Release Date: June 30, 2009
Starring: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro and John Savage
Produced, Written and Directed by: Spike Lee
A GENERAL NOTE HERE: Please be aware that much of this text previously appeared in my evaluation of the Blu-ray edition of this title. I have adjusted the appropriate sections here to discuss the 2-Disc standard definition release of the same title.
Do The Right Thing is probably the most significant film in the body of work that has come from Spike Lee since his graduation from film school in the 1980s. His first non-school film, She’s Gotta Have It immediately announced a sensibility and style that practically jumped off the screen. His third film, Do The Right Thing augments that style with a level of confidence and professionalism he had not previously demonstrated. The story is a simple one: We spend one day in the life of one block in a primarily black neighbourhood in Bed-Stuy. As it happens to be one of the hottest days of the year, tempers run short and people begin to grate on each other in ways that normally wouldn’t happen. And things escalate from a series of back-and-forth racial insults into physical confrontation and go farther until the primary location of the story is literally in flames.
As I look over that description, I realize I may be giving the impression that the entire film is a polemic on racial violence. And there is some truth in that idea, but it would diminish the many other qualities on display here. In telling this story, Spike Lee has presented a clean, almost dreamlike version of this neighbourhood, and he has stylized the interactions between everyone with something approaching a hypnotic rhythm in the dialogue. And in my first viewing of this film back in 1989, I was struck by how even-handed the presentation appears; the motivations of each of the characters are made fairly clear, as well as each person’s strengths and weaknesses. The notion of people trying to do the right thing is explicitly stated early on by the film’s conscience, Da Mayor (played by Ossie Davis). And at the same time, there is a real edge on display here. Lee starts things off with a quiet presentation of Branford Marsalis, and then blasts into an in-your-face dance routine by Rosie Perez to the tune of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”. (“Fight The Power” is then used as an anthem for the rest of the film, as heard from the boom box of a character who figures prominently in how things develop.) If that doesn’t serve as enough of a wake-up call, Lee plants references throughout to various racial issues – from the metaphor of John Savage running over Giancarlo Esposito’s new Air Jordans to a scene being played with a graffiti backdrop of “Tawana Told The Truth!” Having listened to Lee’s commentaries on this disc, as well as his statements in all of the special features, I am forced to admit that my reaction from 1989 did not match with Lee’s intentions. He makes very clear what he feels this film is saying, and what he thinks of the characters in it. I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves if they agree.
Do The Right Thing has been released in the past on multiple video formats, and here it is presented in a 2-disc set, containing the feature and some extra features on the first disc, and the remainder of the extras on the second disc. The extra features here combine some new material (a new commentary by Spike Lee, some deleted scenes presented in high definition and a new series of interviews with the cast) with the features found on the 2001 Criterion DVD for this title. (a group commentary, etc.) Aside from the commentaries, the division of the extra features finds the new material on the first disc, while the material carried over from the earlier Criterion DVD is on the second disc. I will detail these features in the appropriate section, but it’s safe to say that the new features do add both valuable information and perspective to one’s experience of the film. I have a feeling that Spike Lee fans will likely pick up this title one way or another, but I recommend it as a purchase to more casual fans as well – the materials here serve both as a “film school in a box” and as an instructive look into how it is that films can reflect their times and the people in them.
VIDEO QUALITY: 3 ½/5 ½
Do The Right Thing is presented in an anamorphic transfer in its proper ratio of 1.85:1. This is a new transfer, struck from the high definition work done for the Blu-ray release. As such, it presents a pretty vivid palette of primary colors, mostly in the warmer part of the spectrum. Some interior scenes are bathed in an orange glow, while the scenes with the neighborhood "cornermen" are staged in front of a bright red brick wall. All of this is an intentional part of the "color psychology" technique used by Spike Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson to suggest palpable heat from the visuals. The detail here is reasonably sharp, and the variety of flesh tones is presented accurately.
I should note that a complaint has been raised about this title on other forums, specifically that a warm filter present in the Criterion laserdic and DVD transfer appears to have been removed for this transfer. For some viewers, this may be a problem as it is a part of the color psychology approach to the film, in that the filter can tint everything an additional two steps into the warm color palette. However, I need to point out that there are still plenty of places where the image is noticeably in the orange/yellow zone, and there is a palpable sense of heat in the transfer.
