Criterion // 1989 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // March 12th, 2001
"Wasn't trying to be a hero. I just seen what was happening, and I reacted -- didn't even think. Probably wouldn't have done it if I had thought." -- Da Mayor (Ossie Davis)
September, 1983: Michael Stewart is murdered by New York City police for spraypainting graffiti in the subway. October, 1984: Eleanor Bumpers is shot to death by New York City police trying to evict her from her home. No officers are punished in either case. June, 1989: Spike Lee releases his third film, Do the Right Thing, in theaters. Several white critics call Lee irresponsible and predict that the film will cause riots in black communities. No riots occur. February, 1999: Amadou Diallo is killed when 19 bullets (out of 41 fired) from New York City police find their target. He was pulling out his wallet to show ID at the time. A multi-ethnic jury acquits all officers charged in the shooting.
Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Summer, 1989. Saturday. The weather: hot. Very hot. And the only thing hotter is the tension in the street. At Sal's Famous Pizzeria, son Pino (John Turturro) fumes about the neighborhood, which he sees populated by "animals." Sal (Danny Aiello) takes care of business, stubbornly guarding his territory, even as the volatile Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) rages about the lack of African-Americans on Sal's Italians-only "Wall of Fame." Pizza delivery flunky Mookie (Spike Lee) obsesses over money, but looks for any excuse he can to blow off work. All throughout the neighborhood, people do their thing, trying to find a way to talk, play, or even drink away the escalating heat. Meanwhile, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) marches through the streets, his hyperbolic boombox pounding Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." Everyone follows their own course, but their paths are all about to collide -- and the neighborhood is about to explode.
Do the Right Thing is not a film where linear plot plays a central role. In fact, Lee is at his best as a screenwriter when he constructs what playwright George Bernard Shaw used to call "discussion plays." A thin plot device (a bedroom in She's Gotta Have It, a bus driving to the Million Man March in Get on the Bus) provides an arena for a group of characters with different viewpoints and personal trajectories to intersect. In the case of Do the Right Thing (and later, Summer of Sam, which is largely a rehash of the earlier film's ethnicity debate, with a serial killer subplot added), our characters are bounded by the streets of New York during the hot summer. The main debate: race relations. Italians, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Caucasians -- and of course, African Americans -- all get their say. Moreover (and this is where Lee's films get particularly interesting), debates within the black community regarding gender, age, class, and political involvement.
What is important to remember here is that within this debate, Lee leaves it up to the audience to decide who is right or wrong. Take an almost throwaway scene for example: kids playing in an open fire hydrant soak a pompous white driver and his "antique" car. The cops show up and seem disinterested in the entire affair, but yell at the kids about illegally using the hydrant. Were the kids right to play in the streets, given the almost dangerous heat? Were they right to pay back the racist driver by messing up his car? Was he right to call the cops on them for a harmless prank? And most importantly, is there a reason for the cops and the locals of Bed-Stuy to be suspicious (and even hostile) toward one another? And this is the least important ethical dilemma pointed out by the film. The debate gets far more complex, and carries far greater consequences, from here. But Lee provides so many approaches to the issue of race relations, that every inch of this film provides fodder for lengthy discussion.
In this regard, Do the Right Thing is one of Lee's most successful efforts. Backing up the debate is one of his strongest casts (including breakout performances by Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson (here only "Sam"), Robin Harris, and Martin Lawrence -- and the list goes on) with some of his most colorful and fully realized characters. Although Lee makes much in the commentary track and elsewhere of the "realism" of the film, Do the Right Thing is more akin to Naturalism: a heightened and spotlighted reality in which authentic social problems are brought under scrutiny. Buggin' Out is our spokesman for black territorial chauvinism, pressuring Sal to put up new pictures and berating a white homesteader (John Savage) for moving into "his" neighborhood. Radio Raheem is the voice of black pride, stubbornly blasting the politically-charged "Fight the Power" at all comers. Mookie is the voice of complacent, well-assimilated blacks who avoid responsibility and refuse to stand up for anything. Each character operates as a type in some sense, and yet the strong performances by the cast and the carefully detailed sense of place established by Lee's skillful use of detail and Ernest Dickerson's luminous photography grounds everything firmly in reality.
