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Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee's 1989 film Do The Right Thing takes place in one day in the Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyevesant. This isn't just a regular day, it's an insanely hot day. If you've spent any time in New York City in the summer, you know it gets hot and muggy and that, sometimes, the weather can make the city's populace miserable. Regardless, the people of Bed-Stuy have lives to live and the predominantly black neighborhood soldiers on. That said, there are some exceptions in the neighborhood. Sal (Danny Aiello) is an Italian who runs a popular neighborhood pizza joint that's been there forever. He gets along with pretty much everybody, most of the time, and is well liked, most of the time. He's the father to two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), who help out in the pizzeria. Elsewhere, some recent Korean transplants have taken over a rundown storefront and turned it into a grocery.
Sal employs a young black man named Mookie (Spike Lee) as a delivery boy. Mookie does his job well but clearly yearns for bigger things in life. Still, he keeps tabs on what's happening in the neighborhood and keeps Sal abreast of the latest gossip. Mookie has a kid with a local named Tina (Rosie Perez). The film introduces us to other colorful characters: an older man referred to as Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) who has been there forever, a political militant called Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a music junkie named Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who never leaves home without his boombox and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who is a bit of a mystic aid to certain parties. A DJ named Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) also has an effect on the community, while a man named Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) wanders the streets selling copies of a photograph showing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X together.
As we get to know these and other characters, what starts as a pleasant enough slice of life look at an urban community starts to evolve into something darker. We learn that one of Sal's sons is a pretty bigoted guy and this causes problems. Tension starts to mount in the neighborhood, old wounds are opened back up and a minor disagreement turns into a major problem when violence erupts
We'll leave it at that for those who may not have seen this picture before. Needless to say, the final third of Do The Right Thing still has the power to ruffle feathers even now, thirty years after its debut. In this picture, widely and rightly considered to be Lee's best work, the director tackles massive issues but is savvy enough to do it in a smaller scale. The script, which he wrote (and was Oscar nominated for), does an excellent job of letting us get to know the film's central characters and their respective situations so that when it all hits the fan, we understand why. We don't have to agree with it or like it for that matter, but Lee's not casting judgment on anybody here, he's simply portraying the complex (and increasingly depressing) state of race relations in modern day America. By taking a nation-wide problem and narrowing the focus down to one block in one neighborhood, it makes things more relatable and the characters more believable.
Of course, much of the believability of said characters comes not just from the solid writing but from the excellent acting as well. Danny Aiello was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the picture, and deservedly so. He could have very easily played Sal as an Italian-American stereotype but he doesn't do that. Sure, Sal is proud of his heritage and that's conveyed in Aiello's performance but he comes across as a real person. Not perfect, he's flawed like the rest of us, but Aiello really delivers the goods here and on top of that he makes it seem effortless and natural. John Turturro and Richard Edson are also very strong as his sons, and Spike Lee himself delivers great work as Mookie. The supporting work is also really good across the board. Samuel L. Jackson is awesome as the DJ in the picture and the way that he's woven into the story is very effective. Ossie Davis, Rosie Perez, Ruby Dee and Bill Nunn are all great here as well, while Giancarlo Esposito steals more than a few of the scenes in which he is involved.
Set to a powerful soundtrack and beautifully shot on location by Ernest Dickerson, the production values here are solid from start to finish. The movie makes you feel just how hot and sweaty and humid things are getting as the tension builds and the characters start to shift and change. The quality of the visuals and the sound design work absolutely matches the quality of the script and the acting. It's a challenging film, but so too is it often times quite warm and frequently very funny.
Do The Right Thing is presented on a 50GB disc and framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. The AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer was taken from a new 4k restoration supervised by cinematographer Earnest Dickerson and it looks excellent. Detail is outstanding in pretty much every frame of the movie and the film's ‘hot' color scheme is reproduced perfectly. Black levels are reference quality and the image is spotless, retaining the expected amount of natural film grain but showing no noticeable print damage at all. The picture is free of compression artifacts and edge enhancement issues and it shows no evidence whatsoever of noise reduction or any sort of digital trickery. Skin tones look perfect, depth and texture are great… really, this is a reference quality transfer.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which is the only option for the feature, is also of excellent quality. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. Clarity is great, balance is perfect and dialogue comes through clean, crisp and clear. There's good channel separation in the more active scenes and some subtle use of the rear channels here and there to help build atmosphere. The score also sounds really, really good. No problems here at all.
