Spike Lee’s seminal film Do the Right Thing takes place over the course of twenty-four hours during the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn’s historic Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The story depicts simmering ethnic tensions between a group of African-Americans and the middle-aged, Italian-American patriarch of the local pizza place, “Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.” As the sweltering summer day draws to a close, an argument erupts between local youths of color led by “Radio” Raheem (his nickname comes from the massive boombox he is never seen without) and Sal. Pushed to the brink by Raheem’s radio blasts, Sal erupts into a vitriolic rant replete with racial invective, which culminates with his smashing of Raheem’s stereo. A fight breaks out and several other members of the community are drawn into the melee. Amidst ensuing mayhem, Raheem is killed by the NYPD, who strangle him with a nightstick in a scene that is eerily reminiscent of a lynching. The police officers eventually flee the scene with Raheem’s remains in tow, leaving members of the community behind to grieve and denounce the injustice of this killing and the many others that preceded it. In an act of defiance, Mookie (played by Lee himself), the pizzeria’s lone black employee, hurls a trash can through the pizzeria window, leading to the fiery destruction of Sal’s prized establishment.
On the heels of the June 30, 1989, release of the film, twenty years ago this summer, director Spike Lee detected a pattern in how white critics were discussing the film: “They never talk about the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police. They talk about Mookie smashing the window and the pizzeria burning down.”
Recalling reactions to the film’s violent climax, Lee would later remark, “If in a review, a critic discussed how Sal’s Famous was burned down but didn’t mention anything about Radio Raheem getting killed, it was pretty obvious that he or she valued white-owned property more than the life of this young black hoodlum.” The frankness of Lee’s rhetoric and the film’s content led the mainstream media to label him an angry, confrontational filmmaker. In her 1989 Time review of Do the Right Thing, titled “He’s Got to Have It His Way,” Jeanne McDowell observed, “Looking for racism at every turn, [Lee] finds it.” An August 1990 cover of US asked, “Spike Lee: Why Is He So Angry?” And in a classic example of ironic racism, an October 1992 Esquire headline declared: “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass.”