Three decades after its release, "Do the Right Thing" is just as timely now as it was then.
Legendary rabble-rouser Spike Lee wrote, directed and starred in the vibrant racial drama, which opened in theaters June 30, 1989, and was re-released last month. (It's still in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.)
The movie follows a young black man named Mookie (Lee) who works as a delivery man for an Italian-owned pizza joint in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Set over the course of a sweltering hot summer day, long-simmering racial tensions in the community quickly escalate when Mookie's friend Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) demands that black celebrities be featured on the restaurant's Wall of Fame. A riot ensues that night, culminating in the restaurant burning to the ground and Radio Raheem dying in a police chokehold.
"It's not dated; it hasn't aged," Lee says of his incendiary third feature, which has been newly restored for a Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray release out Tuesday. When he was making it, "I was just trying to capture some truths as I saw them at the time that are still relevant today. We talked about global warming, gentrification, police brutality – my friends call me Negrodamus," a play on famed clairvoyant Nostradamus.
Released three years after Lee's full-length debut, "She's Gotta Have It," "Right Thing" was inspired by the tense racial climate in New York in the mid-'80s, when multiple cases of police brutality against black men and women made headlines. Although critically acclaimed, many reviewers warned that the film could spark riots among black audiences, which Lee denounces as "racist" fearmongering.
"It was horrendous," Lee says. "They were the ones trying to incite white fear with statements like, 'Hope to God the film doesn't come to your neighborhood.' It was very disrespectful to the African American moviegoing audience because they were saying that African Americans were not smart enough to make a distinction between what they see in the movie theater and what's real life.
"But conversely," he adds, "I never read anything from white movie critics saying that white audiences would come out shooting and killing like (Arnold) Schwarzenegger after seeing his 'Terminator' films."
Lee, 62, declines to speculate whether the movie's reception would be any different had it been released today: "I don't answer hypothetical questions, sir. It came out when it came out." And he bristles at the mention of "Driving Miss Daisy," which notoriously won the best picture Oscar in 1990 when "Right Thing" wasn't even nominated in the category. (It did earn two nods: original screenplay and supporting actor for Danny Aiello, who plays pizza shop owner Sal).
"People know what's what and it was the okey-doke," Lee says of the controversy, adding that he was "very happy" to have finally won an Oscar (for adapted screenplay) this past year for "BlacKkKlansman."
"Right Thing" continues to be hailed as a monumental cinematic achievement, named to the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, and preserved in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry for its historical and cultural significance. Lee, who still has Mookie's iconic Dodgers jersey framed, hopes that future generations will discover the movie.
By then, "hopefully the things we discuss in that film will not be current news," Lee says. "That is my hope and prayer. I don't want to see another viral video that looks like Radio Raheem or Eric Garner."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Spike Lee on 'Do the Right Thing,' 30 years later: 'It hasn't aged'