Not enough can be said about the visual qualities of this film. Again, Lee and Dickerson do not aim for a gritty documentary look, but a naturalistic emphasis on strong color and light. Warm reds and browns wash over the daylight scenes (moving to blues at night), suggesting the rising heat throughout. Careful use of shadows appears natural: very important in a film that is meant to take place over a single day. Here is where Criterion's transfer work is most important: the lighting is always well-balanced and bright, while shadows remain crisp and black. Every detail comes through. When Jade (Joie Lee) runs the shower over her face or the local kids play in the open fire hydrant, the water takes on a palpably physical, even seductive, texture. On a hot day like this, you want to reach out and touch the water yourself.
Criterion has outdone itself with this double-disc set. Disc One contains the film itself, with soundtracks in both PCM uncompressed stereo (which gives the film a raw, documentary feel) and 2.0 Surround. Bill Lee's warm and expansive score (with the help of Branford Marsalis on sax) sweeps across the room, punctuated by the thundering bass of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." Music is essential to this film: the two different musical moods converse with one another like the characters -- always in tension and neither giving ground. The analytical and thoughtful (and surprisingly sedate, considering the film itself) commentary track by Lee, with Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and Lee's sister Joie (who plays Mookie's sister Jade in the film), was recorded in 1995 for the laserdisc release. Public Enemy's Chuck D introduces each participant, always a subtle reminder of the emotionally-charged politics of the film.
Disc Two is where Criterion really shines. Every segment receives a new introduction by Spike Lee, and Lee's final summation really comes alive with an ironic look back at the vicious critical attacks the film received on its release. Lee constantly reinforces the point that Mookie's attack on Sal's Famous at the film's climax is a response to Raheem's murder -- and the misguided critics who spend all their time lamenting the destruction of property the riot brings are missing the bigger picture. But this rant is one of the few times that Lee displays the soapboxing he is sometimes notorious for off-camera. Throughout most of the commentary track and the Disc Two supplements, we see more of Spike-Lee-the-technician, the master filmmaker whose talents have been so undervalued by mainstream film criticism.
Case in point: nearly an hour of "behind the scenes" footage (shot by Lee and his brother) chronicling the film's production. We see the script read-through, which reveals Lee's excellent working relationship with his cast. Lee is always receptive to feedback and allows his performers to expand and develop their characters. Rehearsals, improvisations, and production design are also spotlighted, and the footage ends with the wrap party, where we see the strong sense of family that has built among the cast and crew.
Although Lee normally does not storyboard his films (trusting the performers, Dickerson's skills, and his own instincts as a director during the shoot), we are presented with the storyboards for the climactic riot sequence, which can be explored either page-by-page or by individual shots. Next, an hour-length documentary by St. Clair Bourne: "The Making of Do the Right Thing." Focusing primarily on the effects of the production on the neighborhood, this film is as much a sociological document as an examination of the filmmaking process. Bourne sticks with the production crew rather than the actors (which balances well with the home movie footage described earlier), following the building of the sets, the recruiting of local people as assistants and extras, and the cooperation of the community (including a brief appearance by the controversial Fruit of Islam group on a quest to shut down a local crackhouse). While most "making of" documentaries stick primarily to the director and the principal cast, it is great to see Bourne acknowledge that filmmaking is very much a team effort. Following the documentary, a five minute "Back to Bed-Stuy" piece shows off the neighborhood today. Things look pretty much the same (although the murals painted for the film are mostly faded), which suggests that not much has changed in general in the area over the past dozen years. A nine minute interview with editor Barry Brown (absent from the other segments probably because he was not present for the actual shoot) discusses the importance of editing in Lee's films. This segment alone is indicative of the care that Criterion puts into this entire package: no aspect of this film is left uncovered. While Spike Lee's name is at the top of this film (implying a certain auteur status), these supplements go far to show all sides of the film's production and cultural impact.
