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The Criterion Collection presents
Do The Right Thing (1989)

"I saw it, but I didn't believe it. I didn't believe it, what I saw. Are we gonna live together? Together are we gonna live?"
- Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson)

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: February 27, 2001

Stars: Danny Aiello, Giancarlo Eposito, Spike Lee, Rosie Perez
Other Stars: Bill Nunn, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, John Turturro
Director: Spike Lee

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for violence, profanity, and nudity
Run Time: 02h:00m:00s
Release Date: February 20, 2001
UPC: 715515011228
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-A- A+

DVD Review

In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, on the hottest day of the summer, tempers flare and chaotic conflicts arise over smaller disagreements. Within a single day, a conglomeration of characters of different races, backgrounds, and ages must struggle to Do the Right Thing.

Spike Lee's masterful 1989 film drew a tremendous amount of criticism for its bleak view of race relations and the lack of easy redemption in its violence. However, it stands as one of the most realistic and objective films of recent years on race issues. Similar to what Traffic has now done for the drug war, Do the Right Thing presents various sides of the issue and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. The events may shock us and not leave much hope in the end, but they represent an honest take on the continued problems in today's society. Criterion has now released this complex film in a comprehensive two-disc set, and it allows us to fully explore the messages of the story.

Spike Lee stars as Mookie - a young man who spends much of his time focusing on "getting paid." His first appearance on the screen shows him counting his money in the bedroom, and this helps us to understand his motivations. Mookie works as a deliveryman for Sal's Famous Pizzeria - a local Italian business. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a friendly and brash man who cares mostly about his pizzeria itself. When his dominance over his business is threatened, he grows confrontational and tries to assert his control. Sal does nice things for people, but still harbors his own racist tendencies. When the day grows hotter and the tensions rise, his internal feelings are brought to the forefront. Sal's two sons - Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) - represent opposing ends of the spectrum in terms of race relations. Vito hates the neighborhood and its occupants, while Pino gets along well with pretty much everybody. Their conflicts presents the division that racism causes even within individual families.

The Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood features a wonderfully diverse collection of characters who add to the realistic nature of the story. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) is an old, worn-down drunk who is "nice to everybody" and still has a kind heart. He fancies Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) - a woman who sits on her stoop and watches everything in the neighborhood. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is a stern young man who utters few words to anyone. He speaks mostly through his boombox, which constantly plays Public Enemy's Fight the Power at a blaring level. His comrade is Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) - a frantic guy who is constantly talking and encouraging conflicts with Sal and others. This character originally appears annoying, but Lee's complex writing reveals the purpose behind his actions. Finally, we have the corner men - three guys who do absolutely nothing, but still have comments about everybody.

The scorching summer heat of the day plays a pivotal role in every minor argument or conflict in the story. Tensions about the smallest items rise because of the increased irritability from the hot weather. Buggin' Out buys pizza from Sal every day, but this day is the first time he notices that only Italian-Americans are on the wall. His increasing frustration with Sal comes partially from the effects of the heat. A nice interlude exists in the early story that simply shows people dealing with the warm temperatures. The film stresses the importance of the weather to everything that happens during the entire day. Also, the events in the early sections of the film all harken towards the final confrontation. The finale is shocking, but it makes sense within the context of the earlier events in the film.

Do the Right Thing succeeds in creating brilliant drama because of the efforts of a wonderful ensemble cast. Giancarlo Esposito showcases his immense talent within the quick-speaking rants of Buggin' Out. He gives humanity to a character who could become a one-sided troublemaker. Instead, this is an intelligent young man who is trying to play a role in the events of the neighborhood. Legendary actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee both contribute their strong presences to this energetic film. Danny Aiello does such an excellent job as Sal that he nearly makes the character too sympathetic for the story. Also noteworthy is the first performance from a young Rosie Perez—the fiery Puerto Rican actress who adds energy to every one of her scenes.

