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DO THE RIGHT THING

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn, Giancarlo Esposito, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Turturro
Director:  Spike Lee
Audio:  PCM Stereo, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  February 20, 2001

Film ****

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 through.

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 disposal.

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 tragedy. 

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.

Video ***1/2

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 finally does.

Audio ***

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.

Features ****

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!

Summary:

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.