Judge Adam Arseneau fights the powers that be.
Our reviews of Do the Right Thing: Criterion Collection (published March 12th, 2001), Do The Right Thing: 20th Anniversary Edition (published June 30th, 2009), and Universal 100th Anniversary Collection (Blu-ray) (published November 26th, 2012) are also available.
It's the hottest day of the summer. You can do nothing, you can do something, or you can…
Anyone who has seen Do The Right Thing will immediately and forever associate the innocuous value of "nineteen eighty-nine!" to the Public Enemy anthem "Fight The Power," a song recorded specifically to be the rallying and omnipresent anthem of violence and frustration in Spike Lee's controversial film. Like the song itself, Do The Right Thing is inflammatory, raucous, inspirational, and aggravating; a powerful statement on race relations in America during a particularly challenging period in New York history, a daring project that put Lee on the map as one of America's most political and meaningful filmmakers.
To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, Universal comes out swinging at the longstanding champion Criterion edition with newly recorded commentary, featurettes, and up-to-date Blu-Ray visuals and sound, all while lowering the price tag for consumers. Is the Criterion edition of Do The Right Thing finally about to be dethroned?
Facts of the Case
1989, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. In the middle of the worst heat wave of the year, Mookie (Spike Lee) wakes up and heads to his job at Sal's Pizzeria, run by the eponymous Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Sal has been in the same location for the last twenty-five years, and has watched the neighborhood change and become ethnically diverse. His eldest son in particular loathes the black populace, but Sal tries to be indifferent. These are his people, sort of. He watched them grow up on his pizza. Mookie doesn't really appreciate the job, or his girl (Rosie Perez), interested only in the paycheck.
The street soon fills up with assorted faces, locals and regulars, residents of the neighborhood. Three unemployed black men sit idly on the street in chairs, lamenting the new Korean convenience store. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) roams the street like a king, but is in reality a penniless wino, endlessly seeking the affections of Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the local matriarch. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) totes a boom box blasting Public Enemy throughout the streets, looking for trouble. Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) lectures his friends on black politics and rages against the slow, inexorable gentrification of Bed-Stuy. The local radio DJ (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to keep things cool, but slowly, inexorably, the heat wave gets the best of the neighborhood. Racial tensions bubble and boil over into conflict and violence.
A product of its time, Do The Right Thing is now two decades old. Watching the film today is akin to trolling through a time capsule; we see fragments of music, clothing, and culture forgotten, and are surprised by both what has change and what has remained the same. Much of the inflammatory anger that pervaded the film back on its release in 1989 was rooted directly in Ed Koch-era city politics and in publicized events of racial strife, like the Howard Beach incident and the police killing of Eleanor Bumpurs. It would be silly to suggest that racism is a non-issue in modern New York City, but two decades of progress and a dramatic change in the White House have likewise taken their toll, but for the better.
Set amidst a scorching heat wave, Do The Right Thing uses color, tone, and heat as a catalyst to ignite a powder keg of racial intolerance and resentment. The neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, having experienced significant ethnic shakeups since World War II, is full of Italians, African-Americans, Koreans, and Puerto Ricans, all barely tolerant of one another during the most amicable of times. Do The Right Thing is a brutally humanistic film, catching all men and woman in the same net of intolerance and frustration. Bed-Stuy is a melting pot, and the flames are on the rise.
Like a large army, the cast is set in motion over the course of a single day like tiny biological experiments, swirling and interacting like creatures in an aquarium, breathing the same oxygen but constantly feuding over territory, position, and pecking order. Mookie is lazy and greedy, desiring the fine things in life but not having the work ethic to acquire them, nor the responsibility to do right by his child. Radio Raheem is uncompromisingly fierce and proud, but angry, not having any idea how to express himself beyond a gigantic boom box blaring "Fight the Power," his very presence a disturbance causing constant conflict. Buggin' Out is educated and opinionated but xenophobic, eager to advance the black cause by constantly picking the wrong battles, like trying to get Sal to put up black photographs on the Wall of Fame. Sal is kind and caring, but also old-fashioned and curmudgeonly; he welcomes all into his store, but will as quickly reach for a baseball bat if challenged to authority, unable to comprehend the lack of respect of the new generation. Da Mayor prowls the street like a king surveying his kingdom, but is in essence a penniless wino. Everyone has a role to play, a niche to fill, and as the film twirls and roasts its cast in the heat wave, anger and aggression and resentment come pouring out with disastrous results. In the aftermath, who is to blame? Everyone has a part to play in Bed-Stuy, everyone assigned a position on the game board. No one piece is more or less important than the next.
Spike Lee acts as writer, director, producer, and actor here. While the latter might not be quite up to par with his amazing cast (many familiar faces make early appearances here, like Martin Lawrence, Samuel L. Jackson, and Rosie Perez), Do The Right Thing remains one of Lee's most instantly recognizable and iconic works. This is not his first feature-length film, but it is the one where he finds his voice and his creative muse. Along with longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, we see the development of trademark close-ups, handheld camera work, and striking use of primary color, as well as original music and political and racial politics, elements that go on to define Lee's career as a filmmaker. Multiple narratives intermingle and entwine throughout the film to weave a tapestry of daily life in Bed-Stuy, a mix of pride and resentment on behalf of its denizens. Its third act cumulates into confusion and destruction in ways both expected and alarming. This is a film of mixed messages, of muted moral convictions. Spike Lee is at his best as a filmmaker not talking about black issues, but talking about human issues: greed, racism, sexism, and intolerance, the disquiets in men's hearts that lead us into violence and confrontation.
