Some films are so controversial during their initial release that it becomes difficult to
separate the message from the hype. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was such a heated focal point for so much
debate in 1989, both appropriate and hysterical, that many missed the complex message of the film itself. Kim Basinger
didn't help matters by chiding the Academy for virtually ignoring the film while presenting an award. Do the Right
Thing, however, is such a powerful and meaningful film that it is possible to revisit it now, more than a decade later,
and look at it with fresh eyes. It has lost none of its power or punch in that time and, given the divided state of our nation
and the ongoing occurrence of racially motivated crime, it has actually grown in relevance and depth.
When he made Do the Right Thing Spike Lee was known basically for two films (She's Gotta Have it and
School Daze) and a string of Nike commercials. While his earlier films showed promise nothing predicted that his
third film would show him growing as an artist by such leaps and bounds. Now, with fifteen films under his belt, many of
them deeply flawed and some totally disastrous, Do the Right Thing looks like a fevered vision that came across
Lee's mind and inspired him to reach higher than he otherwise could. Malcolm X, Get on the Bus, and 4
Little Girls also strive for importance and largely succeed, but none are quite as powerful as Do the Right
What is so great about Do the Right Thing? Lee was a young filmmaker at the time and couldn't possibly think that
he had all the answers, but by reflecting back a typical Brooklyn (and, therefore, American) neighborhood full of the kind of
diverse and idiosyncratic characters that populate all cities he was opening up his character palette (which had previously
consisted almost entirely of African-Americans roughly his own age) to include some complex conflicts and struggles. The
film is teeming with real people: Ossie Davis' neighborhood drunk, Danny Aiello's pizza joint owner, Rosie Perez' young
mother, Joie Lee's hard working single woman, Robin Harris, Paul Benjamin, and Frankie Faison's unemployed cornermen,
Ruby Dee's wise local matriarch. These people are all individuals whose interactions don't all conform to easy Hollywood
convention: Giancarlo Esposito's Buggin Out is a little crazy and angry, but also righteous and warm. Aiello's Sal is
genuinely concerned for his customers and neighbors, but also senses the great cultural divide between him and them. Bill
Nunn's Radio Raheem is like a Greek chorus, lugging his mammoth boombox around endlessly blasting Public Enemy's
great "Fight the Power" to comment on the injustices of the world. Richard Edson's Pino wants to be friends with Spike
Lee's Mookie, but brother John Turturro's Vito tries to get in the way. Still, Vito lists Michael Jordan, Eddie Murphy, and
Prince as among his idols.
The film takes place over one single Summer day, a sweaty 24 hour stretch that starts innocently and finds all the tensions
of the neighborhood, between the residents, the cops, the Korean grocer, the Italian pizza maker, compressed to the point
that an explosion is unavoidable. The ultimate climax is as confounding as it is real. You could have long debates over why
Mookie ultimately does what he does and you would only begin to scratch the surface of how this film reflects our
Films can be about many things and entertainment is just one of them. Do the Right Thing is absolutely alive and
entertaining. But it is also far more than that. No one can watch it without being affected by it in some way.
Do the Right Thing is an intense visual film, with careful use of colors, lighting, and camera angles. The anamorphic
transfer provided by Criterion is absolutely stunning. Crisp and clear, it leaves previous transfers in the dust. Even the
well-known Criterion laserdisc of Do the Right Thing, a standard bearer in the mid-Nineties, can't compare to the
picture here. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, Lee's collaborator from film school straight through six feature films,
frames up each shot perfectly, playing with different lens and techniques, and the film ends up with a very distinctive look.
The Criterion DVD features two soundtracks: A Dolby Digital 2.0 and an uncompressed PCM track. The Dolby track is
dynamic and works well, preserving the stereo nature of the original release without distracting additions like the 5.1
re-release of, say, The Exorcist. The PCM track may be slightly more dynamic but it is probably difficult to tell on all
but the very fanciest of home theater systems. Still, it is an unusual and welcome addition.
Criterion has really outdone some of their best efforts with the amount of supplemental material here. Much of it is ported
directly from their excellent laserdisc, but it never feels recycled. First, there is a fascinating commentary track that features
Lee, Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and Lee's sister and costar Joie Lee. Recorded about five years after the
film's release, this commentary finds all of the participants reflecting on both the way the world was when they made the
film and also what its impact has been since. One thing that makes this track unique is Chuck D's introductions of each
person, particularly fun since Chuck's voice is one of the boldest and most distinctive in rap.
On the second disc Criterion presents filmmaker St. Claire Bourne's terrific documentary The Making of Do the Right
Thing. To DVD enthusiasts, this should be an eye-opening experience. The film is over an hour long and was shot
entirely on film at the Brooklyn location. As a documentary, Bourne's work is outstanding; Rather than a typical electronic
press kit, this Making of presents every aspect of production, most notably the effect it had on the people in the
neighborhood, from creating a few short term jobs to inconveniencing the residents for months. These people don't hold
back their frustration at not being able to conduct their business as usual, a point of view rare in behind the scenes glimpses.
The documentary also features some striking sequences, like the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam's security force, clearing
out a notorious crack den on the block so the production could use the building. The Making of Do the Right Thing
is one of the best extras on any DVD.
Another notable extra is a collection of Hi-8 video footage that Lee shot during rehearsals, preproduction, and production
of the film. This is invaluable material in learning about how a movie gets made. The rehearsals (which are featured in the
documentary as well) especially illustrate the process that actors go through in creating their characters.
One feature new to the DVD is a walking tour through the location with Lee and editor Barry Brown ten years later. While
Lee's on-camera personality is less vibrant than it was earlier in his career (his speech is slow and halting for some reason) it
is really interesting to see how the neighborhood has changed and how it looks without a film crew crowding every corner.
The list of extras just goes on and on: This second disc also features a press conference from the 1989 Cannes Film Festival
with the director and major cast members, Public Enemy's video for "Fight the Power," a trailer, some tv spots, a
newly-shot interview with editor Barry Brown, and some newly shot intros by Lee. This has to be one of the most extensive
sets of extras available.
Do the Right Thing is one of the finest films of the last quarter century and deserves a place in any selective film
collection. The comprehensive treatment that Criterion has lavished on the film (incredibly, for the second time) is totally
deserving and appropriate. Those who have seen the film before, whether during the original release or since, will be
astonished at how wonderful the presentation here is. But for those who have never seen the film, Criterion has provided a
perfect opportunity to experience a film that truly has the power to make an audience laugh, cry, and think.