Universal // 1989 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // June 30th, 2009
It's the hottest day of the summer. You can do nothing, you can do something, or you can do the right thing.
Do the Right Thing is sad, funny, tragic, horrifying, infuriating, and astonishing all at the same time. There are scenes, lines, and aspects of this film that will outrage viewers and amuse them as well. It's a big, loud, sloppy, imperfect film, and how could it not be? No other film of the time (or even today) is as bold in addressing the lethal third rail of American society: race. Some may be put off by some of the choices made by director/writer/actor Spike Lee (Inside Man) -- they may find the film offensive, ham-fisted, or even irresponsible. Love the film or hate it, however, it simply can't be ignored. Do the Right Thing is an essential part of any film buff's experience and, for the most part, this new 20th anniversary edition does it justice.
Mookie (Lee) is a pizza deliveryman for Sal's Famous Pizzeria in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York. Sal (Danny Aiello, Leon: The Professional), the owner, runs the business with his two sons, the outspokenly racist Pino (John Turturro, Transformers) and his younger and more tolerant brother Vito (Richard Edson, Platoon). On the hottest day of the summer, Mookie, Pino, Sal, and such Bed-Stuy denizens as elderly patriarch Da Mayor (Ossie Davis, Evening Shade), hotheaded loudmouth Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito, Homicide: Life on the Street), and surly Public Enemy fanatic Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn, Regarding Henry) all argue and squabble with each other until the day's end, when long-simmering tensions result in an unexpected climax.
Twenty years later, Do the Right Thing remains one of the most provocative and unusual films ever made. Even by today's standards, when offbeat experimentalism has made a greater inroad into mainstream filmmaking and hip-hop has created a whole new level of racial awareness, it's astonishing to see that Spike Lee was trying something so bold and experimental. Back in 1989, movie audiences who had been spoon-fed a decade's worth of Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Simpson-Bruckheimer action pap were simply cold-cocked. Lee has taken an extremely incendiary topic and approached it with explicit realism and brutal honesty. However, he has directed the film in a deliberately stylized and artificial way that doesn't overshadow or undercut the film's impact -- it actually heightens and emphasizes it. This juxtaposition makes Do the Right Thing a remarkable achievement, one in which the experimental nature of the technique actually complements the material.
Do the Right Thing works on two levels. In the writing and characterization, it addresses racism and bigotry in painfully unflinching terms. Pino's slurs and insults aren't the least bit sanitized -- he refers to the predominantly black neighborhood around the pizzeria as "Planet of the Apes" and slings the n-word around like an adjective. A pair of white cops circles the block repeatedly, glaring at the residents, and being received by the community as a hostile invading force. The Korean family that opens a grocery store across the street from the pizzeria is subject to taunts and insults from the "Cornermen," the three black men (played by Frankie Faizon, Paul Benjamin, and Robin Harris) who do nothing but sit around all day on the street corner and shoot the breeze. On and on, circles of mistrust turning into hostility and culminating in a climax so shocking that it will surely leave all viewers, no matter what their views are, aghast.
What Lee does with this material, however, is just as interesting. Do the Right Thing, for all its emotional grittiness, is surprisingly stylized, even artificial. Almost all of the characters speak directly to the camera, even in dialogue scenes, and many of them are shot against walls or buildings. Colors are unnaturally vivid; the wall the Cornermen sit next to, for instance, is a painfully bright red that suggests heat and anger. The infamous "racial slurs" montage, in which various characters taunt other characters with the crudest racial epithets imaginable, is deliberately cartoonish, even comical. Do the Right Thing, in fact, could almost work as a stage play -- the limited locations and dialogue-heavy script could have, in lesser hands, come off as some sort of stilted Writing 101 exercise.
Why is Lee doing this? On one level, the heightened artificiality makes it easier for audiences to swallow material that might otherwise alienate them. The deliberately cartoonish montages, odd camera angles, and vivid colors make Do the Right Thing a visual feast that makes it easier for viewers to accept the sometimes shocking dialogue. You really are hearing the raw, unvarnished truth about race in America, but it's presented in such an artistically compelling way that it doesn't feel like a humorless screed. In fact, what the stylized direction does is put the viewer in the middle of the story. Characters aren't two-dimensional figures arguing on a screen -- they're arguing with you. The perspective shots are seen from someone who's actually on the street or in the pizzeria, not a passive viewer. Whenever Radio Raheem wields his titanic boom box that blasts Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on an endless loop as a weapon of intimidation, you will feel as intimidated as the other characters do. When the tensions between Sal and Buggin' Out finally culminate in a climactic confrontation, the viewer is in the middle for every gripping second of it. That's why one of the final shots in the film, showing a character pinning up a picture of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on a wall as "Fight the Power" plays one last time, remains one of the most shattering in all of cinema. That's the moment when the audience understands, not just intellectually but also viscerally, exactly what has happened and why. The critics who claimed at the time of the film's release that it would provoke violence were misguided, but they did grasp, however dimly, just what an emotionally disturbing experience Do the Right Thing is. What other film about race in America could possibly have had such an impact?
