Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Do the Right Thing: Criterion (1989)
Studio Line: Criterion/Home Vision - It's the hottest day of the summer. You can do nothing, you can do something, or you can...

The hottest day of the year explodes onscreen in this vibrant look at a day in the life of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Featuring a stellar ensemble cast that includes Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, and John Turturro, Spike Lee's powerful portrait of urban racial tensions sparked controversy while earning popular and critical praise. Criterion is proud to present Do The Right Thing in a Director Approved special edition.

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Surround 2.0, English PCM Stereo; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 32 chapters; rated R; 120 min.; $39.98; street date 2/20/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Director Spike Lee, Actor Joie Lee, Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, and Production Designer Wynn Thomas; New Video Introductions by Spike Lee; 60-Minute “Making DTRT” Documentary; “Back to Bed-Stuy” Featurette; Music Video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”; 1989 Cannes Film Festival Press Conference; Spike Lee’s Behind the Scenes Footage; Original Storyboards of the Riot Scene; New Video Interview With Editor Barry Brown; Theatrical Trailer; 2 TV Spots; Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Brandford Marsalis, Bill Lee

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/A

When it appeared back in 1989, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing immediately became something of a cause celebre. Critics mainly gave it positive notices despite its gritty and controversial nature. The movie engendered a great deal of debate about its topic and although it didn’t exactly fire up the box office - DTRT grabbed about $27 million theatrically - it maintained a high public profile, one that grew when the Academy failed to nominate it for any major Oscars.

In a clear statement of political beliefs, the simple-minded and pat but reassuring Driving Miss Daisy took home the Best Picture nod for 1989. Poor DTRT received support during the show, but from an unlikely - and unfortunate - source in Kim Basinger; her protest at the ceremony provoked more snickers than sympathy. How this affected Lee is anyone’s guess, but I’d imagine he was bothered by such a clear snub from the Academy. DTRT received only two Oscar nominations - for Best Writing and Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello) - and it won in neither category. Since then, Lee has produced some decent films, but he’s not yet produced anything that even remotely approaches the quality of DTRT.

While it clearly has flaws - as do all of Lee’s flicks - DTRT is easily the strongest film he’s made to date. DTRT takes place all in one long day. It’s set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York and happens on an extremely hot summer day. The film follows a fairly long roster of characters as they interact during this day, but it largely revolves around neighborhood restaurant Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.

Sal (Aiello) and his sons Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro) are white in this largely black area; there are also some Latins and Asians as well, plus a stray gentrifying white guy. Sal employs Mookie (Lee) as his pizza deliverer, and the entire neighborhood patronizes the joint. Due to the heat, tensions are high enough as it is, but local rabble-rouser Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) decides to take a stand due to Sal’s “Wall of Fame”; there he displays pictures of prominent Italian-Americans but no blacks, although African-Americans make up the majority of his clientele.

During most of the film, Buggin’ Out’s attempted boycott stays in the background and is only one element among many. However, it becomes central during the movie’s final fourth, when push really comes to shove. I won’t go into detail about what happens, but it was these parts of the film that led some critics to claim that Lee was irresponsible and attempting to incite his audience to riot.

Lee will deny that, and I believe him, but I can also understand why some folks would see the message of DTRT as being violent and aggressive. Did I interpret it that way? No, but I also have the advantage of 12 years of hindsight. I can’t recall exactly how I saw the movie back in 1989, but I’d imagine I failed to see the nuance and depth in it.

Part of that stems from my youth at the time - I was 22 when DTRT hit the screens - but a lot of it comes from the movie’s subtlety. At the time, it probably seemed absurd to call DTRT a subtle, understated film, but it really is. Lee has been accused of being a heavy-handed director, and that may well be true for some of his later efforts, but it doesn’t apply here. DTRT provides a stunningly complex and provocative look at real people and their concerns.

