The title sequence of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” ranks as one of the great openings in film history. Certainly it’s among the most explosive.
First, the rap group Public Enemy bum rushes the soundtrack, spitting out the movie’s propulsive theme song, “Fight the Power.”
Then actress Rosie Perez appears front and center, dancing with passion and style, but as if in a trance. Her original fly-girl moves would be copied for years to come.
Meanwhile, the opening credits show off Lee’s killer cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruth Lee, John Turturro, Bill Nunn, Samuel Jackson, Martin Lawrence, Robin Harris, Giancarlo Esposito, Perez — some famous at the time, some relative unknowns.
Seen and heard on Blu-ray, the title sequence picks up even more velocity. Universal Studios Home Entertainment delivers that boost with its excellent high definition release of “Do the Right Thing,” marking the 20th anniversary of the controversial film about race relations in Brooklyn.
The Blu-ray (and double-disc DVD version) builds upon the Criterion Collection’s 2001 DVD, retaining most of the solid extra features.
New to the 20th anniversary “Do the Right Thing” are a solo feature commentary by
Lee and a retrospective docu with the director interviewing his collaborators. This is an unusually fine effort out of Universal, not known for extensive extra features.
As a story, “Do the Right Thing” has aged beautifully, although its racially explosive elements don’t scrape the same raw nerves as in 1989. Now it’s “a totally different New York” than when the film was made, Lee says. The film was shot in the aftermath of the notorious Howard Beach attack on three black teenagers. Although the movie is set in a black-Hispanic neighborhood, “It’s (really) about Howard Beach,” Lee says.
The director pays tribute to then-Universal Studios chief Tom Pollock, who fought to distribute the film in its original form. Lee’s critics said its pizzeria riot scene would incite mob violence by reminding urban audiences of the 1986 attacks. It didn’t.
The film takes place over the course of the hottest day of the year, on a single block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Lee introduces us to two dozen or so characters and follows their mostly humorous interactions for two acts. The film concludes as many of the characters we’ve come to like form a mob and attack a local pizzeria owned by Italian Americans.
Top-billed Danny Aiello plays the proprietor of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, where he employs his two sons, one a flat-out racist (John Turturro). Mookie (Spike Lee) is their delivery man, a local guy whose love of money barely trumps his aversion to work.
Sal refuses a black customer’s request to add photos of Afro-Americans to his Italian-American wall of fame, setting up the last reel’s tragic events.
The tension between the Afro-Americans and Italian Americans of New York is the focus of several of Lee’s major films. This was the first.
Lee’s is not an exclusively Afro-American perspective. The white pizzeria owner and the black customer make “two valid points” about the pictures on the wall, says Lee, who leaves it up to his audience to determine who, if anyone, did the right thing on that searing day.
Not surprisingly, the Academy Awards barely acknowledged this now-classic film. The 1989 best picture award, ironically, went to “Driving Miss Daisy,” a gentle film about a white woman and her black chauffeur. “Do the Right Thing” wasn’t even nominated in the best picture category. Only Aiello received a major nomination, while Lee was up for best original screenplay.
The project started as “Heat Wave,” a study of how “people just lose their minds in New York when the temperature hits 95 and above,” Lee says. “As the heat escalates, everything else escalates.”
Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson decided to use “color psychology” to reflect the heat, most notably on the “firetruck red” wall that’s the backdrop for the three middle-aged streetcorner guys who make up the Greek chorus.
“It was hot as shit,” Lee recalls of the five-week shoot. “I still feel the heat,” one actor says.
Regardless, it rained throughout the first weeks of location shooting, a nightmare for DP Dickerson. “I had to come up with a formula for making sunlight.”
“Do the Right Thing” was Lee’s third film. Universal gave him the freedom to make the movie he wanted, after first approving the script.
“This was the first film where I felt confident as a director,” he recalls in the new commentary. “For the first two (movies) I was intimidated by actors, but I knew if I wanted to continue … I had to tighten this shit up.”
Lee filmed the Blu-ray retrospective during a Lincoln Center tribute last winter. The director’s interaction with Rosie Perez is a hoot, as they debate what happened the night he discovered her in an L.A. club.
John Turturro recalls his concern about riding subways after playing his racist pizza maker, but says people of color still come up to him to rave about the film. Chuck D of Public Enemy says he was baffled as to how to write an anthem, as Lee insisted.
Ported over from the Criterion DVD (and laserdisc) are a making-of docu, a group commentary track featuring Lee and Dickerson, and some intriguing deleted scenes. There’s also a storyboard breakdown of the riot scene and an interview with the editor.
Befitting the film’s status, the Blu-ray loads directly to the handsome menu, skipping the usual promo parade.
The clarity and colors are outstanding, far beyond what you’d expect. The 5.1 surround stage is used to great effect, especially when the helicopter makes a cameo on “Fight the Power.”