"Here's much to do with hate, but more with love"
--Romeo and Juliet
A towering achievement in American cinema, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing takes a hard look at a community in crisis. Set on one block of New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the hottest day of the summer, Lee's third and breakthrough film isn't much concerned with romance, but nevertheless shares much in common with Romeo and Juliet. Like Shakespeare's play, Do the Right Thing bursts with vivid characters, powerful emotions, and burning creativity of expression by irreverent and flexible use of contemporary language. Though Lee doesn't have the immediacy of live theater, he has the next best thing: total command of film's visual power to draw the eye to carefully composed, evocative imagery.
One would be hard-pressed to name a film with more loveable and blisteringly idiosyncratic characters than Do the Right Thing. There's pizza delivery man Mookie (played by Lee himself), an "I gots to get paid" type first seen counting bills and last seen rejecting them for something more important: personal integrity. There's Mookie's even-tempered sister Jade (Spike's sister Joie Lee) and his fiery baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez, in her stunning screen debut). There's Sal's Pizzeria owner Sal Frangioni (Danny Aiello), a proud Italian with two sons working under him: angry racist Pino (John Turturro) and equitable but dull-witted Vito (Richard Edson). Eccentric intellectual-in-training Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) sets trouble off by challenging the status quo, which includes Sal's Italian-American Wall of Fame: "How come you got no brothers up on the wall here?"
It's a fair question for an establishment that, as far as we see, is patronized by an exclusively African-American and Puerto Rican clientele. On the other hand, Lee lets Sal defend himself: it is his restaurant to outfit as he pleases. As the day heats up, so does a conflict swoolen by long-held racist resentments Lee memorably depicts in a montage of ethnic slurs fire-breathed straight to the camera. Also put-upon: the Korean market owner Sonny (Steve Park). Among Lee's fascinating provocations is a discussion of the relative paucity of black-owned businesses, an underlying source of resentment against perceived interlopers like Sal and Sonny. This topic and others are the province of three well-entrenched corner men--Sweet Dick Willie (Robin Harris), Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison), and ML (Paul Benjamin)--who form a Greek chorus.
Lee has always had a special talent for speaking with eloquence and insight to the African-American community about its history and issues of the day, but his films are also universal (and appropriately, many--like this one--come courtesy of Universal Pictures). Do the Right Thing speaks to the frustration of disenfranchisement, feelings of underappreciation and thwarted potential, and the self-defensive violence that can follow when communication breaks down or people feel pushed into corners. Lee unmistakeably alludes to then-recent white-on-black assaults (the Howard Beach and Tawana Brawley cases) and African-American New Yorkers in conflict with a Koch-era NYPD notorious for their brutality and racial profiling (Lee includes a dedication to the families of six people killed by the NYPD).
Into this atmosphere, during the same summer David Dinkins was vying to be the first African mayor of New York City, came Lee's up-to-the-minute consideration. The problem of how to answer social disenfranchisement is perfectly symbolized by the photo peddled up and down the block by mentally challenged Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith); it depicts the only known meeting of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Each had his own distinctive approach to achieving civil rights: King's commitment to non-violence and Malcolm's endorsement of judicious self-defensive violence. Lee has no interest in providing an easy answer, instead depicting an all-too familiar scene of social upheaval by police brutality and local rioting, followed by individuals literally and figuratively trying to pick up the pieces. The film ends, movingly, with the King-X photo and oppositional quotations by both men. Discuss.
For its intellectual restlessness and its psychological acuity (like a discussion of Pino's latent envy of African-American culture), Do the Right Thing may sound like an overly serious film. But its genius, like Romeo and Juliet's, is in its supreme entertainment value. Lee's is an enormously funny film, and voluptuous in its textures from its very start. The film begins with Branford Marsalis playing "Negro National Anthem" "Lift Every Voice and Sing" segueing into a bravura opening credits sequence featuring Public Enemy's hit cut "Fight the Power"--written expressly for the film--and Perez dancing against a Bed-Stuy backdrop. Spike's father Bill Lee provides the muscular score and Wynn Thomas the arresting production design. But no crew member was more invaluable than director of photography Ernest Dickerson, whose photography is unfailingly dynamic in every dutch angle and breathtaking camera move taking advantage of Lee's decision to shoot on an actual Bed-Stuy block (one shot dollies and zooms into and out of the pizzeria; another begins in a bedroom and travels down a hallway and out the window into the street).
