DO THE RIGHT THING (Lee, 1989)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date July 23, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long
As “McCabe and Mr. Miller” is to snowy backwoods isolation, so “Do The Right Thing” (1989) is to the scorching summer day in the city. No film has ever evoked heat more vividly. Window fans churn their blades in futility. Newspaper headlines blare temperature warnings: Helter Swelter! Neighborhood kids jockey for the chance to get drenched by the blast of an open fire hydrant. Characters plunge their faces gratefully in ice-cold water or steal a few minutes to shower down in the middle of the day. It is, most undeniably, as local radio DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson) says: “Hotttssssss!”
Writer/director/producer Spike Lee turns the broiler up so high that when the film's famous riot scene finally breaks out, viewers are less likely to ask why, then to ask, “What the hell took so long?” When it's hotttsssssser than hell, something's gonna burn.
Lee's decision to set the entire film in one day and largely on one block in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn ratchets up the pressure even more. We get to know an array of neighborhood characters all prowling the same cramped space, careening against each other. Most get along well, old friends just checking in. Some have minor dustups, such as Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the block's wise overseer, constantly harping on the hapless but kindhearted Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). Da Mayor: “You been talkin' about me for 18 years. What I ever done to you?” Mother: “You a drunk fool.” Mayor: “Besides that.”
Other more serious tensions are evident, even if they haven't erupted yet. Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, the openly racist Pino (John Turturro) and the amiable Vito (Richard Edson), own and operate Sal's Famous Pizzeria (pronounced “Pitz-uh-ree-uh” by Sal), a neighborhood fixture for years. Sal's clientele is almost exclusively black, yet his Wall of Fame features nothing but “American Italians” (as Sal puts it). This prompts quarrelsome customer Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) to ask why there aren't any black people on the wall. After an argument, Sal kicks him out, prompting Buggin Out to launch a boycott campaign that's ignored by everyone else, at least at first. “Shit, I was raised on Sal's pizza” is the opinion on the street and, besides, it's too damn hot for any damn boycott.
Mookie (Spike Lee) delivers pizza for Sal. Clad in his Jackie Robinson jersey (Brooklyn Dodgers, of course), he stalks confidently up and down the block, bothering the hell out of his little sister (Joie Lee), chatting with friends, and maybe getting a little love from his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez, in her film debut), preferably without getting hectored by her about his responsibilities, chiefly their baby boy. Mookie isn't shy about pushing back against Pino's racist bullshit, but he prefers to keep his head down and do just enough to earn a living.
As the mercury soars, it feels like we're building to an inevitable boiling point, but Lee often pauses the main action to focus on individuals in episodes largely unrelated to the propulsive demands of plot. On one delivery, Mookie encourages Vito to stand up against his bullying older brother. Da Mayor saves a young boy from being hit by a car, upgrading his status in Mother Sister's eyes. A chorus of three older men sit on the sidewalk, baking in the sun while they comment on the various injustices of the world – one of them answers to Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris) but he explains that's not actually what his mom named him. Senor Love Daddy keeps his eye on all that's happening while he continues to spin the platters that matter. Everyone's just hanging out, though not quite chilling.
The entire film was shot on the location where it was set (Stuyvesant Ave between Lexington and Quincy, now known also as Do The Right Thing Way) which presented a unique set of logistical problems for the crew who had to make a two-month shoot on a busy NYC block look like it happened on the same day. Continuity alone required a Herculean effort. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson mastered every challenge, and took full advantage of the location shoot to photograph a film that showcases an authentic, naturalistic look laced with moments of heightened, poetic reality. The fiery red wall behind Sweet Dick Willie and his buddies bleeds right through the lens.
(Major spoilers follow, for those who don't think thirty years is enough time to close the spoiler
Eventually, Buggin Out enlists an ally in his insurrection. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) still nurses a grudge after Sal booted him for playing his boombox too loud – Public Enemy's “Fight the Power”, of course, the only song Radio Raheem ever plays, convenient since Spike Lee commissioned the track for the film. They return to Sal's to demand their rights. Radio Raheem cranks up his music as high as the temperature and old lovable Sal, screaming the n-word, bashes the boombox to pieces with a baseball bat. A fistfight ensues which then prompts the arrival of the police, who swiftly choke Radio Raheem to death. A riot erupts and Sal's Famous Pizzeria is burned to the ground.
You can understand why the film was considered controversial at the time, but as Spike Lee has pointed out many times, some of the most scandalized critics focused their indignation on the property damage, fearing it would prompt black audiences to imitate what they saw on the screen. The murder of Radio Raheem didn't appear to bother them much at all. Interesting priorities. Unsurprisingly, Roger Ebert delivered a more clear-eyed, empathetic take: “Some of the advance articles about this movie have suggested that it is an incitement to racial violence. Those articles say more about their authors than about the movie. I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters.”