At its debut, many film critics mused whether such a film would incite violence in American cities, but questions like this miss the point of the film entirely. This is not a film of racial tension, of blacks versus whites, or any other combination of ethnicity. I mentioned earlier about the humanistic nature of Do The Right Thing, a film about human beings, of education and culture and reason, of logic in the face of passion. Black politics are certainly explored, but within the spectrum of American city living—not only how black Americans get along with other cultures and ethnicities, but how they interact with themselves. This is a film about human-centered values above all else. That things go so badly for everyone involved is an expression of Spike Lee's particularly exacerbated opinion of New York City in the late eighties. It is a carefully orchestrated disaster of humanistic proportions, a microcosmic self-destruction and boiling over of tensions both great and small, of offenses real and imagined. It is almost surreal in its hazy, primary color-saturated incarnation, but also embarrassingly and brutally believable. We sympathize so easily with Sal, with Mookie, with every character in Do The Right Thing that there can be no other outcome to the events depicted. No one is ever entirely in the right. We are told by Da Mayor to always do the right thing, but there is no guarantee made as to the outcome.
Now for the fun part! A large majority of readers of this review will be interested in whether this new edition stacks up to the quite excellent de facto standard, the Do The Right Thing: Criterion Collection edition of the film. It stacks very well. The previous Criterion release has a noticeably orange-tinted and hazy transfer, one approved by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, a stylistic choice to heighten the heat-induced mania. The first thing to note about this new edition is that this filtering is less pronounced, offering up a more naturalistic and balanced color palate. The change is dramatic when comparing the two side-by-side; the orange filtering so over-the-top as to look oversaturated and unnatural (which was the point, of course). The Blu-Ray retains some of the hazy, saturated color palate, but by dropping the extreme oversaturation, the picture is far less distorting, less muddling—but also less dramatic, less tense and sauna-like. This is the classic tradeoff; we lose some of the stylistic and cinematic color punch in exchange for a better-looking picture. A really, really better looking picture, as it turns out.
It isn't even a fair contest. Not even a Criterion DVD—especially one eight years old—can match up to the Blu-Ray treatment. The previous Criterion edition gets blown out of the water by the dramatic increase in fidelity and sharpness of this edition. The trademark tight facial shots and zooms show perfect detail on facial pores and the ever-present beads of sweat on faces. This is not a scrubbed and crystal-clean transfer; some print damage and speckling is evident on the transfer with noticeable grain, but only as much as the film would naturally contain. Audio comes in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which is well-balanced throughout all channels, clear in dialogue, and punchy in bass. Music plays an important part in the film, Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" emanating endlessly throughout, and it sounds fantastic, interwoven with endless saxophone solos and Bill Lee's score. The rear channels are used consistently throughout the film for environmental effects and show good action, especially in the third act when everything hits the fan. DTS 5.1 Surround dub tracks are also included for French and Spanish speakers.
More good news for admirers of the previous Criterion edition, as the vast majority of the content has been ported over. What little gets lost is easily replaced by new content created exclusively for the twentieth anniversary of the film. Two feature commentary tracks are included—a newly recorded track by director Spike Lee, and the previous edition version with director Spike Lee, director of photography Ernest Dickinson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and actor Joie Lee. We see the return of a 60-minute documentary, "Making Do The Right Thing," a behind-the-scenes video recording created by Spike Lee during the filming of Do The Right Thing, an interview with editor Barry Brown, storyboards of the riot sequence, and footage from the 1989 Cannes Film Festival press conference. One downside is that this content is all in standard definition, having simply been copied from a previous DVD version. Exclusive to the new edition are a brand-new 35-minute retrospective documentary with cast and crew discussing the film after twenty years, and 15 minutes of deleted and extended sequences (both in HD) as well as some BD-Live features that were inaccessible at the time of review. With over four hours of supplemental features crammed on this disc, this is about as authoritative an edition as one can get.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Few will argue against the cultural relevance and importance of Do The Right Thing, but many debate its message and morals. Quixotic and contradictory messages about violence and righteousness make Do The Right Thing a tough film to digest, depending on how you perceive the allegory. Few will defend Lee's portrayal of the police as faceless and uncaring mercenaries—a heavy handed, blunt characterization that feels like an ugly war on an otherwise well-thought and complex narrative.
Do The Right Thing is an important film, but as the eighties get further and further away with the passing of time, it begins to feel dated. Consider that our previous review of the film, Do The Right Thing: Criterion Collection, was penned almost ten years ago—has it really been that long? The world preserved in this film is not the world of today, a fact even Lee himself admits in the twentieth anniversary retrospective interview.
It is a rare occasion that a Criterion edition of a film gets trumped in presentation and content, but Universal aimed high with this one. Do The Right Thing (Blu-Ray) contains virtually all the material on the difficult-to-find Criterion edition, plus new content, and the Blu-Ray transfer is top-notch. It offers a better transfer, better audio, more content, and a cheaper MSRP. This is now far and away the best version of the film available.
As for the film itself, Do The Right Thing is as close to a masterpiece as Spike Lee may ever make, a powerful and poignant statement on class and race relations in America that even two decades later stands up as a classic of American cinema.
Not guilty. If you only have one Spike Lee film in your collection, this edition deserves to be it.
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