Spike Lee’s masterful “Do the Right Thing” + Criterion’s practiced hand = required viewing
Updated: Oct 9, 2019
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“DO THE RIGHT THING: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”
Blu-ray and DVD; 1989; R for violence, language, sexual references, brief nudity, smoking and drinking
Best extras: New interviews with New York City Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr., writer Nelson George and filmmaker Darnell Martin, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter
IT’S BEEN 30 years since Spike Lee poked the hornet’s nest, and if there’s any question about “Do the Right Thing’s” staying power, consider this:
Another review of this stellar Criterion release argues that the film’s explosive conclusion is dark, manipulative and even dangerous because it advocates violence as a legitimate form of social protest.
Lee, the writer, director and producer, does nothing of the kind.
“DTRT” resonates because it doesn’t take sides. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the sage of the block in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood where the story’s set, admonishes some youngsters to always do the right thing, but doesn’t say what that is. It’s also up to viewers to decide why Mookie (Lee), who delivers pizza for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, throws a trash can through its window and triggers a riot.
Two quotes—one from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one from Malcolm X and both about turning to violence to effect change—that appear after the closing credits make Lee’s position clear.
There are three more reasons why the film, a nominee for best writing and supporting actor (Danny Aiello) Oscars and the Palme d’Or at Cannes, has lost none of its impact.
One, everything about it—Rosie Perez’s opening choreography to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” the provocative narrative (set on one block on one brutally hot day), Ernest Dickerson’s in-your-face cinematography—was/is revolutionary.
Two, nothing’s changed. People of color are still marginalized, disrespected and victimized. The death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), which sets the final act in motion, could have been ripped from the front pages. Remember how Eric Garner died five years ago in Staten Island?
Three, Lee, who was raised and lives in Brooklyn, creates a wonderful and memorable array of characters that establishes “DTRT’s” authenticity: Sal (Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro), an overt racist, and Vito, (Richard Edson) his polar opposite; the radio DJ/one-man Greek chorus Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson); Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), whose attempted boycott of Sal’s—there are no photos of black celebs on the wall, just white Italians—gets out of hand; Mookie’s no-nonsense girlfriend Tina (Perez); the worldly Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who watches from her window and stoop.
And that’s just for starters. Every character, no matter how minor, is real. It’s little wonder that the heat has everyone on edge.
Criterion, no surprise, does “DTRT” right. Mastered in 4K from the 35 mm original camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio) and supervised by Dickerson, the transfer mines every detail of the heavily-saturated, rainbow palette. You’ll feel the heat, too. Other than a few moments, detail, down to the constant perspiration, is sharp and with plenty of natural film grain. The sound is full and dynamic. “Fight the Power” rumbles in the gut.
The two-disc set is also loaded with extras, most of them from the archives—a commentary, making-of doc (remastered in 2K), the Cannes press conference, loads of interviews—and all worth checking out.
Make time, though, for the new ones. New York City Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr., who shares a wide-ranging interview with writer Nelson George (“The Death of Rhythm and Blues,” “Hip Hop America”) and filmmaker Darnell Martin (“Cadillac Records”), who got her start on “DTRT,” credits Lee with his decision to give up playing pro basketball overseas to come back and make a difference.
In a fascinating interview, Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter (“Black Panther”) discusses dressing the characters to convey time, place and the heat and being “cemented to the day.”
Rounding out the new supplements are deleted/extended scenes and an expansive booklet featuring an insightful essay by critic Vinson Cunningham and excerpts from the journal that Lee kept during the production.
Long story short? “Do the Right Thing” belongs in your collection.
- Craig Shapiro
Left: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin Out confront Sal, who responds by smashing Raheem’s boombox, sparking the riot that still divides viewers.