Who am I to argue with Mr. Ebert? Lee shows genuine interest in each of his characters, providing everyone with room to air their grievances, to portray them as people with sincere desires and views, some quite repugnant. That doesn't mean lee isn't judgmental, only that he listens. To not judge Pino's racism would be a cowardly dodge by any filmmaker.
Today, of course, Pino is now the President and about 40% of the country thinks that's a great thing, and totally not at all racist in any way. Hey, Pino doesn't hate all “azupeps” - he likes the good ones like Magic Johnson and Prince, so how can he be racist? I suppose that's explanation enough as to why “Do The Right Thing” feels every bit as timely and vital as it did thirty years ago. And why it will still feel just as relevant in another thirty years, in a world a whole hell of a lot hotttsssssser.
Criterion released “Do The Right Thing” on a multi-DVD set back in 2001. This Blu-ray release retains the original Spine Number 97.
This “new digital transfer was supervised by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson” and it really shines in 1080p. I don't have the old DVD as a comparison point, but this image is as sharp as can be and looks flawless in motion as well. Another top notch high-def transfer from Criterion.
The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix. Like the picture, the audio is robust and without any apparent flaws. The score by Bill Lee (Spike's father) and featuring Branford Marsalis sounds great as does the frequently repeated Public Enemy track. Optional English subtitles support the audio.
Criterion has absolutely packed this two-disc Blu-ray set with extras, with a mixture of old features from the 2001 DVD and some new ones made for this re-release.
Disc One features the film accompanied by the 1995 laserdisc commentary (also on the 2001 DVD) featuring Spike Lee, Joie Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, and production designer Wynn Thomas.
Also imported from the DVD is a Behind-the-Scenes feature (58 min.) which includes looks at rehearsals (in one, actors introduce themselves, and young Sam Jackson says “I've been in a few things. Doing a play now”), on-set footage, and the block party for the film wrap.
Another import shows Spike Lee's storyboard for the riot sequence. In his intro, Lee notes that he rarely storyboards, but felt he needed to do so for such a complex scene on a larger scale than he and his collaborators were accustomed to.
The disc also includes Deleted/Extended Scenes (11 scenes, totaling 14 min.) and Trailers and TV Spots (3 min. total).
Disc Two is loaded, mostly with material previously released, but with a few new features.
New for this Blu-ray release is “The One and Only 'Do The Right Thing'” (2019, 32 min.), a mix of interviews with NYC Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr., filmmaker Darnell Martin, and filmmaker Nelson George. Each of the interview subjects discusses the impact Lee's film had on them, the city, and culture in general – Martin worked as second assistant camera on the film, so she brings a first-hand perspective to the discussion.
Also new is a 2019 interview (16 min.) with costume designer Ruth E. Carter
The rest of the features were included on previous releases of “Do The Right Thing” though not all on the 2001 Criterion release.
The best of the lot by far is “Making 'Do The Right Thing'” (1989, 61 min), directed by St. Clair Bourne and produced by Spike Lee. Despite its generic name, this is one of the best “Making of” documentaries I've ever seen. It captures the intimate and intense production of the film, and the challenges both of shooting on location and making a film shot over more than two months look like it took place in one day (again, on location). Bourne brings a Wiseman-esque sensibility to the project, capturing as many perspectives as possible from construction crew to extras to the stars of the film. This is the rare “making of” project that's riveting in its own right, and brings new insight to the film it's documenting. It deserves attention as one of the great films about filmmaking in the modern era.
In “Back to Bed-Stuy” (2000, 5 min.) Spike Lee and producer Jon Kilik revisit the block where they filmed ten years before.
In “Twenty Years Later” (2009, 35 min.), Lee speaks with cast and crew on the occasion of the film's 20th anniversary screening in New York.
The disc also includes one of the music videos (7 min.) Spike Lee directed for Public Enemy's “Fight the Power” along with a short Spike Lee introduction.
We also get to see the Cannes Press Conference panel (42 min.) from when the film screened at the festival in 1989, the year the Palme D'or went to another American independent filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh for “sex, lies, and videotape.” Criterion has also included a 2000 interview with editor Barry Alexander Brown (10 min.)
Appropriately enough, the last extra on Disc Two is “Spike's Last Word” (2000, 6 min.) in which he reads some of the more clueless and offensive reviews of his film. He's clearly still angry about some of their claims, especially the paranoia raised about how black audiences might respond.
The thick square-bound booklet begins with a superb essay by critic Vinson Cunningham, and then includes a lengthy excerpt from Spike Lee's Director's Journal, with entries from Dec 1987 through Aug 1988.
Great movie, great high-def transfer, great extras, just a great Criterion release all around. You need it.
As for what “Do The Right Thing” says about our current time, I'll just throw it back the golden tones of Mister Senor Love Daddy: “Waaaa-ake up! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Up you wake! Up you wake! Up you wake! Up you wake!”
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