The slang-slinging dialogue got rhythm, and the characters just keep giving. Lee encouraged his actors to ad lib, and late legend Ossie Davis offered to rewrite his own speech when self-appointed elder statesman "Da Mayor" addresses his young harrassers. A drunken Fool with a good heart, Da Mayor's advice ("Always do the right thing") usually falls on deaf ears, but his goodness finally breaks down the defenses of neighborhood grand dame Mother Sister (Ruby Dee, Davis' real-life life partner). Sam Jackson plays to perfection another voice of the block, Mister Señor Love Daddy of "We Love Radio," and Bill Nunn plays Radio Raheem, who lumbers around with a boombox always playing "Fight the Power" (on his knuckles: rings that, Night of the Hunter-style, sport the words "LOVE" and "HATE"). Also in the 'hood: John Savage, Martin Lawrence (in his screen debut), Frank Vincent, Miguel Sandoval and Rick Aiello as the cops. If you only ever see one Spike Lee movie, see this one, his masterwork. But I'm warning you, once you start here , you won't be able to stop.
Do the Right Thing looks positively gorgeous in its Blu-ray debut from Universal. Retaining its film-like appearance and the visual scheme orchestrated by Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, the film hasn't changed, but it has never looked so sharp and colorfully vibrant as it does in this stellar transfer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a great job of immersing us in the life of the block, from the ever-present music to the unfortunate action.
Universal has a lot to live up to with its 20th Anniversary Edition, mirrored on DVD, since Criterion gave the film a 2-Disc DVD treatment earlier in the decade. This disc passes with flying colors, retaining all but one of the previous special features (the only missing item from the Criterion set is Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" music video, directed by Lee) and adding some fantastic new extras. First up is a 20th Anniversary Edition feature commentary with director Spike Lee. It's great to hear Lee tackle this task alone, and he has a good time strolling down memory lane and repeating his best stories about the film, with few gaps. Thankfully, we also get the previous feature commentary with Lee, director of photography Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas and actor Joie Lee. It's invaluable to hear from these key collaborators, as well, in a nicely produced track.
In the brand-new and hugely entertaining documentary "Do the Right Thing: 20 Years Later" (35:47, HD), directed by Spike Lee, the director introduces the doc and interviews Dickerson, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Richard Edson, Steven Park, Roger Gueveur Smith, John Savage, 3rd Assistant Props Kevin Ladson, and Chuck D of Public Enemy. We're also treated to snippets of the February 2009 20th Anniversary Celebration at Lincoln Center that gathered the talent that appears in the doc; this footage includes comments by co-producer Monty Ross, line producer Jon Kilik, Frankie Faison, and Luis Ramos.
A treasure trove of eleven "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (14:14, HD) is a very welcome chance to see some fascinating trims, including Aiello's side of a slightly different take of the final talk between Sal and Mookie.
The rest of the terrific bonus features package hails from the 2001 Criterion Collection special edition, beginning with "Behind the Scenes" (57:59, SD), which comprises Lee's personal video footage (partly shot by Lee's brother Cinqué) from the read-through and the set, introduced by Lee.
The above-and-beyond doc "Making Do the Right Thing" (1:01:01, SD) comes with an intro by Lee (:48, SD) and "Back to Bed Stuy" (4:49, SD), with Lee and Kilik touring the block. The doc itself, directed by St. Clair Bourne, depicts the retrofitting of the Bed-Stuy block, community meetings, pre-production meetings, rehearsal and production. The film also includes interviews with Lee, pretty much the entire cast and crew, the Nation of Islam security staff, and neighborhood folk.
"Editor Barry Brown" (9:38, SD) is an interview with another key creative force in the film's making.
The Riot Sequence is a storyboard gallery with a Lee intro (1:30, SD).
"Cannes, 1989" (42:22, SD) is the complete and completely fascinating 1989 Cannes Film Festival press conference with Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Edson, and Joie Lee.
Last up are the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:12, SD), "TV Spot 1" (:31, SD), and "TV Spot 2" (:31, SD).
I can't recommend this disc enough: whether on Blu-ray or DVD, buy one for yourself and everyone you like.
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