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 Thing.
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 nation.
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.
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.