[box cover]

Do the Right Thing: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis,
Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn,
John Turturro, Richard Edson, Robin Harris,
John Savage, Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson,
and Martin Lawrence

Produced, Written and Directed by Spike Lee

Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

I. A Fawning, Box-Cover-Ready Blurb for Do the Right Thing: Criterion Edition

Do the Right Thing deserves "The Treatment" as much as any movie Criterion's ever licensed. This is why DVD players are worth buying: to showcase a pristine print, plus a gaggle of supplemental materials that pile up taller than a congressional report.

II. Why the Criterion Double-Disc Treatment?

Well, for one thing, the movie's historically important. Do the Right Thing dropped onto cineplexes like an atom bomb in 1989, opening the financial floodgates for a new wave of black films that included Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society and other, less deserving titles (including, I'm afraid, the post-Boyz career of John Singleton and many of director Spike Lee's subsequent films, which, excepting Malcolm X, have tended to suffer from goofy structural flaws and thematic deck-stacking).

But to the devil with economics and social context! Most important, Do the Right Thing is very nearly the only film about race to avoid pedantic sermonizing (or at least unfunny pedantic sermonizing), precious moments and/or the aforementioned thematic deck-stacking. Instead, the movie's sexy, funny, lean, mean, theatrical, surprising, tightly constructed — and shockingly balanced in its empathy for (and condemnation of) all racial viewpoints. Roger Ebert puts it nicely in his "liner notes" for the Criterion edition:

"...it seemed to me that any open-minded member of the audience would walk out of the movie able to understand the motivations of every character in the film — not forgive them, perhaps, but understand them. A black viewer would be able to understand the feelings of Sal, the Italian-American whose pizzeria is burned by a mob, and a white viewer would be able to understand why a black man — who [sic] Sal considered his friend — would perform the action that triggers the mob."

Well, exactly. Which sort of leads me to

III. The Story

It's the hottest day of the year in New-York's Bedford-Stuysevant neighborhood. The movie follows 24 hours in the lives of nearly two dozen broadly sketched characters — among them a bum (Ossie Davis), an Italian pizzeria owner (Danny Aiello, never better), his Cain-and-Abel sons (John Turturro, Richard Edson), a delivery man (Spike Lee), a single mother (Rosie Perez), a radio DJ (Samuel L. Jackson, credited as "Sam Jackson" back in '89), a neighborhood activist (Giancarlo Esposito) and a young man (Bill Nunn) identified primarily by his 20-"D"-battery-requiring boom box and "LOVE" and "HATE" hand rings (lifted directly from Night of the Hunter).

IV. Parenthetically:

I should note that this movie isn't set in the real-life Bed-Stuy neighborhood; rather, it's set in a brightly-colored alternate-universe Bed-Stuy that's pretty much devoid of both serious crime (until the climax, anyway) and drug use. As one friend rather brutally puts it, Do the Right Thing's Bed-Stuy feels a bit like "Sesame Street" with racist epithets.

But the reductive treatment of the film's milieu is important: For one thing, it focuses the movie (and the viewer) on the racism theme without distraction. Still, this thematic exclusivity caused no small amount of consternation among PC critics in '89: They decried the dropping of Bed-Stuy's drug problem as if Lee should be responsible for shouldering All the Problems of African-American Culture in one sitting. (Lee beautifully addresses his reductionist choices in one of the film's extras, BTW, which I'll get into later.)

V. Anyway: Back to the Story

At first, Do the Right Thing seems essentially plotless — a fast-paced Slacker filmed at Dutch angles — with all these myriad characters wandering the neighborhood and sitting on stoops and crossing one another's paths and arguing and often as not being extremely funny in the process. (Keep an eye out for a very young Martin Lawrence in his first screen appearance.) But when Buggin Out (Esposito) notices that pizza man Sal (Aiello) 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, eventually drawing all the film's characters into a full-fledged riot.

VI. Why that Broad Plot Sketch Fails to Capture what Makes Do the Right Thing So Extraordinary

For me (and, one assumes, the fine folks at Criterion), the movie's damn near pitch-perfect — lightning in a bottle, a magic confluence of cinematic players.

There's the writing, for starters — revised and sharpened during the rehearsal process, if the disc's extras are to be believed. As mentioned, the dialogue's extremely funny — filled with arguments that defy the normal trappings of the "message film" because winners are seldom if ever declared. One minor example: Ossie Davis' bum character, who calls himself "Da Mayor," gets into a tete a tete at one point with four kids. He starts out telling his nobly intoned sob story, which the other kids interrupt and more or less demolish — a complete inversion of the usual "These-kids-nowadays" conversation. Also: What other screenwriter would dare to interrupt his narrative without explanation to stage a mortifying (and disturbingly funny) montage of characters staring straight into the camera uttering strings of racial slurs?

