about, directed by a guy that not that many people had heard of.”

He went on to joke: “So Spike, thank you for helping me impress Michelle. And thank you for telling a powerful story. Today, I’ve got a few more grey hairs than I did back in 1989. You don’t look like Mookie anymore. But Do the Right Thing still holds up a mirror to our society, and it makes us laugh and think, and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.”

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.