Wait, there's more -- a 43-minute press conference by Lee and several cast members at Cannes in 1989, which seems to highlight the different spins Lee and the critics of the time put on the film. Ironically, Lee is put in the position by French critics at the festival (who ask increasingly condescending questions as the press conference goes on) of being a mouthpiece for all of black culture. They also bring up a common interpretation of the film as a cynical dismissal of the possibility of racial harmony. Lee skillfully counters (although you can see his temper fraying as he is forced to answer these idiots), and all the cast members agree that the filmmaking process itself was a great example of ethnic harmony, both among the crew and with the neighborhood. Ossie Davis (who proves himself throughout the Disc Two material as the real soul of the team) remarks in reference to the pride and cooperation of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood where Do the Right Thing was shot, "To save New York, all we really need is for a film company to go to every block and begin to make films."
Also included: an extended version of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" video, directed by Lee. Although openly militant (more Malcolm X than MLK -- Chuck D even dismisses the parallel footage of the 1963 March on Washington shown in the beginning of the video as "nonsense"), the song articulates the anger and frustration of a community constantly scrutinized by outsiders (especially the police) and placed on the defensive. Again, Lee shows many sides of the debate. We round out the disc with the theatrical trailers and a pair of TV spots (all a bit faded and scratchy -- no one ever seems to remaster trailers on DVDs) and a solid introductory essay by Roger Ebert on the insert: no doubt here to help contextualize the movie for white DVD buyers who feel they are soothing the liberal side of their consciences by picking up the disc.
As noted above, if anybody comes off as a villain without a clear sense of justification in the film, it is the police. This is perhaps the only legitimate criticism one might make of the politics of the film. Well, Pino is clearly a complete and unredeemable bastard as well, but Lee provides enough different perspectives among his Italian characters that charges of racism on his part are unfounded. Apart from this, Lee's sense of balance -- and irony -- makes everybody in the film come off as flawed. No one here is a role model. The audience is left to debate and decide what the middle ground is between King's abhorrence of all violence and Malcolm's admission that violence is permissible in self-defense. Is Buggin' Out's attack on Sal a defense of black identity? Is Sal's response a reasonable defense of his own territory? Certainly, the murder of Raheem by the police cannot be justified as self-defense, but what about Mookie's response? The riot? The backlash by the authorities? The film leaves us with difficult questions about the nature of responsibility and the desire for justice. Who is left to "do the right thing?" We are. And what is the right thing? Lee leaves the burden of that responsibility squarely to us.
With all due respect to Spike, I am one of those white people who ventured into the movie theater in 1989 (in Tampa, no stranger to racial tension itself) to see this on its original release, and I empathized perfectly well with Mookie's rage at what Sal's Famous had become to the neighborhood. I have long recommended this film, and I am glad to see Criterion has finally done right by it. Criterion's packaging of Do the Right Thing is stunning and more than worth the price. Do the Right Thing is more timely than ever. The film not only stands admirably on its own, but it encourages discussion and action. The repeated call of Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) echoes long after the film is over: "Wake up!"
The prosecutor may be entitled to his opinions, but this court has some choice words for whoever questions the value of this film. Director Spike Lee and company are acquitted by this court and given a special commendation for their brave attempt to make a case in favor of communication among races. And Criterion receives an extra pat on the back for managing, hard as it seems, to even top themselves.
Review content copyright © 2001 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2001 Winner: #10
* Top 100 Discs: #33
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary by Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson, Wynn Thomas, and Joie Lee
* Behind the Scenes home footage
* Riot Sequence Storyboards
* "Making of Do the Right Thing" documentary
* "Back to Bed-Stuy" documentary
* Interview with editor Barry Brown
* Cannes, 1989 press conference
* "Fight the Power" video (long version)
* Theatrical and television trailers
* Video introductions by Spike Lee
* Color Bars