Do the Right Thing (1989/2001)

by Jonathan Beebe


Deeper and Deeper

For someone like me, who grew up with a VCR perpetually blinking 12:00 under my TV set, it’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like not to have easy access to films that were no longer playing at the local theater. Unless a film played on TV or in a revival house, there was only one shot to see a film and notice seemingly insignificant details that might eventually add up to something. Then you were left with vague memories about who did what to whom in which room with what instrument, and there was no quick way to confirm your suspicions. It’s no wonder that early film histories written only thirty years after the Lumieres got film going (at least for a popular audience) are filled with factual inaccuracies about the films they describe.

Even if you go to a film five times during the two weeks it’s playing, you couldn’t go back to it several years down the line unless an exhibitor decided to screen it. For me, that’s what is most useful about video. I still prefer to see a film on the big screen in the theater whenever I can. But, I do find that being able to go back to a film several months or even years later allows me time to think more deeply about the film. It provides for the fact that new experiences will open up a film in a way the former-me couldn’t have anticipated. On video, the film has more of a chance to speak to me.

cover art

Do the Right Thing Criterion Collection Dvd

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, John Savage

(Universal Pictures)

Now we have DVD and I suspect (hope?) that this technology will once again change our relationship to the films we see, even if only in slight ways. Part of what is exciting about DVD is that there is still no standardized idea of what should and should not be included in a DVD release. The least imaginative releases are just imports of the VHS tape with better picture and sound quality. Others provide extras that don’t illuminate the film so much as they provide bonuses for film buffs (e.g., trailers, deleted scenes). And then there are those DVDs that add to the filmic experience by offering commentaries and extras that are not directly derivative of the films themselves. A DVD might include a behind-the-scenes look at the process of translating the screenplay into a finished film (a good example of this is the “Inside a Scene” supplement on The Insider DVD), or some history, concerning the film’s production or the director’s body of work. Or it can even extend the film’s narrative, as on This Is Spinal Tap, where the commentary is given by the main actors in character as the band discussing the film as a bad documentary about their lives.

Occasionally, though, a DVD will do none of the above. And that’s when things get fascinating. The Criterion Collection’s two-disc release of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing includes supplements one would expect to find on a Criterion disc: the commentary track featuring Lee, his sister Joie Lee (who plays Jade in the film), cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, and production designer Wynn Thomas; Public Enemy’s video for “Fight the Power”; storyboards for the film’s riot sequence; a video interview with editor Barry Brown; and the original trailer and TV spots. These extras provide a glimpse into the complicated 8-week process of making a film whose action takes place on a single day. (Most of the difficulty revolved around filming scenes at the correct time of day so that the light and shadow throughout the film would correspond to reality.) And the 1989 Cannes press conference recalls Do the Right Thing‘s reception, when journalists claimed that the film would provoke racial violence, a claim that in retrospect seems unwarranted to say the least.

Part of what really sets this disc apart is its inclusion of Making of Do the Right Thing, a documentary directed by St. Claire Bourne. Unlike the typical “Making of” documentary that seems directed by the studio’s publicity department, this hour-long piece does more than show us the sets being built and the actors practicing their lines. Bourne interviews residents of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where the film was set and shot, showing us their positive and negative reactions to the several month long film shoot. He also follows one of the residents who gets a job working on the set, loses it after spending her first week’s pay on drugs, and then gets it back again. All of these stories give you the sense that filming in Bed-Stuy was important—for the community and the film’s sense of reality. Filming on a backlot or in Maryland, as Universal originally suggested, would have been less a portrait of a neighborhood than a Hollywood fantasy. This point is driven home more succinctly by the documentary’s coda, in which Lee and line producer Jon Kilik revisit the neighborhood to check out the film’s locations and buildings eleven years later.

What I found most compelling about the DVD, however, was something I’ve never found on another DVD. Lee has used the occasion of this release to argue a point about the film that much of the audience—myself included—may have missed. The argument centers around whether the main character, Mookie (played by Spike Lee himself), actually did “the right thing” in the film. The event that precipitates this moment is the brutal murder of Mookie’s friend, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), by the police. They arrive to break up a fight between Raheem and Mookie’s boss, pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello), who has smashed Raheem’s radio with a baseball bat. After pulling Raheem off Sal, the police strangle him with their batons while the crowd looks on stunned. Mookie, in frustration and disgust, then throws a garbage can through Sal’s restaurant window, setting off a riot that ends with the pizzeria being burned down.

In the commentary track and then in a video final thought, Lee talks about the fact that many people have come up to him since the film’s release to ask him if he thought Mookie did “the right thing.” These viewers feel that Sal did not cause Radio Raheem’s death and therefore Mookie committed an injustice by targeting his anger and frustration at the pizzeria. And, to be honest, this is precisely the reaction I had to the film when I saw it on video eight years ago. The vision of racial harmony I thought Lee was setting up throughout the film between Mookie and Sal is violently shattered with the pizzeria window and I was shocked and disappointed that the film had to come to that.

Then, I watched this DVD a week ago with the commentary track on, and heard Lee ask, “What about Radio Raheem’s death?” And I was completely stunned that I had never really thought about that. I had blamed Mookie for shattering “racial harmony,” when it was the police who killed Raheem in the first place. That’s the initial violence and I couldn’t believe that I—and apparently many other viewers, according to Lee—overlooked that fact. When confronted with this, I realized that the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria—his property—was a more poignant scene for me than Raheem’s death. It’s amazing to me, now, that I could have had that reaction. And yet, I did and I’ve been wondering why ever since.

This is a brilliant use of the DVD release of Do the Right Thing, a chance for Lee to open the film up again for viewers who’ve closed it down. As fewer risks are taken and DVDs become more standardized, I wonder if I’ll have this type of experience again. Seeing it this once, though, opens up the possibilities the technology has of bringing us into even closer contact with a film. It’s no longer just that we can see a film outside of the theater time and time again. DVD at its best can give tools and perspectives that communicate the film to us in a deeper way. And it’s for that type of direct experience that I go to films in the first place.

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