DO THE RIGHT THING
Review by Michael Jacobson
Lee, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn, Giancarlo Esposito, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John
Director: Spike Lee
Audio: PCM Stereo, Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Features: See Review
Length: 120 Minutes
Release Date: February 20, 2001
Do the Right Thing is many things to many people,
even more than a decade after its release.
For me, it’s far and away the best film of the 1980’s, and many
others hold that opinion. Other
critics were disturbed by writer/director/producer Spike Lee’s unabashed
frankness. According to Roger
Ebert’s liner notes, the arguments heated up in the lobby immediately after
their first screening. Some were
already labeling it a deliberate call to racial violence.
Others vehemently proclaimed there would be riots in theatres all across
America the summer the film played. Some
dismissed it as an unrealistic portrayal of an African American community simply
because there was no drug use in it. Do
such statements say more about Lee’s film, or about the persons saying them?
My first viewing caught me completely off guard.
I fell in love with the colorful cast of characters and Lee’s rich,
witty dialogue…so much so, that I didn’t pick up on, or subconsciously
ignored, the many subtle yet unmistakable clues that were being dropped along
the way. As the film powers
unstoppably toward its inevitable climax, I was speechless, shaken up, and
deeply disturbed. Subsequent
viewings taught me that there was much more at work in the film up to that point
than the humor and spirit, and I wondered why I didn’t notice the first time
And then I contemplated the genius of Lee…the point of
the film, to a large extent, is to serve as a wake-up call.
Like the ending of School Daze, perhaps the most prolific words at
play in Do the Right Thing are “wake up”.
I thought about the main white character, Sal (Aiello), the pizza maker
who proclaimed with sincerity that he was no racist, yet how at the hottest
moment of the hottest day of the year, he lets fly with the ‘n’ word.
He was angry, and it was the most volatile and hurtful word at his
I thought about Da Mayor (Davis), an elderly staple of the
neighborhood whose cheerful smile masked a lifetime of pain, and who speaks the
words of wisdom that make the movie’s title.
His voice of sagely knowledge at the end is a plea for understanding and
sensibility: “If we don’t stop
this now, we’re going to do something that we’ll regret for the rest of our
lives.” It falls on deaf ears in
the movie…whether our ears are as deaf are up to us.
I thought about Mother Sister (Dee), the all-seeing eyes of
the block. Like Da Mayor, whom she
first loathes and later empathizes with, she’s seen far too many bad things in
her life. When the crisis erupts at
the end, her anger boils over in a frightening way…even more frightening is
her horror of self realization as she screams, “NO! NO!” over and over again.
I thought about Buggin’ Out (Esposito), who at first
comes across as a caricature with his exaggerated glasses and nervous action.
He asks a reasonable question of Sal:
why are there no picture of black people on the “wall of fame” in his
pizzeria, when he’s in a black neighborhood and his business is supported
almost entirely by the black community? Sal’s
response has equal reason: it’s
his place, he can do what he wants with it.
Nobody’s forcing anybody to eat there.
Neither man backs down, and this seemingly minor issue escalates into a
I thought also about Radio Raheem (Nunn), the block’s
gentle giant who becomes the sacrificial lamb.
He too confronts Sal over a seemingly menial issue, and because it gets
blown out of proportion, we are left with the image of him fallen, the word
‘love’ on his left hand closest to our eyes.
And of course, I thought about Mookie (Lee), the likable
protagonist who moves through the zones of this racial microcosm.
He works for Sal, and as such, ends up on Sal’s side against his fellow
African American friends from time to time.
He’s not motivated socially or politically…in fact, his main desire
seems to be to make as much money while doing as little work as possible and not
rocking the boat. In the heat of
the block’s most crucial moment, he is faced with a critical decision, which
he makes with no qualms, leaving the audience to discuss (or in many cases,
argue about) later.
There is no call to racial violence here, and those who
feel there is hasn’t looked closely enough, or they simply feel that Lee, as
the actor as Mookie, represents the film’s sole voice, and forget the fact
that Lee, as the director and writer, put the heart, soul and words into all of
his characters: black, white,
Hispanic, Korean, and so on. The
film addresses racism as an issue, but perhaps gets a little too close for
comfort. It’s not ‘them’
we’re watching on the screen. It’s
‘us’. As a white fan of the
film, I’d ask any other white viewer if they nodded complacently while Sal
made his anti-racism speech to his son, but recoiled when he spews his words of
hatred at the end. Do we white
people stop identifying with Sal then, or do we realize that there, but for the
grace of God, go us?