The beauty of DTRT is that it features no all-good or all-bad characters. Each person clearly has strengths and weaknesses, and your sympathies may change from viewing to viewing. As I’ve rewatched DTRT - I’d guess this recent screening was probably my fifth or sixth time with the film since 1989 - I’ve seen more of the positives in Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) - who seemed like a belligerent jerk the first couple of times - and have observed more of the darkness found in Sal. That latter character’s racism becomes clear toward the end of the film, but it reveals itself in more subtle ways throughout the picture. For example, in one scene Pino spouts very nasty slurs and ideas, but Sal rebuts them only in the most minor way, and in a manner that doesn’t address Pino’s way of thinking other than as a practical matter.

No one gets off easy in DTRT, and that particularly applies to Lee’s own character of Mookie. As Lee recognizes in the DVD’s supplements, Mookie’s pretty lazy and shiftless, and his priorities aren’t in the right place. We can tell he’s not a bad guy, but he’s definitely no one’s idea of a hero.

Mookie has always been a lightning rod for discussions of DTRT, mainly because he’s the character about whom we can most clearly ask: did he do the right thing? There’s no simple answer to that question, and not just because I don’t want to reveal any potential spoilers. Honestly, I used to think the reply was a definite “no”, but I now don’t feel so strongly about that decision. Mookie’s motives have become more clear, and while I can’t say that his action was “right”, I also don’t feel it was clearly “wrong”.

Parts of DTRT seem dated, mostly due to ever-evolving fashions; as seen in 1988’s School Daze and in 1992’s Juice - directed by Lee’s cinematographer Ernest Dickerson - the hairstyles then favored by black males have not held up well. However, the vast majority of the film appears as powerful and as resonant as the day it was made. Some of the political elements come across as very quaint - especially the movie’s semi-indirect mention of noted liar Tawana Brawley - but most of the picture doesn’t revolve around issues circa 1988-89. Instead, they stick with basic concerns about race relations, and unfortunately, that’s not a subject that seems any less relevant now than it did then.

In addition to Lee’s rich script and deft direction, DTRT benefits from an extremely solid cast. There’s not a dog in the bunch, and each brought depth and complexity to their roles. I was especially fond of Ossie Davis’ turn as Da Mayor. This character easily could have degenerated into a comic drunk, but Davis exposes a variety of emotions and attitudes through the role. He’s the best in a strong group.

As we find out in the supplements, the studio wanted Lee to film the movie somewhere other than New York due to cost issues, but I’m glad he stuck to his guns, for DTRT clearly works better due to the realism of its world. The film shows a live, active environment that seems exceedingly true-to-life; you never doubt the reality of the situation. Upon repeated viewings, it becomes fun just to watch the activity in the background that you missed the first time; there’s a lot going on here, and it all contributes to the film’s effect.

I used to think that Do the Right Thing was overrated, but I no longer feel that way. As I’ve rewatched the film, its complexity and depth have become more clear to me, while its negatives have largely fallen by the wayside. Normally this kind of film wouldn’t stand up well through repeated screenings, but for some reason DTRT actually has become more compelling as time has passed. It’s a powerful gem that deserves all of the accolades it’s received.

The DVD:

Do the Right Thing appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture displayed some concerns, for the most part it looked quite good.

When you first encounter DTRT, you’ll probably be struck mainly by the heavily-saturated colors. As a visual metaphor for the intense heat that is supposed to be in action during the film, the image favored a reddish tint during much of the movie. This easily could have gotten out of hand and become excessively intense and messy, but the DVD handled the strong tones nicely. Colors looked appropriately solid and bold, and that went for hues other than red as well. In fact, colors offered the best parts of this picture, as they seemed remarkably bright and vivid.

Sharpness seemed acceptably crisp and well-defined. A smidgen of softness occurred during some of the widest shots, but this appeared extremely mild and caused no significant concerns. Moiré effects and jagged edges also presented no problems.

Black levels came across as quite deep and rich, with some very dark tones on display. Shadow detail also appeared appropriately heavy but never excessively opaque. During all of the film’s low light sequences, the image stayed easily visible, and nothing seemed obscured.

