Do the Right Thing: 20th Anniversary Edition (US - BD)
Gabe would totally throw a garbage can through a window if he could lift it...
Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York—on the hottest day of the year. The block’s residents meander through their lives as racial tensions heat up. Eventually a spark is lit, and events unfold which will lead to explosions of violence, destruction of property, and even death.
The ‘80s, so far as hardcore American film geeks are concerned, opened with Raging Bull, and came to a close with Do the Right Thing. Both films featured maverick directors at the top of their game, expressing their love for the medium and the history of the medium through indelible and difficult stories. Both films were, of course, overlooked by the Academy for Best Picture. Do the Right Thing asked the hard questions, it showed us the hard truth, and it did it all with so much energy and style that no other artistic medium could achieve. It’s a filmmaker’s film, about more than narrative or even characters. It works as a statement, it works as art, and it works as pure cinema thanks to colourful photography, a stage play-like atmosphere, and a constant breakage of the fourth wall.
Looking back at the black film from the end of the Reagan era (please don’t correct me, I know the man was out of office at the time) at the beginning of the Obama era is strange, but not entirely foreign. I’m just old enough to have been socially aware of the terrors of late ‘80s/early ‘90s racial strife. The Rodney King riots had a way of opening even a child’s eyes to problems. Many readers may not have any personal point of reference for the era, because twenty years is a long time. Those readers need to understand how much Do the Right Thing defines the era. ‘Dated’ is most often used as a negative reading of a film, but in this case the film is a time capsule for future generations, much like Dog Day Afternoon, Saturday Night Fever, or even West Side Story.
I usually credit directors with a film’s visual output for the most part, but in the case of Do the Right Thing cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s efforts should not be underestimated. The film is a Spike Lee Joint, but Dickerson’s contribution is nearly immeasurable, and thanks to commentary track and documentary efforts his specific ideas and inputs are clear. Despite Dickerson’s clear Mario Bava meets style (which can be seen in his other films) no other film looks exactly like Do the Right Thing, not even the most direct follow-ups from the same team. The film’s look expresses the story’s immediacy, and the characters’ presence through both overt and subtle means. Lee’s story and the actor’s performances are brilliant, but the visuals, regardless of responsibility, are the addition that makes the film a true work of art.
Do the Right Thing may be twenty years old, but its visual effect has never been entirely captured on any home video medium. Even the special edition Criterion release suffered some unfortunate compression artefacts. This new 1080p transfer isn’t perfect, even by non-videophile standards, but it’s a sizable step up from other versions of the film, and possibly the best the film can look based on the source material (a fact I don’t pretend to know). Details are sharper than the DVD versions, and clarity is intensified by measurable levels. To appreciate the effect one only has to skip the titles and notice that Sam Jackson’s eyeballs are now visible through his dark glasses. Close-ups are perfect and as natural as the style allows, and really wide shots are generally effective, but medium shots are slightly muddied, despite increased contrast frequencies. The most obvious shortcoming on the entire print is edge enhancement, which mostly appears in the form of white lines on hard contrast edges (which are pretty common considering Dickerson’s use of deep focus and wide angle lenses). There’s plenty of grain on the print, but nothing overbearing, and the actual granules are pretty small.
Colours are the transfer’s bread and butter, and some will pop your eye’s right out of your skull. Check out the red wall behind the block’s elder statesmen, and marvel at the purity and sheer brightness. Sure, there’s a little bit of compression fuzz around the guys in front of the wall, but it’s so minimal I can’t get too upset. Taking it back to Sam Jackson for a minute—check out the neons and blacks on that clothing. Admire the subtle blends and the harsh contrasts. The flashy costumes and bright outdoor shots are met with sombre indoor shots, which during the daylight hours of the film’s story are hardly lit from anything but the outside sun. These compositions are far from subtle, but feature a different kind of gorgeous, stylistic purity which is crystal clear on the Blu-ray format.
These screen caps are from the Criterion DVD, thanks to Troy Anderson. They’re brighter and more yellowed than this BD release, and (as seen in the special features non-anamorphic versions of the footage) are slightly narrower framed at about 1.78:1 instead of 1.85:1.
This release represents the very first 5.1 version of Do the Right Thing. The trip straight from Dolby Surround 2.0 (and the 2.0 PCM Criterion track) to uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio isn’t particularly noteworthy, I suppose, but there is some improvement in key areas (as far as my ear’s memory is concerned, it’s been a while since I rented the Criterion release). The on-site recorded dialogue and sound effects are a little flat and slightly lacking in bass support, but are clear and consistent. There isn’t any distortion, per-se, but there is a noticeable volume limit that comes into play when characters really yell. There aren’t a lot of directional effects, or even surround presence. The ADR stands out against it, as does Sam Jackson’s ‘narration’. Both are effectively warm and natural, not to mention lacking any semblance of distortion.
But as expected, the music is the real story. The obvious track is Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’, which made its debut for this particular film, and is played consistently throughout, first over the opening credits, then on Radio Raheem’s boom box in almost every scene featuring the character. The credit version of the song is awesome, throbbing with punchy bass, crystal clear vocals, and quick attack drums. The track hasn’t been remixed for 5.1, but the rear ghost effects are pretty impressive. The boom box scenes feature most of the film’s most dynamic sound editing, and are among the only scenes with effective directional effects, as Raheem moves through the stage. Bill Lee’s (Spikes dad) score is less bombastic, but also an obvious improvement over the 2.0 releases.
