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Do the Right Thing: The Criterion Collection

Do the Right Thing dropped onto cineplexes like an atom bomb in 1989, opening the financial floodgates for a new wave of black films. But to the devil with economics and social context! Most important, it's very nearly the only film about race to avoid sermonizing, precious moments and/or thematic deck-stacking. Instead, the movie's sexy, funny, tightly constructed — and shockingly balanced in its empathy for (and condemnation of) all racial viewpoints. It follows 24 hours in the lives of nearly two dozen broadly sketched characters in New-York's Bed-Stuy neighborhood; when Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) notices that pizza man Sal (Danny Aiello, never better) doesn't have any African-Americans on his "Wall of Fame," he tries to "boycott [Sal's] fat pasta ass" — a minor grievance that escalates over the course of the day, drawing all the film's characters into a full-fledged race riot. But that broad plot sketch fails to capture what makes Do the Right Thing so extraordinary. The dialogue's extremely funny — filled with arguments that defy the normal trappings of the "message film" because winners are seldom if ever declared. And most of the (goofily named) characters generate a surprising amount of empathy, even when they're saying unlikable things. Ernest Dickerson's vibrant, complex cinematography is practically a character in the film; his use of light and color to convey sweltering heat is among the film's greatest pleasures. And the score by Bill Lee (featuring Branford Marsalis) has a tender, mournful sound that contrasts nicely with Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," which blisters throughout the film. The Criterion two-disc edition is like holy writ, with far more extras than you can enjoy in one sitting, including a commentary with Spike Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and actress Joie Lee; a video introduction by Lee; the 60-minute documentary "The Making of Do the Right Thing"; Lee and line producer Jon Kilik revisiting the Bed-Stuy locations; Public Enemy's music video for "Fight the Power," directed by Lee; a 1989 Cannes Film Festival press conference with Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Richard Edson; storyboards; a video interview with editor Barry Brown; and a theatrical trailer and TV spots. Best of all? Spike's videotaped behind-the-scenes footage — including rehearsals, set construction, and wrap party. Anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), Dolby 2.0 Surround. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Alexandra DuPont

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