Do The Right Thing Review

This review contains some plot spoilers

A summer’s day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York. And it’s hot. Very hot. Mookie (Spike Lee) is a delivery boy for the long-established Sal’s pizzeria, a white-owned business in this predominantly black neighbourhood. As the days go on, tempers fray in the heat.

Do the Right Thing was Spike Lee’s third feature, following the independent hit She’s Gotta Have It and his unsuccessful major-studio debut School Daze. It premiered at the 1989 Cannes Festival, which in retrospect was a watershed in the American independent movement, because also in competition that year was Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape. While Do the Right Thing wasn’t strictly an independent – it was made for Universal – it certainly had that sensibility. At this stage in his career, Lee had already become a “smuggler” (in Martin Scorsese’s term), by using the financial resources and worldwide distribution of the major studios while bringing in new, out-of-the-mainstream angles and perspectives. Sex, Lies and Do the Right Thing are in many ways polar opposites: one personal and intimate and deeply involved in the lives of a small number of characters, the other more outgoing and concerned with a society and how a large number of people are linked together. Soderbergh’s film won the awards but Lee’s didn’t lack for press coverage. At the Oscars, Lee received a nomination for his screenplay, as did Danny Aiello (who played Sal) for Best Supporting Actor.

Lee is known for distinctive opening credits sequences, and Do the Right Thing is no exception, featuring Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. Then, over the next hour and a half or so, Lee takes his time in establishing his large cast. The mood is tense because of the heat – this and Dog Day Afternoon are the definitive films on very hot days in New York and what that does to people. And some things make it more tense: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) a hulking, possibly autistic man inseparable from his ghetto blaster which is always turned up loud. Then there’s the volatile Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), incensed when he notices that there are no pictures of black people on the walls of Sal’s pizzeria, only Italian-Americans.

Much of the commentary about Do the Right Thing questioned Lee’s stance on the events which follows. The film certainly shows how a race riot can happen, but is it ever justified? Lee deliberately leaves that open, ending the film with quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. King is emphatically opposed to violence; X says that while he doesn’t endorse it, violence in self-defence can be called intelligence. It’s true that Lee possibly confuses the issue by playing the role of the person who finally sparks off the riot. But in answer to that, Mookie is not Lee, but Lee playing a character, and one who isn’t always sympathetic either (he’s a feckless father to his young son). You could also argue that the situation has deteriorated considerably by the time and his action is a lightning rod, to bring forward the inevitable rather than delay it and make it worse. But is this the Right Thing? You decide.

Watching the film again, you do notice some flaws which are excusable in what was after all a third feature. There’s a tendency towards overlength and sprawl, and Lee in places overemphasises: an interlude where blacks, Italians, Hispanics and Koreans spit racial epithets at the camera, and an episode where the local DJ Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson, billed here as Sam Jackson) pays tribute to a long list of black singers and entertainers. (These include Caribbeans such as Bob Marley, which does beg the question if Jamaicans and New York African-Americans feel much racial solidarity and how do they feel about Lee speaking on their behalf?) Lee is also far more interested in the men than the women – Ruby Dee, Rosie Perez and Lee’s sister Joie have minor roles – but maybe there’s a point there, as Lee is clearly very good at dramatising confrontations between men (or dick-waving contests, if you’re unsympathetic to excesses of testosterone). As a director, Lee is overfond of the orange filters that pervade Ernest Dickerson’s camerawork and also overuses tilt shots. On the other hand, performances are first-rate across the board. Aiello may have had the Oscar nomination (deservedly) but the rest of the cast are just as good.

Unlike many films that are very much of their moment, Do the Right Thing has aged well. Seventeen years on, some of its flaws are apparent but it hasn’t dated one iota, and while racial tensions exist it will remain relevant.

Do the Right Thing has been on DVD before, most notably in Criterion’s edition, which is still available. The edition under review forms part of the five-film (three-disc digipak) Spike Lee Joint Collection, released by Universal. Do the Right Thing is on one side of a DVD-10 disc. (Mo’ Better Blues, which I will be reviewing separately, is on the other.) The DVD is encoded for Region 1 only.

Do the Right Thing has an anamorphic transfer in its correct ratio of 1.85:1. I don’t have the Criterion to hand to make a comparison, but Universal’s transfer is very good. The transfer does well by the film’s bold colour scheme and is sharp, with good blacks and shadow detail. Pretty much what you should expect from a fairly recent film, after all.

On its cinema release, Do The Right Thing was released with a Dolby Spectral Recording soundtrack. In common with the other two films in the set which predate digital soundtracks, the DVD has a surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. It’s not the most spectacular mix, with the surrounds used mainly for music and ambience, without much in the way of directional effects. That said, dialogue is easily audible, though if you find strong accents a problem there are subtitles available. There are sixteen chapter stops. In common with the rest of this box set, there are no extras, not even a trailer.

Do the Right Thing is a key film in Spike Lee’s career and one of the most influential (and controversial) American films of the last two decades. Given that the Criterion edition has a commentary and a second disc of extras, that would be the edition of choice for fans of the film without question. However, Universal’s box set – which gives four additional films – wins out for value for money if you aren’t interested in extras.

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