Although DTRT only came out 12 years ago, the DVD suffered from a surprisingly high number of print flaws. Throughout the film, I detected grit, speckles, some nicks and a blotch or two. These problems never became overwhelming, but they did distract me at times and I thought they seemed heavy for a fairly recent film. Nonetheless, the picture largely looked very fine.

The Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Do the Right Thing also offered a generally pleasing experience. Although the soundfield didn’t seem especially natural, it worked fairly well for the movie. The forward spectrum dominated the proceedings with sound that spread adequately across the front speakers. For the most part, this audio sounded somewhat channel-specific, but it could blend together decently at times. Music came across best, as the score appeared nicely delineated. The surrounds added generally positive reinforcement for the music and the effects, and the rears could become surprisingly involving at times, such as when fire raged across the screen.

Audio quality was good. Dialogue could sound a bit inconsistent, and some lines appeared a little brittle, but most speech seemed distinct and acceptably natural with no problems related to intelligibility. Effects were somewhat thin and without substantial depth, but they seemed decently clear and realistic. Music fared nicely, as both the score and the endless repetitions of “Fight the Power” sounded deep and accurate; the bass response for these various tunes seemed surprisingly rich. All in all, the soundtrack was dated but it worked pretty well for the material.

In this two-disc package, Criterion reprise most of the material found on their original 1995 laserdisc release of Do the Right Thing and they add some new stuff as well. The majority of these extras appear on the second DVD, but we get an audio commentary on disc one. Recorded for the original LD, this track includes remarks from Spike Lee, actor Joie Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, and production designer Wynn Thomas, and it’s hosted by Chuck D of Public Enemy. None of the participants sat together for the sessions; as is usually the case for Criterion commentaries, each person was interviewed separately and the results were edited together for this track.

As a whole, this commentary provides a solid look at the creation of the film. Considering the personnel involved, it isn’t surprising that much of the focus is on technical matters, and both Thomas and Dickerson do a terrific job of informing us about decisions made in regard to the film’s look; their statements added a lot to my appreciation of those issues. However, the commentary isn’t simply a compendium of dry technical details. In fact, most of it looks at creative issues, and all four participants provide nice notes that made for a strong piece. By the way, references to the laserdisc have not been altered, so if those kinds of comments on a DVD bug you, be warned!

The remainder of the supplements can be found on the second disc. One running series of extras involves newly-recorded, DVD-exclusive video introductions from Spike Lee. One 60-second general intro can be accessed from the main menu, and “Spike’s Last Word” adds six minutes and 25 seconds worth of remarks listed last on the front page. The latter are especially compelling, as Lee discusses the reactions to the film and directly addresses many of the movie’s critics. Other Lee comments can be found prior to the following pieces: “Behind the Scenes” (100 seconds); “The Riot Sequence” (90 seconds); “Making DTRT” (45 seconds); and “Fight the Power” music video (three minutes, 20 seconds).

“Making Do the Right Thing offers a 60-minute and 55-second look at the film; it also appeared on the original Criterion LD release. Helmed by director St. Clair Bourne, this program provides an excellent overview of the production. It starts with the entry of construction crews into the neighborhood where they shot the film, and it ends with the dismantling of a variety of sets; in between we learn a lot about various aspects of the process.

When I got the LD about a year and a half ago, I watched this documentary but I recall that I didn’t especially like it. Why? I have no idea. On my second go-round, I found the show to be very entertaining and compelling. It featured a fine peek at lots of elements of the production, from rehearsals to the effect on the community to fine-tuning on the set and many other areas. All in all, the program was consistently compelling.

Another LD retread appears in the form of some “Behind the Scenes” material shot by Spike on a camcorder. We get five different sections which can be viewed separately or straight through via the “View All” option. Each lasts between six minutes and 22 seconds and 19 minutes and 1 second for a total of 56 minutes and 10 seconds worth of material.

