****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A+
starring Danny Aiello, Spike Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn
written and directed by Spike Lee
by Vincent Suarez SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I was one of the few Caucasians who defied the tabloid pundits and ventured into a New York City theatre to see Do the Right Thing in the summer of 1989. Seated beside me were not rioters, but a tiny African-American child very much like the sidewalk artist appearing both in the film and on its posters. Her mother and I got a kick out of her enthusiastic dancing to the strains of the Public Enemy tune that drives the credit sequence, and she spent the next two hours bobbing in her seat, softly singing "fight the power" whenever Radio Raheem's box would blare its anthem.
I saw the film again later that fall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, and my neighbour this time was a frat boy sporting a 40 Acres and a Mule baseball cap. The predominantly-white crowd ate the movie up, not for the sake of discussion, but because in just a few months time it seemed to have been coopted as simply "cool" (or worse, fashionable) by a segment of the audience it was designed to awaken; this, to me, was the real riot.
Not for lack of effort, though. Cinematically, and outside the context of the (sadly) brief debate it inspired, Do the Right Thing is Spike Lee's masterpiece. Lee remains a gifted writer but he's yet to so successfully juggle the number, variety, and depth of characters as in this, his third feature. And while Lee's directorial style has evolved dramatically, nothing in his oeuvre matches Do the Right Thing's finely-balanced blend of overt "technique" and subtle sophistication.
Confined to the events of a single day (the hottest of the summer) on a single block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Lee spins his reaction to the horrific, controversial death of Michael Griffith, a black youth who two years before had been chased by bat-wielding Italian-American teens from a Howard Beach pizzeria into oncoming traffic. Sal (Danny Aiello) and his Famous Pizzeria have thrived in Bed-Stuy for 25 years, but his son, Pino (John Turturro), is a burgeoning racist with little tolerance for the black community and, in particular, for Mookie (Lee), Sal's shiftless delivery boy. When Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) organizes a boycott in response to Sal's refusal to add photos of African-American personalities to the pizzeria's Wall of Fame, temper(ature)s rise throughout the day until its tragic end.
It's impossible to choose a favorite from among the parade of great sequences with which, one after another, Lee advances his story, develops his rich tapestry of characters, and weaves his themes. Ageism is explored when Da Mayor (Ossie Davis as a noble drunkard) is verbally accosted by neighbourhood teen Ahmad (Steve White). Gentrification is touched on via a white resident (John Savage) who, despite the ties to Boston implicit in his Celtics jersey, is revealed to have been born in Brooklyn. Mookie's strained relationship with Tina (a delightfully foul-mouthed Rosie Perez) and their son, Hector, blends interracial relationships with the issue of absent fathers. Frequently commenting on the action, and wonderfully warm and funny in his own right, is Mister Senor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), the FM R&B equivalent of Shakespeare's chorus housed in the We-Love radio station up the street from Sal's.
Of course, the crux of the film is its take on race relations, and Lee offers sequences that are remarkably varied in tone, style, and point-of-view, lending the picture a sense of even-handedness that evaded most critics. Particularly striking is the montage of racial epithets offered by several characters, and about several races, in direct-address. Much more subtle are the scenes with Pino, Vito (Richard Edson as Sal's younger son), Mookie, and Sal. (The elegant long take in which Pino, with increasing anger, tells Sal how badly he wants to get out of Bed-Stuy is an extremely self-assured moment of writing and directing.)
Even the volatile Buggin Out is tempered by delicate touches that suggest Lee has a more complex sense of the character; note that when he's told to direct his energies towards more positive things in the community than the pizzeria boycott, we see in close-up that his Air Jordans, footwear whose very name connotes transcendence, are worn below EverLast ankle weights, implying that his more trivial burdens (his "dogged" sneakers and the Wall of Fame) are of his own making. Finally, there's Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the boombox-toting, Public Enemy-blasting rebel whose oral history of the relationship between "love" and "hate" (his knuckle-rings are acknowledged by Lee as a homage to Robert Mitchum's tattoos in Night of the Hunter) steals the show.
In the film's storied climax, Buggin Out has enlisted Radio Raheem in his boycott and they confront Sal and demand that he update the Wall. Enraged by the notion, made irritable by the heat, and driven mad by Raheem's incessant radio, Sal takes a bat to the box. A brawl ensues, at the end of which Radio Raheem lies murdered (by the unnecessarily brutal NYPD, a reference to the late '80s police choking of Michael Stewart) and Sal's Pizzeria is in ruins (instigated by Mookie's trashcan-to-the-window).