The issue is simple—the problem of hate cannot be
addressed neutrally or from a distance. Racism
and intolerance is an abyss that stretches out before all of us, and no matter
how pure our intentions may be, we’ll never successfully circumnavigate that
abyss until we first recognize that we’re ALL a lot closer to it than we’d
care to admit. This is what Do
the Right Thing teaches us…and for some, it’s a lot easier to attack the
motivations of the film than accept such a lesson.
Lee tells his tale with an invigorated cinematic
vocabulary. He chooses his rhythms
carefully, by employing skillful editing mixed with long shots that linger for
several minutes at a time. He moves
his steadicam gracefully when called for, and plunges in with a chaotic hand
held technique at the right moments. He
visually illustrates conflicts with confrontational shots of actors staring down
the camera, often tilted at extreme, opposing diagonals that seem to want to
burst out of the confines of the screen and keep the world of this neighborhood
slightly disoriented. With strong
color schemes, he illustrates the heat of the day and brings it to vibrant
life…both a catalyst and symbol of the characters’ tensions.
The visual style is unforgettable.
Do the Right Thing is a singular masterpiece of
writing, directing and acting…a film with as much heart and soul as artistic
integrity. It deserves to be
considered an American classic. It
deserves to be considered one of the most important pictures ever made.
Most of all, it deserves to be considered…period.
Bravo to Criterion for offering an alternative to
Universal’s rather lackluster DVD effort.
At last, we fans get a proper version of Do the Right Thing on
disc: anamorphically enhanced with
a new transfer approved by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.
While the Universal video seemed awash and overwhelmed by the movie’s
strong and often purposely exaggerated color schemes, this presentation handles
them with more care and consideration. There
is less bleeding and distortion. Images
are softened when mood and setting requires them, but are sharp when allowed to
be. The final night time scenes
render gorgeously, with no grain, shimmer or compression evident.
The framing, at 1:78;1 as opposed to 1.66:1, looks much more accurate and
gives the compositions more visual integrity.
This is how the movie should have looked in the first place, and now it
For once, I think I have to recommend the original stereo
soundtrack over the 2-channel surround…the latter doesn’t make much use of
the rear stage, and the PCM stereo, for whatever reason, is actually clearer and
stronger, with more dynamic range and better representation of the bass.
At any rate, you’ll be listening to the movie the way it was originally
intended, so just consider it a plus all the way around.
Dialogue is always clear, even when layered, and the strong music, from
Public Enemy’s songs to the score by Bill Lee, is potent and crisp throughout.
What a package! On
disc one, there’s a terrific commentary track by Spike Lee, cinematographer
Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas and actor Joie Lee.
It’s also hosted by Chuck D of Public Enemy, who opens the track and
identifies the speaking principals along the way.
The track is in depth, entertaining, and informative.
Lee speaks with a quiet thoughtfulness, but the real treat is Dickerson,
a highly intelligent artist who speaks the language of cinema fluently, and
cites his influences and inspirations along the way (including the great films
of Powell and Pressburger).
Disc two starts with a new introduction by Spike Lee…then
there’s a 60 minute making-of documentary, a revisiting of the Bed-Stuy
locations with Lee and line producer Jon Kilik, the video for Public Enemy’s
“Fight the Power”, the 1989 Cannes press conference with Lee, Ossie Davis,
Ruby Dee, Richard Edson and Joie Lee, behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards for
the riot sequence, an interview with editor Barry Brown, plus trailer and TV
spots. Another winning features
collection from Criterion!
Do the Right Thing, to paraphrase film critic Stuart Klawans, is a movie about people who don’t…people just like us, who are capable of doing both wonderful and terrible things, who might give in to love once they overcome their hate, and who might find peace once they vanquish fear. It’s a funny, powerful, rich and daring piece of cinema that stands as not only the best film of the 1980’s, but one of the all time greatest American films. With this stellar DVD treatment from Criterion, digital fans will be discussing, arguing, but most importantly, thinking about this picture for a long time to come.