Do The Right Thing is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes in English, Spanish and French. This is an effective mix, particularly when Public Enemy is heard blasting from Radio Raheem's boom box. Most of the dialogue is focused in the front channels, but there is some directionality, particularly during one sequence of dueling boom boxes.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 3 ½/5 ½
This presentation of Do The Right Thing combines some new material created for this edition with existing material from the earlier Criterion release. All of it works together to provide a tremendous enhancement of the viewer’s experience of the film. I will indicate which of these features is new to this edition, and which have been carried over.
THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN MY DISCUSSION OF THE SPECIAL FEATURES HERE. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM BEFORE, I RECOMMEND WATCHING IT BEFORE READING THIS SECTION OF THE REVIEW.
On Disc 1, along with the feature, we find:
- Commentary with Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson, Wynn Thomas and Joie Lee – This commentary was originally prepared for the 1995 Criterion Laserdisc, and it’s loaded with information and opinion. It’s scene-specific, but it’s not an actual group commentary; instead, each participant has been recorded separately. Lee and Dickerson offer the most information about what we are seeing and how it was put together, while production designer Thomas offers some information about the art direction. The most interesting contribution, particularly given the other materials on this disc, actually comes from Lee’s sister Joie, who appears in the film playing his character’s sister. Joie Lee’s comments primarily serve to defend various choices made by Spike Lee. She specifically tries to distance her brother from the “Tawana Told The Truth!” graffiti, saying that this should be seen as typical graffiti that could be seen in Bed-Stuy, and not as an endorsement of Tawana Brawley by Spike Lee. (see the next commentary for a complete refutation of this by Spike Lee) She also tries to make the point that Mookie’s tossing of the trash can does not necessarily make him responsible for the mayhem that follows, saying that the crowd is responsible for what they did, as Mookie is responsible only for his own actions. Of course, in doing this, she completely misunderstands the nature of these actions: Mookie is clearly quite aware of how his behaviour will be interpreted by the crowd. As the one local employed by Sal in the pizzeria, his action is a trigger for everyone else, and he does indeed have some responsibility for what happens as a result of his choice.
- 20th Anniversary Edition Commentary by Spike Lee – NEW COMMENTARY – Here we have a brand new scene specific commentary recorded by Spike Lee this year, in which he recounts stories about the making of the film and confirms his own beliefs about the meanings of specific scenes and the film itself. Among other things, he briefly discusses the Tawana Brawley graffiti, saying that he specifically had it placed on the set, that he believes that “the real truth hasn’t been told” about her, and that he believes enough of her story to think that she didn’t do all those things to herself. (Anyone curious about the Brawley matter would do well to follow Lee’s instructions and “google it.”) Lee also confirms his thinking about why the climactic inferno happens, making pointed comments along the way about John Savage’s character being a “homesteader” and the inherent racism of Sal and his family. Essentially, he almost completely refutes the statements made by his sister in the prior commentary! One other note about this commentary: It appears to me to possibly be out of sync with the picture by about one second. In several places, Spike Lee will discuss a specific shot that isn't onscreen yet, and one second later, the shot will appear. This may be due to him anticipating what's coming, or the whole thing may be one second off. Either way, it isn't enough to completely jar me, and it's too minor of a quibble for me to raise the roof about it.
- Do The Right Thing: 20 Years Later (35:47, Anamorphic) – NEW FEATURETTE – This is a new retrospective set of interviews conducted by Spike Lee with the cast as part of a 20th Anniversary event held earlier this year. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the material here is illuminating both in showing us how the cast has aged in the 20 years since the film was made and in deflating some of the mythology that has arisen about the production. Most amusing here is Spike Lee’s debunking of John Savage’s Larry Bird story (Savage has been saying for years that Larry Bird gave him or his sister the jersey worn by his character when it was actually purchased by Spike Lee).