I could write an entire book on the complexities and different levels of Do the Right Thing. It's impossible to comment on all of the characters, events, and issues that exist in this story. Few films have generated such a high level of discussion and controversy in recent years. Every viewer will not agree on the message of this film, but people are still talking about it years after watching it. One major question concerns the existence of hope at the end of this film; Spike Lee believes there is still hope, and I agree, but it's a tenuous hold that could disappear if things don't change. Maybe after seeing this film, people might sit back, consider what they're doing, and try to do the right thing in the future.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion's new 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sparkles with the bright colors of the Bed Stuy neighborhood. Red is especially prevalent in the indoor lighting, wardrobe, and especially in the bright background behind the corner men. There are a few defects here and there, but they fail to detract from the enjoyment of the visual presentation. Do The Right Thing has never looked better, and is more powerful due to this excellent transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The booming beats of Public Enemy's Fight the Power reverberate throughout this 2.0-channel Dolby transfer. The powerful song does wonders for the credits sequence, and it plays during various portions when Radio Raheem appears in the film. The wonderful saxophone score by Branford Marsalis also works very well in this transfer, and it adds to the exotic nature of this scorching day. The soundtrack is also available in a 2.0-channel PCM transfer, which suffers only slightly due to less clarity and movement through the sound field. Both tracks does a nice job of conveying the actions on screen and creating the proper emotional context for the story.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 TV Spots/Teasers
2 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Spike Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and actor Joie Lee
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. 1989 Cannes Film Festival press conference with Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, and Joie Lee
  2. New video introductions by Spike Lee
  3. Essay by film critic Roger Ebert in dvd insert
Extras Review: This Criterion edition of Do the Right Thing contains arguably the most substantial collection of extra features of any DVD on the market today. Special editions of Terminator 2 and Fight Club may contain more features, but they fail to tell us as much about the film as the extras on this release. The second disc includes a plethora of bonus items that complement the film wonderfully and justify the high purchase price.

The highlight of this disc is the 60-minute documentary The Making of Do The Right Thing, directed by St. Clair Bourne in the summer of 1988. This feature contains plenty of background and insight on the production of this film, and it lacks the usual promotional jargon of typical DVD documentaries. It begins in pre-production and shows the large amount of work necessary before shooting even begins. Because Do The Right Thing was shot on location, the crew had to work hard to convince the people of the community to go along with the production. They employed numerous people from the area as extras, but some citizens still complained about the inconveniences. This documentary also shows the filming of various scenes, and it allows the cast and crew to present their thoughts on the film and its message. Included with this feature is a brief look at the Bed-Stuy neighborhood today. Lee and line producer Jon Klik walk past several of the key locations and show their current status.

The second major feature is a compelling feature-length commentary from Spike Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and actor Joie Lee. The comments are edited together to provide plenty of background and thoughts about the meaning of the film. All four speakers are forthright and provide ideas and information about the movie. The most interesting segments deal with the final riot sequence, which provides no easy answers on race relations.

Another nice inclusion is behind-the-scenes footage shot by Spike's brother Cinque Lee during pre-production and other periods of the film. Everything has an intimate home-video feel, with a shaking camera and poor sound. The best portions follow the original read-through and introductions for all the major actors in the film. In an early rehearsal, we already witness the intensity of Danny Aiello and the eloquent intelligence of Giancarlo Esposito. This footage also highlights the candor and impressive attitude of Rosie Perez, who is appearing in her first film. The entire section runs for about 54 minutes, and provides a close look at elements of film production that usually stay in the background.

The 41-minute press conference from the 1989 Cannes Film Festival provides an impressive overview of the types of questions and criticisms levied at the film. Spike Lee handles the comments without becoming too hostile, but he does speak his mind and avoids pandering to the international press. I've never seen a press conference of this type, and it's interesting to note the condescension and arrogance of certain members of the audience. This conference also includes Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, and Joie Lee, but Spike Lee speaks for nearly all of the running time.

Spike Lee introduces many of the supplements with comments on their content and information about the film. These brief statements do a nice job of supporting the idea of this "Director Approved" version, and really show his love of the film medium. A highlight is his final words, which have him reading several negative reviews about the movie at the time of its release. He also gives some perspective on race relations today and any changes since 1989.

Other extra features on the supplemental disc include an interview with editor Barry Brown, the storyboards of the riot sequence, the Fight the Power music video, and several theatrical and TV trailers. The interview with Brown was shot in the summer of 2000, and it provides some interesting background on the editing process. For the riot sequence, the detailed storyboards allow us to really discover the original plans for these scenes. Spike Lee says he usually avoids storyboards, but it was necessary here, and it paid off to create a spellbinding sequence. Fight the Power is the catalyst for the events in the story, and it functions as an anthem for the film. Lee also directed the music video, which includes archival footage from a civil rights march in its extended version. The trailers appear in a mediocre VHS quality transfer. In my opinion, they could have been done better to convey the importance and power of the film.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing pulls no punches and presents a realistic portrayal of race relations in the world today. Each character's motives are understandable and equally frightening, and the result is an intriguing and powerful film that gives no simple answers. With this compelling two-disc set, Criterion has raised the bar for DVD releases and done justice to one of the overlooked masterpieces of recent years.


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