How Did Do The Right Thing Not Get Nominated For Best Picture At The 1990 Academy Awards?

The Do The Right Thing cast
(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

I've already wondered how an artsy, modern film like The Lighthouse didn't get nominated for Best Picture. I've also wondered how a superhero film (which are all the rage these days), like Spider-Man: No Way Home didn't get nominated for Best Picture. But now, I thought I would kick it old school and wonder how the classic Spike Lee Joint, Do The Right Thing, didn't get nominated for Best Picture back in 1990.     

Now, Do the Right Thing isn't like Uncut Gems (which I also wondered how it didn't get nominated for Best Picture). Because unlike the three films that I've already discussed, Do the Right Thing, even back in 1989, was considered one of the best films of not only its year, but also possibly its decade (It was Barack and Michelle Obama's first date, after all). In time, the film has only grown in esteem, so, I pose the question: Why didn't Do the Right Thing get nominated for Best Picture?  

Bill Nunn and Giancarlo Esposito in Do the Right Thing

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Why Do The Right Thing Should Have Been Nominated For Best Picture 

Spike Lee has made a lot of great films over the years (and not too long ago won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, along with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott for BlacKkKlansman), but no film of his could arguably surpass the lit firecracker that was Do the Right Thing. Do the Right Thing is Spike Lee's Pulp Fiction. It's his Raging Bull, and by that, I mean it's the film that will always be his magnum opus.  

Taking place in one, hot, suffocating day, Do the Right Thing takes an earnest look at race relations, gentrification, and police brutality, and it's all set to the bombastic boom blast of Public Enemy. It's an unapologetically Black movie, but one that doesn't let Black people off the hook. When Buggin' Out (played deftly by Gus Fring himself, Giancarlo Esposito), asks Sal, played by the late-Danny Aiello, why there are only Italian people on the walls of Sal's pizzeria and no pictures of Black people, Sal tells him that it's his shop, and if Buggin' Out wants pictures of Black people on the walls, then he should open up his own pizzeria. And, well, he has a great point. 

The whole film has a lot of great points, though. And while it's undoubtedly a message movie, it's also one that is immensely entertaining and powerful when it needs to be. In the end, it's the kind of film that comes out only once in a decade, which is very much unlike what else came out in 1989. Speaking of which… 

John Turturro in Do the Right Thing

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

What Else Was Up For Best Picture That Year?  

Know this: 1990 wasn't 2022 where we can have ten movies up for Best Picture. No, back then, there could only be five movies, and those five films were: Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, Born on the Fourth of July, My Left Foot, and Driving Miss Daisy, with Driving Miss Daisy actually winning Best Picture (More on that in a few). 

Now, honestly, save for Field of Dreams (Sorry!), that's a pretty good list of nominees, and if it were up to me, Born on the Fourth of July would have won, as that's arguably the best film in Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy (I much prefer it to Platoon). But, can we rewind for just a second and talk about the movie that did actually win?

Today, it's kind of hilarious (and ridiculous) for a film about an old white woman who bosses around a Black man only for her to learn the error of her ways to be nominated (and win!) Best Picture when the better, more meaningful film is not even nominated. But, just think back to 1989 when Driving Miss Daisy came out. It was a likable enough film, and a crowd-pleaser in the sense that it was definitely ABOUT race. 

But, it also didn't have much to actually say about race other than, I don't know, that people can change? Which isn't a terrible message, to be sure (I mean, Green Book has pretty much the same exact message, and that won the Best Picture Oscar not even that long ago). But, it certainly doesn't make Driving Miss Daisy a trailblazer. That said, again, this is 1990, and the Academy didn't want to blaze any trails back then, as you'll soon see in the next section.  

Martin Lawrence in Do the Right Thing

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

What Do The Right Thing Did Get Nominated For 

Now, I will give the Academy credit for at least this: Do the Right Thing was at least NOMINATED for a couple of awards. It was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello) as well as for Best Original Screenplay, which it lost in both categories. The Chicago Film Critics Association, however, nominated it for Best Supporting Actor (Aiello again), Best Director, and even Best Picture, and it won all three. 

It earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture, where it lost all four. But the NAACP Image Awards nominated both Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis as Outstanding Actress, and Outstanding Supporting Actor, respectively, and they both won. So, yes, it won some, it lost some, but in the end, nobody can say that it isn't a great movie. Even back then. 

Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

So, Why Didn't Do The Right Thing Get Nominated For Best Picture? 

Unlike The Lighthouse or Uncut Gems, this one is easy: the Academy just wasn't ready for a movie like Do the Right Thing back in 1989. Today, there is no doubt in my mind that if Do the Right Thing came out in 2022, it would not only be nominated, it would also even likely be the front-runner. But then again, Do the Right Thing wouldn't really fit in today's culture. Or rather, it would feel like a period piece. Because while racial tension is still very much alive and well, it's changed. Let me explain.  

Today, we live in what many people bemoan to be a "woke" society. What that just means is that people are willing to speak out now when somebody says something racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. I assure you, people were not doing that back in 1990, or at least, not on a grand scale like people are doing it today. Nowadays, even Disney makes it an initiative to add diversity to their films, and they disavow movies like Song of the South in an effort to wipe their slate clean (It won’t be on Disney+ anytime soon) of anything that might be perceived as racist.    

Spike Lee wasn't about sweeping anything under the rug, though. He was (and still is) about putting everything front and center. Our clearest ambassador for that today on a mainstream level would probably be Jordan Peele, and Get Out is one of the few horror films to ever be nominated for Best Picture, so let that sink in. Get Out, a film where white people drug and take over Black people's bodies, was nominated for Best Picture. 

It's hard to believe that a movie like Get Out (or even Black Panther) would have been nominated for Best Picture back in 1990, so in that way, Do the Right Thing had to get snubbed in order for movies like Get Out and Black Panther to shine. It sucks, but I'm not mad about it. 

So, those are my arguments. But what do you think? For more news on the 2022 Oscar nominations, make sure to swing by here often.    

Rich Knight
Content Producer

Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.