Much of the reputation of Do the Right Thing as irresponsible, riot-inducing filmmaking rests on a misguided evaluation of this climax. Lee himself has said that Mookie throws the can because, after seeing his friend murdered and in response to the accumulation of real incidents which inspired the film, it's all he can do to fight back. This may be, but I find that the movie is, again, even more even-handed than that. Did no one notice that Sal has the opportunity to, as the Korean grocer does, make peace with the neighborhood? When all eyes are upon him in search of his response to Raheem's death, Sal's reply is, "You gotta do what you gotta do," not exactly a sympathetic statement, and one that invites the community to react. What's more, Mookie's destruction of the pizzeria really is a heroic act in that it diverts the crowd's attention away from Sal, Pino, and Vito, who would surely have been attacked (as Da Mayor intones) if the situation had remained unchecked.
Had the film ended at what appears to be its final moment, with Smiley (Roger Smith) tacking a photo of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to the Wall of Fame amidst flames, it could more legitimately be seen as a call to racial violence; hell, I would have thrown a trash can through a pizzeria window at that point. Lee, however, adds a crucial, calming coda in which we see that the block and its residents must deal with the consequences of their actions, restore damaged relationships, and move forward. Indeed, the final solution offered is a political, not physical, one: voter registration and awareness. Uncertainties about whether the "right thing" was done, and by whom, may linger, but only a more thorough examination of its third act than was initially granted can absolve Do the Right Thing of its undeserved reputation and, perhaps, explain why the riots that were feared never materialized.
The folks at The Criterion Collection have done the right thing and transported the bulk of their magnificent 1995 LaserDisc edition of Do the Right Thing, along with a few enhancements, to DVD in a superb 2-disc set. Disc 1 presents the film with a fantastic new anamorphic transfer, preserving the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. While not reference quality by the standard of today's current releases, Do the Right Thing looks absolutely terrific given its age and relatively low-budget origins. Filmed with the colors of Sal's Italian ices, the image glows in all the right places. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson's masterful job of seamlessly creating the look of a single day, from dawn-to-dawn, over an eight-week shoot is rendered so as to allow renewed appreciation for this considerable accomplishment.
Aurally, Criterion has provided two options that prove instructive to audio buffs. The Dolby Digital surround track provides an acceptable stereo soundfield with little surround presence and generally intelligible dialogue. Though not vastly superior, the uncompressed PCM stereo track is preferable and enables a direct comparison of compressed versus uncompressed versions of the same track. The PCM track simply sounds better--fuller, more dynamic, and with greater surround distribution. Bass is a definite beneficiary of the lack of compression, and overall there's little to complain about here, other than the absence of a 5.1 remix.
The first disc also features the same running commentary (by Lee, Dickerson, Production Designer Wynn Thomas, and Spike's sister, Joie Lee, who appears in the film as Jade) that graced the LD. Hosted by Public Enemy's Chuck D. (who introduces each participant at approximately 30-minute intervals, corresponding to the LaserDisc side breaks), the track is insightful and all-encompassing.
Dickerson and Thomas each add valuable remarks about their particular assignments, and frequently discuss the collaboration between DP and PD, most notably in their explanation of how the various elements of the pizzeria were chosen by Thomas with an understanding of Dickerson's lighting tendencies and needs. Joie Lee's discussion of her home life with Spike as the elder sibling is fascinating, and her admiration and affection for Spike is apparent. Finally, Lee talks at length about the incidents which inspired the film and the Hollywood traditions he was reacting to at the time. Robert Zemeckis and the trend towards "revisionist" history in films like Back to the Future, where Marty McFly is depicted as having inspired Chuck Berry, deservedly comes under fire, among others.
The commentary is only the appetizer for the main course. Served up on the second platter is a generous helping of supplements that chronicle the film from rehearsals and set construction to its reception at Cannes and beyond. Much of this material replicates the Laser's content, but two additions are of note. First, Spike Lee has recorded introductions for every section of the supplements. While varying in usefulness (some merely announce what's to follow while others add a little insight), the highlight is definitely the "final thoughts" with which the disc concludes. Spike reads from several New York newspaper articles and reviews dating back to the movie's release and responds to these critics with hilarious, passionate contempt.
Also new is a section of interviews with editor Barry Brown, Spike's former boss when he was a student intern, who shares reminiscences of working with Spike in both capacities. Most valuable, however, are the one-hour documentary "The Making of Do the Right Thing" (which frames the making of the film with the impact the production had on the community) and the 42-minute 1989 Cannes Film Festival press conference, a candid view of the initial critical reaction to the film and Spike's trials to come. Also included are storyboards for the riot sequence, a look at the Bed-Stuy block today, the Spike-directed video for "Fight the Power" (frankly, a disappointment), and trailers and TV spots. In all, an exhaustive and fun set of extras.
With the continued prevalence of racially-motivated incidents, it's unfortunate the kind of media hype that truly exploits such occurrences also victimized this film, denying it the chance to be a more productive platform for the issues it raises. In fact, just about the only thing that's assuredly changed since 1989 is that little girl who sat next to me that summer. I hope she's still out there, dancing and fighting the power. Originally published: February 14, 2001.