29th Aug2019

‘Do The Right Thing’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turtorro, Rosie Perez, Ossie Davis, Bill Nunn, Ruby Dee | Written and Directed by Spike Lee

do-right-thing-blu

Spike Lee was still in his 20s when he wrote, directed and produced Do the Right Thing, his third feature. It’s a blistering piece of cinema in more ways than one. Set during a blazing summer in the heart of New York, it charts a day in the life of a young black man named Mookie (Lee), interacting with the folks on the stoops and the streets, as he goes about delivering pizzas for the local, Italian-owned pizzeria. In the coolness of dawn, relations with the pizzeria’s owner Sal (Danny Aiello) are cool; but as the temperature increases, so do tensions. A storm is coming.

Do the Right Thing is a snapshot of a community, built upon a cast of colourful characters. There’s Samuel L. Jackson, playing radio host Love Daddy; Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who struts around with Public Enemy’s Fight the Power on permanent loop; the unhinged Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito); a trio of middle-aged dudes on the corner, who stir the cauldron like three Shakespearean witches; the sensible wise woman Mother Sister (Ruby Dee); and the functioning alcoholic who loves her, calling himself Da Mayor (Ossie Davis).

Lee’s Brooklyn is a heightened reality, summered-up with the deliberate glow of red and orange: heat, blood and danger. The bold production design, elaborate camerawork (sometimes employing cranes), rich orchestral score and mannered performances make this closer to the street life of Little Shop of Horror’s downtown – a million miles from the gritty, grimy NYC of the 1970s.

Extreme Dutch angles are used throughout, as characters come into conflict. There’s a sequence where characters spew racial abuse directly into the camera, as if verbalising the attitudes that lie behind their innocuous banter. Another to-camera moment sees Raheem monologue about the Love/Hate dynamic emblazoned on his knuckle-dusters. Such flourishes lend the film an irreverent energy and an absurdist tone. But it has a serious agenda: societal breakdown in microcosm.

To whom does the title refer? No one in particular, or any one specific action. It’s the kind of glib advice that older generations tend to impart on the young as life advice – which is exactly what Da Major does to Mookie. In a melting pot neighbourhood, where African American rubs up against Korean American, who rubs up against Italian American, how can someone do the right thing every time? The tapestry of lives – of allegiances and rivalries – makes it impossible.

Sal’s son Pino (John Turturro) is the only outwardly racist character in the film. He’s also trying to turn his little brother against black people. Their father, Sal, is a reasonable man on the surface. He is culpable insofar as he allows his son’s racism to go unchecked. Mookie is as close as one can get to a neutral mediator in this place – yet even he must make a choice in the end. The “right” thing in his case is a kind of justice: criminal damage versus the life of a fellow human.

The police have their part to play too. Would this movie have been made after Rodney King? I suspect it would have been a different movie – less irreverent, perhaps. But Lee is clear that police prejudice is a factor. One time, the cops drive by the old-timers on the corner and stare them down the whole way past. Sometimes it’s not about actions, it’s about attitude betraying intent.

Still, Do the Right Thing never falls hard on a conclusion about the fault of the violence. There is an argument that Mookie’s incitement to riot moves the violence from people to property. But there’s an equally strong argument that the black residents’ behaviour only confirms the worst fears of Sal and his sons. Ultimately, it’s the mutual lack of respect and intolerance, stoked by the ingrained bigotry of the police, that causes the catastrophe.

Here’s a spoilerific question: Would the cops have killed Raheem if he’d been white? Would Raheem have gone wild in the first place if Sal had not been white?

Like so many Criterion releases, Do the Right Thing now graces the National Film Registry, for its cultural importance. And like so many Criterion, it remains relevant. It touches on multiple aspects of the racial reality of people living in working-class inner-city neighbourhoods, and it does so with great verve, and a sense of humour that never undermines its painful questions. Those questions are still hanging.

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital restoration, approved by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • Introductions by Lee
  • Making “Do the Right Thing,” a documentary from 1988 by St. Clair Bourne
  • New interviews with costume designer Ruth E. Carter, camera assistant Darnell Martin, New York City Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr., and writer Nelson George
  • Interview with editor Barry Alexander Brown from 2000
  • Programs from 2000 and 2009 featuring Lee and members of the cast and crew
  • Twenty Years Later, an interview programme from 2009 featuring Lee and members of the cast and crew
  • Music video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” directed by Lee, with remarks from rapper Chuck D
  • Behind-the-scenes footage
  • Cannes Film Festival press conference from 1989
  • Deleted and extended scenes
  • Original storyboards, trailer, and TV spots
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Vinson Cunningham, and extensive excerpts from the journal Lee kept during the preparation for and production of the film

Do the Right Thing is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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