Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing just may be the best film about race issues in America. Thirty years after its release, it’s still as relevant as anything you’re likely to see. The major difference is that now when police murder a black man, the event is recorded on smartphones and goes viral. Either way, the cop never goes to prison.
But Do the Right Thing is no sermon. It’s funny, warm-hearted, and humane. It’s filled with music. You get to meet a community of very flawed but likeable human beings. Although the film climaxes in disaster, all but one of the many characters are trying to do…well, the right thing. It’s been on my A+ List of All-Time Great Films since 2016.
Both Universal and Criterion have released previous discs of Lee’s third and best-loved film. But for the picture’s 30th anniversary, Criterion has gone all out, with a new 4K digital restoration, a second disc of extras, and a 108-page book about the film.
Like a classic Greek play, Do the Right Thing‘s action is constricted in time and space. It takes place in one block of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the hottest day of the year. The heat plays a major role; the higher the temperature, the higher the tempers.
Sal’s pizzeria serves as Do the Right Thing’s epicenter. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a decent man, proud of his Italian-American background, his restaurant, and its overwhelmingly black clientele. But he also has a tinderbox of a temper. His oldest son Pino (John Turturro) is an out-and-out racist, easily throwing out the n-word.
Along with writing, producing, and directing, Spike Lee himself plays Mookie, the only local and African American working for Sal. He’s a nice guy, but not a dependable one. His behavior confirms many of Pino’s stereotypes. He’s a lazy and undependable worker. He’s also an absentee father. His girlfriend, the mother of his son (Rosie Perez in her first movie role), orders a pizza just to get Mookie into her apartment.
Perez wasn’t the only actor to get a break with Do the Right Thing. Others who got a career boost from this film include Turturro, Bill Nunn, Martin Lawrence, and Samuel L. Jackson.
But the film also contains faces that were recognizable in 1989. Aging Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee play important roles.
Every time I see this film, I wish beyond hope that one character or another would do or say the right thing and avoid the film’s ultimate tragedy. But that’s not human behavior…especially amongst races in a heatwave.
Do the Right Thing stirred up plenty of controversy in 1989. Critics, upset that the film didn’t reflect their prejudices, were upset that no one in the movie was selling or using drugs. Others feared that its ending would inspire riots (it didn’t). Three decades later, it’s brilliant, unsettling filmmaking.
I wrote another article on Do the Right Thing in 2016.
The Big Box
The new Criterion release of Do the Right Thing will take up almost an inch of shelf space. Almost half of that comes from the aforementioned book.
How It Looks
Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson brilliantly created a visual style like no other in Do the Right Thing. By using subtly expressionistic color, he makes you feel the heatwave. You could watch this film in a Norwegian winter and want to turn on the air conditioning.
Dickerson approved the new 4K scan, which has been mastered to 1080p for the Blu-ray. It’s gorgeous.
It’s also sharp. In the very first shot (after the credits), you can count the hairs in Samuel L. Jackson’s mustache.
How It Sounds
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sounds great. I haven’t heard the film in the original Dolby SR recently, so I can’t tell you how well this mix follows the original one. I suspect it’s close. It certainly works.
And the Extras
That big, thick book: Most Criterion Blu-rays come with a booklet. This one provides a lot more reading material. It contains two essays by Vinson Cunningham – Walking in Stereo and Bed-Stuy Do or Die. But the lion’s share of the pages go to the Director’s Journal by Spike Lee. I confess, I’ve yet to read any of these. The book also contains credits for the film and the disc.
- Commentary by Spike Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and actor Joie Lee. If you’re interested in cinematography, this is a must. Dickerson explains many tricks and how and why they’re done. Spike Lee discusses directing actors and the film’s many themes. Recorded in 1995 for a Criterion Laserdisc.
- Behind the scenes: 58 minutes. Made by Lee and his brother Cinque Lee, mostly during pre-production. The sound is very bad and often difficult to understand.
- Deleted and Extended Scenes: 14 minutes. For the most part, these scenes deserved to be deleted. Not that interesting.
- The Riot Sequence: 17 minutes. Compares the storyboards to the final cut. You can see how loosely Lee used the storyboards.
- Trailer and two TV spots: Three minutes.
- Making “Do the Right Thing”: 61 minutes plus a 1-minute introduction. One of the best “making of” docs I’ve seen. Rather than focusing on the cast and top crew, it shows lower crew members and even the local people whose lives were disrupted by the filming. Directed by St. Clair Bourne.
- The One and Only Do the Right Thing: 32 minutes. Brand-new video about the film’s influence. Interesting.
- Cannes Press Conference: 42 minutes. Hours before the film’s world premiere at Cannes, Do the Right Thing was screened for the press, followed by a Q&A with Lee and four other members of the cast. Lee did most of the answering. His answers, for the most part, are intelligent and enlightening. And occasionally angry.
And that’s the truth, Ruth!