Criterion has loaded this up as a two disc set with extras old and new spread across those discs as follows:
First up is the archival commentary track from 1995 featuring writer/director Spike Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas and actress Joie Lee. For those who haven't heard it before (it was on both the Laserdisc and DVD releases from The Criterion Collection), it's a good track. Lots of detail here about where the ideas for the movie came from, casting the picture, locations, the score and the use of music in the film, the look of the picture and lots more.
The disc also includes just short of an hour's worth of behind the scenes footage that Spike and brother Cirque Lee shot during the production. Lee provides a quick introduction to the material and there's some interesting stuff here, the highlight being the block party footage but we also get some material shot during rehearsals and some footage of the cast improving a bit on set and working through the material with the director.
The first disc also contains eleven deleted scenes: Mookie Delivers Pizza / Fried-Egg Cadillac / Rooftop / Dancin' On The Rooftop / Jade And Smiley / Don't Curse In Sal's / Jade And Vito / Jade Oils Mother Sister's Scalp / Jade And Mother Sister Talk Of Da Mayor / Delivery For Mister Senor Love Daddy / Sal And Mookie Finale. There's also a selection of two storyboard sequences from the riot scene in the film (with an intro from the director) and a couple of trailers and TV spots included.
The first of the two new pieces on the second disc is The One And Only ‘Do The Right Thing' which is an interview with Robert Cornegy Jr., the New York City Council member representing the Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights neighborhoods in Brooklyn. He's joined by writer and director Nelson George and filmmaker Darnell Martin for an interesting thirty-two-minute talk about the themes and ideas that the film explores and how they tied into the real socio-political climate of the era in which it was made. Also new to this disc is seventeen-minute interview with costume designer Ruth E. Carter. She talks about how Lee had an intended look in mind for the key characters in the film and how she set about accomplishing her job of getting that look properly nailed down for the film.
Continuing through the second disc, we get a sixty-one-minute documentary from 1988 entitled Making Do The Right Thing, available with an intro from Lee who produced the piece which was directed by St. Clair Bourne. It's an interesting look at the making of the picture made up of behind the scenes footage and cast and crew interviews. Also included on disc two is forty-three-minutes of footage that was shot at a Cannes Film Festival Press Conference where Lee, accompanied by Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Joie Lee, and Richard Edson, field questions form the press after a screening of the film that took place there in 1989.
There's also a ten-minute archival interview on the disc from 2000 with editor Barry Alexander Brown who speaks candidly about working with Lee, cutting the picture, the unique structure of the film and his thoughts on the project overall. In the archival five-minute Back To Bed-Stuy piece from 2000, Lee is joined by producer Jon Kilik for a quick but interesting visit some of the locations where the film took place and was shot. The thirty-six-minute Twenty Years Later piece, made in 2009, features interviews conducted by Lee with cast members Frankie Faison, Steve Park, Rosie Perez and John Turturro, musician Chuck D., Dickerson and a few others wherein they reflect on the making of the film and talk about their experiences on set and thoughts on the project years after it was made.
Rounding out the extras on the second disc are the seven-minute Spike's Last Word segment carried over from the DVD release and, of course, the video for Public Enemy's Fight The Power that was directed by Lee and comes with a quick introduction from the director.
Along with the two discs, this set also includes a full color booklet that holds credits for the disc, cast and crew credits for the feature, technical notes on the restoration and presentation of the feature, reproductions of some of the notes Lee kept during the making of the film and a new essay on the picture written by film critic Vinson Cunningham.
The politics of Do The Right Thing will likely divide audiences now just as much as it did when it was first released but it remains a film both entertaining and powerful. The performances are excellent and Lee's direction remains top notch. The Criterion Collection's new two-disc Blu-ray release looks and sounds pretty much perfect and is loaded with an excellent selection of extra features old and new. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.