For this new 20th Anniversary Edition, Universal has remastered the picture and remixed a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix in three languages. The new audio mix is very good. It's loud and clear, although the surrounds aren't used as fully as they could have been, especially in outdoor scenes. The new transfer, however, is a bit disconcerting. Do the Right Thing was previously issued in a two-disc Criterion set, and the transfer on that set was extremely vivid and bright. This one is slightly darker and less distinct. Maybe this is a more accurate depiction of the look Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (Juice) were trying for, but it actually seems like a step back from the previous Criterion transfer. Maybe Lee himself might at some point confirm that this is a more accurate transfer, but until then some fans might be a bit taken aback by it.
As for extras, this two-disc set is stuffed to the gills. Almost all of the extras from the Criterion set have been ported over, except for the "Fight the Power" video and a few video introductions by Lee. There's the original commentary with Lee, Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and Lee's sister Joie, who plays Mookie's sister Jade. It's a dense and informative commentary that shows how Lee and the crew worked together to make the film look and sound exactly as it does. On disc two, there's a collection of Lee's video journals called "Behind the Scenes" (57:57), which is also visible in separate segments. Each one shows different aspects, from cast rehearsals to pre-production to shooting, all the way to the wrap party. It can be a bit of a slog at times, but there are some wonderfully revealing moments from some of the cast. "Making Do the Right Thing" (60:59) is the original 1989 EPK shot for the film, containing behind-the-scenes footage and cast and crew interviews. Some of the depictions of life in Bed-Stuy are heart-breaking, but nonetheless it's the best of the extras on this disc. "Back to Bed-Stuy" (4:50) is a video segment shot in the '90s as Lee and line producer Jon Kilik revisit the locations they used for filming. "Editor Barry Brown" (9:39) is an interview with the film's editor. Both of these give credit to two of the unsung heroes behind the making of the film and are worth a look. "Cannes 1989" (42:21) is the complete press conference from the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where Do the Right Thing competed but lost to Sex, Lies & Videotape. Many of the questions that journalists ask the cast and crew seem laughably naïve in retrospect, but this segment just demonstrates how unusual a film of this magnitude was at the time. Finally, the set includes the original trailer and TV spots as well as storyboards for the film's climactic sequence.
For this new edition, Universal has commissioned a new set of extras that are very well-done. The best is a new 20th Anniversary Commentary with Lee by himself. Lee hasn't always been very good at solo commentaries (the one for Bamboozled was especially disappointing), but for this one, he actually delivers some real meat. He's full of brand-new stories and memories that he's never shared previously, and he has plenty to say on the film's view of racial politics in the Obama era. It's a must for fans. "Do the Right Thing: 20 Years Later" (35:46) consists of new interviews with various cast and crew members after a 20th anniversary screening of the film. There's some overlap with Lee's new commentary, but many of the participants, especially Turturro and Public Enemy's Chuck D, have some funny anecdotes to tell. Finally, there are newly uncovered "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (14:14). These just add little bits of dialogue and characterization that are worth seeing but were deservedly excised from the film's final cut.
Is Lee's approach too heavy handed? It must be said that, at times, Lee seems too intent on hammering home his points at the expense of subtlety. When characters recite the names of black people who were killed in incidents of police brutality in the '80s, when Lee sets a scene in front of a wall reading "Tawana told the truth!" (in a reference to the infamous Tawana Brawley incident), the film pretty much stops cold. In all fairness, Lee made such points because he felt he was the only one who could -- what other mainstream studio film of the 1980s would have references to these events? Still, this is Lee at his least confident and it tends to undermine the overall effect he is trying for. Lee's stylistic experiment mostly works but here he crosses the line into simply lecturing his audience.
Also, it must be said that Do the Right Thing is not as universal as Lee intended it to be. Though both he and Turturro claim in various places on this set that the film could easily work as a portrait of race relations across America, that's not entirely true. The emotions and sentiments expressed are widespread, yes, but the actual situations and references are extremely New York-centric. This doesn't lessen the film's impact, necessarily, but it does mean that viewers who don't live in New York or any other big Eastern city with racially segregated neighborhoods might not quite identify with some of the characters' circumstances. Those who do put in the effort to relate to the characters will be rewarded, but the film will require some work from some viewers.
Do the Right Thing remains a landmark in American film -- maybe the first and most important film to understand race relations at the beginning of the hip-hop era. Twenty years later, hip-hop sensibility has overtaken virtually every aspect of popular culture, the United States is more multicultural than ever, and we have just elected a black president. These facts don't render Do the Right Thing irrelevant; on the contrary, they demonstrate just how important the debate the film provoked was and how justly proud Lee can be for making it. Apart from the perplexing quality of the visual transfer (which may, in fact, be deliberate), this new 20th Anniversary Edition surpasses the previous Criterion edition and stands as the definitive version to own. Anyone who cares about American film needs to see it.
Do the Right Thing is most assuredly not guilty and deserves its accolades. This new edition, apart from a quibble or two, is also acquitted.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Video Journals
* TV Spots