(Also, a parenthetical and not-at-all-important note on character names: Spike Lee has become sort of notorious for the bizarro monikers with which he saddles his protagonists — the worst example being his naming Wesley Snipes' character in Jungle Fever, good Lord, "Flipper Purify." But Lee's naming instincts were never more spot-on than here: Buggin Out, Da Mayor, Mother Sister, Mookie, Radio Raheem, Coconut Sid, Sweet Dick Willie, Officer Ponte, Mister Senor Love Daddy.... If you can find it, it's worth tracking down the out-of-print Do the Right Thing making-of book, which contains Lee's excellent set diary: At one point, he lists more brainstormed character names: True Mathematics, Pain, Sweet Feet, Re-Re, Clean Head, Bleek, Peace God, Born Knowledge, Knock Knock, Indestructible, Be So Mighty.... Many of these names show up in his later films, BTW.)

Then there's the acting: Though broadly sketched, most of these goofily named characters generate a surprising amount of empathy, even when they're saying unlikable things. Special praise goes out to Esposito for his high-speed rantings; Aiello for his transcendent Italian hothead (a character rumored to have been carved out of arguments with Lee); Davis for elevating his "worthless bum" character well above the realm of cliché; Nunn for a monologue on his LOVE and HATE rings; the late stand-up comic Robin Harris for staring straight into the camera and saying terribly ribald things; Lawrence (in a tiny part) for never moving his lower lip, to hilarious effect; Rosie Perez for somehow making screeching an endearing character trait; and young "Sam" Jackson for binding the narrative together with smooth disc-jockey interludes.

I could go on and on. Ernest Dickerson's vibrant, complex cinematography (despite relying a little too heavily on cocked angles) 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 (Spike's father), featuring Branford Marsalis, is one of my personal favorites: It's jazz by way of Aaron Copland, with a tender, mournful sound that contrasts nicely with Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," which blisters throughout the film.

VII. So It's Criterion Already. What About the Damned Extras?

Do the Right Thing is deeply ingrained in the currency of my film-geek friendships, with lines and nicknames quoted to this day; as you can imagine, to this writer's eyes, the Criterion two-disc edition is like holy writ. Here are the extras — far more than you can enjoy in one sitting — in varying degrees of detail:

Scattered throughout are video introductions by Spike Lee, each about a minute-and-a-half long, featuring Lee leaning way too close into the frame and intoning quietly. Truth be told, many of these snippets have the substantive value of variety-show intros, and don't seem adequately prepared, but I'm still sort of glad they're here.

The audio commentary features Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and Spike's sister Joie. It's a dense commentary, though somewhat apocryphal (Lee references a Jackie Robinson biopic, for example, that he hasn't made yet, though he says it's been released by the time we're hearing this). Kudos to the participants' acknowledgment of the film's inherent theatricality — its sacrificing of realism in the service of theme.

But the real treat may be Spike Lee's videotaped behind-the-scenes footage, which includes the read-through, rehearsals, character-development discussions with key performers, set construction, and the film's "wrap party" (during which Lee is given a Larry Bird Celtics jersey by the crew). It's all messy and hand-held and full of improv that goes nowhere fast, but there are some treasures to be found:

  1. The read-through and rehearsals are marvelously unpretentious — familiar to anyone who's been in community theatre, really — and feature now-established actors chipping in eagerly. (Martin Lawrence in particular is a riot as he practices paralyzing his lower lip.) It's here that Lee's challenged on the "drug-free Bed-Stuy" issue. His reply? "You can't just have drugs on the side and not deal with it."
  2. Danny Aiello exhibits an assertiveness that I'm guessing had quite a bit to do with Lee's racially balanced approach.
  3. It's fun to watch Lee repeatedly interview a very green, quietly nervous Rosie Perez with his camcorder. He'd reportedly "discovered" her in a dance club, and he needles her into going off on the pretensions of other actors and her lack of ambition to be a movie star.

There's also a 60-minute documentary, "The Making of Do the Right Thing," that is, as Lee puts it in his video intro, "not one of those regular bullshit EPK things," God bless him. Directed by St. Clair Bourne and produced by Lee, the doc tells a fascinating story — how the producers took the real Bed-Stuy and turned it into a fantasy Bed-Stuy, painting murals and using the Fruit of Islam (Louis Farrakhan's security force) to clear drug dealers out of the neighborhood so shooting could proceed. Under the same "Making of" menu, you'll also find the five-minute "Back to Bed-Stuy," in which Lee and line producer Jon Kilik revisit the Bed-Stuy locations. It's terribly poignant, 11 years later, to see the mark the movie left on the neighborhood — the fading murals, the wall that's still "fire-truck red," the grassy lot where Sal's Famous burned to the ground.

Also on the Supplement disc: Public Enemy's music video for "Fight the Power," directed by Spike Lee; The 1989 Cannes Film Festival press conference with Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson and Spike Lee; storyboards (viewable one-at-a-time or three-at-a-time) for the riot sequence; a video interview with editor Barry Brown; and the theatrical trailer and TV spots.

Increase the peace,

— Alexandra DuPont

© 2001, The DVD Journal