In a poignant moment at the Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Awards, filmmaker Spike Lee took the stage to honor the late Roger Ebert and express his gratitude for the film critic’s unwavering support of his 1989 classic, Do The Right Thing.
Picture this: the year is 1989, and Spike Lee is about to unleash Do The Right Thing upon the world. However, instead of rolling out the red carpet, some critics were rolling their eyes, suggesting that the film would incite riots in the streets.
The film, which would go on to be considered one of the greatest in cinematic history, faced intense scrutiny and criticism upon its release. Some even suggested it should not be shown in the United States. Yet, Ebert stood as a staunch advocate for the film, a defender of its artistic merit, and a voice of reason amidst the controversy.
Spike Lee, never one to back down, had some choice words for these naysayers as he accepted the Ebert Director Award at the TIFF Tribute Awards, named after the legendary critic.
Spike Lee recalls the initial reaction to "Do the Right Thing": "The press was saying that 'Do the Right Thing' was going to incite Black people to riot." https://t.co/XkWfqBFsIz pic.twitter.com/UsFFEF8NmD— Variety (@Variety) September 11, 2023
Lee's speech at the awards ceremony was not merely a moment of recognition; it was a heartfelt tribute to a critic who played a pivotal role in his career and the cultural impact of his work. As he accepted the Ebert Director Award from Chaz Ebert, the late critic's wife, Lee confronted those who dared to doubt his cinematic masterpiece.
He was referring to the sensationalized headlines and doomsday prophecies that had plagued his film's pre-release buzz, painting it as a ticking time bomb that shouldn't be allowed anywhere near American theaters.
Lee singled out David Denby and Joe Klein, two prominent critics who had been vocal in their skepticism and apprehension. He remembered how they had penned warnings to their readers, urging them to "hope to God that this doesn't open in your neighborhood", indicative of the fear and prejudice that surrounded the film.
However, history has since proven the critics wrong.
Do The Right Thing has transcended its controversial beginnings to become a cinematic masterpiece and a cultural touchstone. The film's portrayal of racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood during a scorching summer day is now recognized as a poignant and thought-provoking exploration of race, prejudice, and social justice.
Its impact on cinema, culture, and discussions surrounding racial issues remains profound and its enduring relevance is a testament to Lee's vision as a filmmaker and his courage to address uncomfortable truths.
Just saw Barry Jenkins and Chaz Ebert present a lifetime achievement award to Spike Lee and I feel like I have a new core memory. Amazing. pic.twitter.com/8rs8TZAgLe— Brian Tallerico (@Brian_Tallerico) September 11, 2023
Lee's defiance in the face of adversity didn't stop there. In his acceptance speech, he made it clear that the struggle for equality and justice was far from over. "The struggle still continues. It's not an even playing field," he declared, emphasizing the enduring challenges faced by Black communities in America.
While other luminaries graced the event, including Colman Domingo, Vicky Krieps, Patricia Arquette, Pedro Almodovar, and Shawn Levy, Spike Lee's bold defense of his masterpiece stole the spotlight. It was a reminder that artists, in the face of controversy and adversity, have a duty to tackle important issues through their craft.
And Do The Right Thing? Well, it proved that sometimes, the loudest critics are the ones who end up with egg on their faces. And even if nobody else did, Roger Ebert most definitely did the right thing.