Though the content doesn’t differ radically from what we saw in the “Making of…” program, “Behind the Scenes” nonetheless offers a lot of interesting material. The focus is strongly on the actors, as we watch them during their introductions to each other and the initial read-through of the script and then progress through character discussions and alterations made. It’s quite compelling to hear the performers talk about their roles and work on them, and we also get to witness some unused material via a rehearsal of a “deleted scene”. It’s a nice little section that provides some great material.

After that, only a few other extras appear on both the LD and the DVD are some ads. We get the theatrical trailer for DTRT plus two TV spots. The former is entertaining if just because of the awkwardly-dubbed substitutions used to cover some profanity. A solid essay from Roger Ebert can also be found in the DVD’s booklet.

Now we move on to the DVD exclusive materials, which start with a “Cannes, 1989” press conference. This affair apparently followed a press screening of DTRT and offers a panel of Spike Lee, Joie Lee, Richard Edson, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. The program lasts for 42 minutes and 15 seconds and it seems to include the entire conference.

Despite the additional participants, this essentially is a Spike Lee interview that we find. The other four folks get to answer a question or two, but the majority head toward Spike. It’s interesting to watch just because this was probably Lee’s first strong taste of the controversy that would greet him; the points raised would be discussed to death in the months to come. In any case, the program is fairly compelling and it provides a nice snapshot of Lee’s though process as the film was about to hit screens.

More interviews can be found in a section devoted to “Editor Barry Brown”. Here we find recent discussions with the film’s editor, and these are split into four separate subdomains. As with the “Behind the Scenes” footage, each can be watched on its own or back-to-back via the “View All” option. The snippets run between one minute, 59 seconds and two minutes, 56 seconds for a total of nine minutes and 36 seconds of clips. Brown discusses his history with Lee and some of his specific work on DTRT in a series of comments that are mildly interesting but nothing particularly fascinating.

A series of storyboards appear in the “Riot Sequence” area. According to his introduction, Lee rarely storyboards his films, but he did so for this particularly-complex part of DTRT, and all of these images can be found on the DVD. The boards are presented three to a screen, but you can easily enlarge any of them.

“Back to Bed-Stuy” appears within the menu for “The Making of DTRT”. This four-minute and 45-second clip shows Spike Lee and line producer Jon Kilik as they tour the film’s locations. It’s a moderately interesting piece that shows how the neighborhood’s changed, and we hear a few good production tidbits from the two men.

Lastly, we find the music video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. This isn’t the clip’s first appearance on DVD - it also made the compilation called And Ya Don’t Stop - but it’s a good addition to the DTRT package nonetheless. I always liked the song itself, though I hate the lines about Elvis. PE parroted the often-accepted notion that Elvis was racist, but that concept has been thoroughly debunked, and I find it bothersome that the slander continues here. Otherwise it’s a good tune and a mildly interesting Lee-directed video.

Although the DVD packs in a ton of extras, some were omitted from the LD release. That set included clips from some Lee movies (She’s Gotta Have It, Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever and Crooklyn) plus stills from Lee’s other flicks and a mention of his intended film about Jackie Robinson that was supposed to come out in 1997. The LD also provided a video montage of shots from the set and articles relevant to DTRT plus pictures from the shoot of “Fight the Power”; the latter were accompanied by commentary from PE’s Chuck D. Lastly, the LD had a public service message from Jesse Jackson.

Why don’t any of these materials make the DVD? In the case of the film clips, I’d assume rights issues were at fault, but the other extras are less clear. In any case, I just thought I’d mention that the DVD doesn’t exactly duplicate the LD.

While the absence of those extras was disappointing, I think the new materials on the DVD make up for them, and ultimately the Criterion DVD of Do the Right Thing is a very satisfying set. The movie itself remains provocative and gripping after more than a decade. Despite some flaws, it’s still Spike Lee’s best movie, and it keeps that title without much argument; it’s a deep, resonant piece. The DVD provides pretty good picture and sound plus a nice complement of supplements. Do the Right Thing is an excellent movie and a solid DVD that comes highly recommended.

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