In the interim, Spike Lee has directed at least two great-to-masterpiece-level films. Malcolm X is maybe his strongest achievement as it does feel like an accurate summation of a great man’s life, while Inside Man is a masterful genre piece that’s smarter and hipper than most. A great taking of the mantle from Sidney Lumet, if there ever was one. But when it comes to Spike, it’s hard not to suggest his greatest achievement was made twenty years ago with Do the Right Thing. My full review is after the jump:
Lee stars as Mookie, a pizza delivery man for Sal (Danny Aiello), at Sal’s Famous Pizzareia. There he works with Sal’s racist son Pino (John Turturro) and the more accepting Vito (Richard Edson). But the film is about a block in Bed-Stuy in the late 80’s, so there’s all sorts of characters about. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) is an old drunk, but a charming one at that, who has a prickly relationship with Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) as she sits in her stoop and watches the neighborhood. There’s Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who goes around blasting Public Enemy’s Fight the Power all day long on his boom box. Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) is a deaf stutterer selling the picture of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King’s meeting. There’s Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who’s proud of his shoes and wants to boycott Sal’s because all the pictures on the wall are of Italian Americans, and none of African-Americans (the shop’s most consistent patrons). ML (Paul Benjamin) Coconut Sid (Frankie Faison) and Sweet Dick Willie (the late great Robin Harris) sit at their table and drink and talk smack, while there’s a Korean grocery store owned by Sonny (Steve Park) where everyone gets their beer. There’s a group of teenagers out (including Martin Lawrence), the radio DJ Mister Senoir Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), Mookie’s sister Jade (Joie Lee) and Mookie’s girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) who takes care of their son Hector.
For a good ninety minutes of the film’s running time, it’s about the incidents of a day in the life of this Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. Most are amusing, as groups intersect and interact. Pino and Mookie talk about Pino’s racism, and Mookie confronts Pino with the fact that he loves a lot of black famous people. Radio Raheem shows off his new bling, which features Love on one hand and Hate on the other (Spike’s most self-conscious nod to cinema history, in homage to Night of the Hunter). He builds the characters, creating a lived in atmosphere.
But then – partly due to the heat – the film escalates into violence, some of which is likely still controversial, but it’s partly why the film stands as a classic. Spike offers his thoughts on why his character does what he did in concrete terms in the new commentary, but arguably what makes the film exciting is how we interpret some of the actions. Spike has been critical of audiences who find themselves more moved by the loss of property over loss of life, and his concern suggests many of the themes in the film. When people have their backs against it all their worst (and perhaps most honest) selves come out. But, in terms of race relations, Spike is very even handed, and shows the good and bad sides of most of the characters, but in creating a microcosm he is able to do what most masterpieces about people do: create a world that lives and breathes beyond the screen. And these characters embed themselves. But it’s important to remember that the film is funny, sexy, provocative, and cinematically excited. There is so much to love here.
Universal presents the Blu-ray version in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD surround. Though the transfer doesn’t offer the saturated colors of the Criterion edition, the colors are also cleaner, and the film’s heat is readily apparent. It isn’t as soft, but such often comes across as muddy in a 1080 transfer. It looks excellent, but purists may want to hold on to both versions. The Criterion commentary with Lee, Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, Production designer Wynn Thomas and Joie Lee is included, and I should stop and give Dickerson his due for this film. You feel the heat, and that’s got a lot to do with his work. Also included is a looser commentary by Lee recorded for this release. He laughs a lot, and enjoys the film, and says some interesting things, but it’s not as tightly thought out as the earlier commentary. New is “Do the Right Thing: 20 Years Later” (36 min.) with Lee, Dickerson, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Richard Edson, Steve Park, Roger Guenveur Turner (Smiley), Jon Savage, Frankie Faison, Luis Ramos, Chuck D, Co-producers Monty Ross, and Jon Kilik, and Assistant Props Kevin Ladson. It’s a good talking heads pieces about the making of. There’s Eleven Deleted scenes (14 min.) showin more life in the neighborhood, with a beautiful shot of the Trade Center. From the criterion collection comes the period behind the scenes (58 min.) and a making of (61 min.) which gives a full picture on the film and its struggles, along with a Spike intro (1 min.), and Lee and co-producer Jon Kilik walking around the old neighborhood (5 min.), and an interview with Barry Brown (10 min.). Also from the CC is an intro to the storyboard sequence for the Riot scene (2 min.), and the storyboards for it presented in a still gallery. Also from that disc is a documentary on the film’s reception at Cannes (42 min.) with comments from Lee, Joie Lee, and Ossie Davis. The disc also comes with the film’s theatrical trailer and two TV spots. Missing from the Criterion version is the music video for Fight the Power, though that is the only missing supplement.