New extras start with a 20th Anniversary commentary track with Spike Lee. The track is unfortunately filled with blank spaces and redundancies. The track’s only going to be valuable to the film’s most steadfast devotees. A second commentary has been ported from the Criterion release, and is far more valuable. The track includes Lee (who works better on group edited tracks, actress Joie Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and production designer Wynn Thomas. The track is semi-hosted by Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson is (as in the case of the Malcolm X commentary) the track’s most indelible and impressive contributor. Dickerson makes sure we appreciate his pains (it’s terrifying how many shots were created during overcast days) without ever coming off as self important or self serving. Dickerson even covers the non-cinematographer behind the scenes info better than Lee, who mostly focuses on the writing and characters.
Starting the new and fun Blu-ray extras are eleven ‘newly discovered’ deleted scenes (14:00, HD). The scenes are presented in high definition, and look clean and balanced enough, but the print is rife with artefacts, especially at the top and bottom of the splice. The scenes include Mookie arguing about a tip, a kid trying to fry an egg on Sal’s car, two scenes of side characters wasting time on a rooftop, Jade and Smiley chatting in a doorway, Sal and Mookie talking about cursing, Jade and Vito talking about girls, two scenes of Jade doing Mother Sister’s hair, Mookie and Vito delivering a sandwich to Love Daddy the DJ, and a different take of Sal from the end of the film.
‘Do the Right Thing: 20 Years Later’ (35:50, HD) repeats a lot of the factoids found on the commentaries, but features Lee interviewing members of the cast to get their recollections and opinions on the film, along with some footage from some kind of press conference. The tone is light for the subject manner, and there are even a handful of laugh out loud moments. It’s not the greatest reason to double-dip, but considering the vintage of the other making-of documentary the presence of any retrospective is a plus.
The ten part ‘Making Do the Right Thing’ (60:00, SD) is a more precise look at the production, filmed and cut like a more standard documentary than a DVD extra. The doc was made during the film’s 1989 production, so things are very immediate. It starts with the complex and arduous process of location scouting and set construction, which in this case required a lot of local support, and this sets the tone for the entire doc. The doc itself isn’t boring or draining, but it captures the pain of the filmmaking process in little pieces, and with a special focus on the production’s working class staff. The most incredible and thought provoking moments aren’t the interviews with cast and crew, but the interviews with the locals, who express their own opinions on being invaded by Hollywood. Melvin Van Peebles’ appearance is another exciting plus, and the full-frame, grime-caked scenes from the film are a good reminder of how great the new print is. The doc is augmented with a brief Spike Lee intro and a brief return to the Bed-Stuy location.
The behind the scenes footage (58:00, SD) is split into six parts (Spike Lee Intro, The Read-Through, Developing Character, Rehearsals, Improvising with the Cornermen, and Block Party). I’m not really a fan of raw footage, mostly because I have a limited attention span concerning anything which I am not being led through by the hand like a child. The footage is a valuable addition to the collection for the sake of completion, but I didn’t find it particularly entertaining to watch.
The same goes for the 1989 Cannes Film Festival (42:00, SD) press conference tour, which is interesting enough, but a bit numbing when watched in its raw form. The whole thing is surreal from the standpoint of its very existence—a press conference with a room of entirely white, intellectual press types. The whole thing is awkward, and rough passive aggressiveness eventual builds to relative outward antagonism between Lee and the audience. There’s a fantastic moment where the director calls out the European press for pinning racism purely on America, and for getting upset about what they saw as a downer of an ending.
Next is a four part featurette on editor Barry Brown (9:30, SD). In talking head interview form Brown runs down his early career with Lee, which developed into a job as editor on Lee’s early films, his opinions and place on Do the Right Thing, and the difficulties of cutting a film meant to take place over a twenty-four hour period. This is followed by a storyboard gallery (with a Lee intro), a trailer and two TV spots. The one thing missing from the collection is Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ music video.
Time has been very, very kind to Do the Right Thing. I’m somewhat shocked by my memories, and the period reviews, which painted the film as a frightening, and violent and downer. I now see the film as an accurate portrayal of its time, and a rather overtly positive one, not to mention a particularly whimsical take on disturbing violence. So many of the extras, which are largely vintage, are mind-blowing from the aspect of the state of politics in 1989. At the time the election of New York City’s first black mayor was a major victory for Black America. Now we’ve elected a black man President of the United States. Politics aside, this is one of the most important and artistically indelible films of the 1980s, and this Blu-ray is a stellar item for any fan of motion picture art.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 30th June 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English, DTS 5.1 French, DTS 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Director/Cast/Crew Commentary, Do the Right Thing: 20 Years Later, Deleted Scenes, The Making Of Do the Right Thing, Behind the Scenes, Back to Bed-Stuy, Editor Barry Brown, 1989 Cannes Film Festival Press Conference, Storyboards, Trailer, TV Spots
Easter Egg: No
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Rosie Perez, Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro, John Savage
Length: 120 minutes
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