- Deleted Scenes (14:14 Total, Anamorphic) – NEW FEATURE – Nearly 15 minutes of deleted scenes are presented in anamorphic widescreen, although the source print is clearly an old and distressed one. Most of this material consists of unnecessary scene extensions, but there are a couple of crucial additions here. In one extension, Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) clearly defines her role in the neighbourhood as the landlady of her brownstone, that being the last thing she has left from a failed marriage. The second extension is more critical: In an unused take from the final scene, Sal’s dialogue includes an admission that he actually could not get any insurance for his pizzeria, which effectively means that his character has been ruined by the film’s events. And it also includes an echo of Da Mayor’s advice to Mookie in the film’s first act to “always try to do the right thing.” Lee mentions this in his commentary, saying that he removed the line from the end to make it more special for Da Mayor. Nobody discusses the significance of the insurance line, but that small change in the theatrical film makes the catastrophe at least a bearable one for Sal. Had that line been left in, it would be extremely hard to understand why Sal would be handing or throwing money to anyone at the end of the film.
On Disc 2, we find the rest of the extras, all culled from the prior Criterion releases:
- Behind the Scenes (57:59, Full Frame) – This material comes from the 1995 Criterion laserdisc. This is all full frame video footage recorded by other members of Lee’s family during the making of the film, starting with the cast readthru, and continuing into rehearsals and then farther along into the process. The readthru is especially instructive, particularly when Rosie Perez shuts down one of the cornermen from trying to find a complicated rationale for his character. Her take on the situation: “You’re a bum! I grew up in a neighbourhood just like this! These guys just sit out there all day!” There is a video introduction to this section, recorded by Spike Lee for the 2001 DVD.
- Making Do The Right Thing (1:06:38, Full Frame) – This is a fairly in-depth documentary, originally included on the 1995 Criterion Laserdisc and augmented in 2001 with a video introduction by Lee and a follow-up visit to the neighbourhood called “Back to Bed-Stuy”. The documentary includes a lot of on-set interviews and footage, and it doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to showing the reality of what was happening in the neighbourhood during filming. One resident in particular is pretty vocal about his unhappiness about the way that the production took over the neighbourhood and disrupted the summer of everyone living there. Another resident is hired to help on the production, only to have her drug addiction resurface midway through the shoot. There’s some pretty raw material here, and it’s a lot more interesting than the usual mutual compliments found on many DVDs. Lee actually makes the point in his introduction that this will not be the usual EPK material, and he’s right.
- Editor Barry Brown (9:38, Full Frame) – This is an interview with the film’s editor that was originally included on the 2001 Criterion DVD. It is a full-frame affair, but it contains some very interesting material. Brown discusses two significant contributions he made to the film – one where he supervised an additional shot to make a child rescue scene work, and another where he cut together a montage to the local DJ’s recitation of popular figures in music. (And as I haven’t mentioned it anywhere else, that DJ is played by Samuel Jackson, a full 5 years before people would know him as Jules in Pulp Fiction. His most common quote here is “That’s the truth, Ruth” in one form or another.)
- The Riot Sequence (Full Frame) – This is another feature from the 2001 Criterion DVD, starting with a 90 second introduction by Spike Lee. The viewer is then presented with a gallery of storyboard pages for the film’s climactic sequence at Sal’s Pizzeria.
- Cannes 1989 (42:22, Full Frame) – This is another feature from the 2001 Criterion DVD, and it presents the full press conference from the film’s appearance at Cannes in 1989. The panel for the film is represented by Spike Lee (who does most of the talking), along with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Joie Lee and Richard Edson. Lee makes a series of pointed comments during this event, defending himself from one accusation that he should have included drug use in the movie, and repeating a criticism from the time about the issues people had with Steven Spielberg making The Color Purple and Alan Parker making Mississippi Burning.
- Trailer and TV Spots (2:12, Non-Anamorphic for Trailer) (0:31 each, Full Frame for TV Spots) – Standard Definition presentations of the film’s theatrical trailer and two TV spots are included here.
Subtitles are available for the film and the special features. A full chapter menu is available for the film. The special features also come with their own chapter menus and can be watched in terms of the specific chapters or through a “Play All” function.
IN THE END...
Do The Right Thing should be part of the collection of any DVD enthusiast who is interested in Spike Lee’s contribution to cinema, as well as anyone who wants to get a thorough look at one of the most controversial films of the 1980s. The film itself still holds up, partially due to the dreamlike haze that much of the film plays in, but it also still has a visceral impact, particularly once the racial slurs and the fists start flying. This new 2-Disc edition of the movie includes a solid new transfer (albeit with the caveat that this is not with the filtration of the Criterion transfer) and some worthwhile new extras, including an illuminating new commentary with Spike Lee. I recommend it for purchase.
July 1, 2009.