Do the Right Thing
The hottest day of the year explodes on-screen in this vibrant look at a day in the life of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Featuring a stellar ensemble cast that includes Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, and John Turturro, Spike Lee’s powerful portrait of urban racial tensions sparked controversy while earning popular and critical praise.
The Criterion Collection’s original DVD edition of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing presents the film on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The specifications indicate the film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1, though it’s clear that is not the case and it appears to be closer to 1.75:1 or so. The high-definition digital transfer comes from a scan of the 35mm intermediate positive. It has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
This is one presentation I was always fairly thrilled with but coming back to it now (18-years later!) I was disappointed to see it hasn’t held up all that well, further disappointing because I’ve been revisiting a number of early Criterion DVD presentations that still look good, even when upscaled. Generally speaking the presentation is fine: it’s bright, the colours look spectacular, and detail is decent. Even black levels are good. What stunned me was how apparent and in your face the compression artifacts are. Shimmering, noise, and blockiness are all very much in your face throughout, and the image has a very strong video look to it. The screen grabs don’t really show this, unfortunately: stills look pretty good, but when the image moves the artifacts are far more obvious. Grain has been strongly managed, which, despite the decent level of detail that still remains, can give the picture an occasionally soft look.
There’s still a surprising amount of damage as well, though it’s mostly limited to specs of debris and a handful of other marks, but on the whole it looks clean. As mentioned before the colours look nice but the reds are intense, but based on director of photography Ernest Dickerson’s comments in the commentary this was done intentionally to help capture a feeling of the heat (the film takes place on what is being touted “the hottest day of the year”) and the rising tensions. Oddly, this colour scheme was removed from Universal’s eventual Blu-ray release, though put back in (to a lesser degree) in Criterion’s upcoming (as of this writing) Blu-ray edition.
In the end I was a little disappointed. It hasn’t held up well and its issues are far more obvious. It gets the job done in the end, is still pleasing on a surface level, but my fond memories of this presentation have been sullied, mostly due to the compression being more obbvious (I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason is that Criterion included a lossless PCM audio track). Thankfully Criterion’s new Blu-ray offers a drastic improvement.
I’ve always been a little puzzled by Criterion’s audio choice for this edition, as they have included both a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track and a lossless PCM 2.0 stereo track. I always thought it was great that Criterion was clearly interested in delivering the best audio or video possible and using an uncompressed track at the time was rare (Criterion did include one for their DVD of The Magic Flute, though it wasn’t all that great), but I’m still at a loss as to why they included both. I may be misremembering the time (again, it has already been 18-friggin’ years since this DVD came out, released 6-years after the original LaserDisc came out, which itself was released 6-years after the film was released) but I’m pretty sure most receivers would have decoded the PCM track similarly to the Dolby Digital track, directing the sound between the speakers (the rear speakers working together of course). And the reason I question having both, or even bothered to include the PCM track in the first place, is because I really couldn’t detect much of a difference between the two and I do suspect including the track possibly led to the compression present in the video (this is a time, as many may recall, where studios would do separate DTS releases for that very reason).
I’m admittedly not much of an audiophile and I really have a hard time picking out the general nuances that are found between different types of digital presentations, so I can accept my questioning all of this is a waste of time. But as I stated I could not detect much of a difference, except that I did find the PCM track could be flatter in a few places during quick comparisons between the two. During playback of the PCM track I found the ambient noise coming from the rears could be a little more obvious, but the main thrust of a scene (like the yelling of characters mixed with Public Enemy blasting through the radio during the climactic pizzeria scene) would come off weaker to what the Dolby Digital one offered. This could be all smoke and mirrors and the Dolby Digital track is simply mixed a little louder, hiding other things that the compression of the track takes away, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I was more satisfied by the Dolby Digital track.
At any rate, after all of that, the mix for each is fine and they serve the film well. In both cases dialogue is clear and crisp, never drowned out by any of the other speakers, except when things get incredibly hairy and everyone is screaming at each other of course. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasts through nicely, filling the environment, and sound effects are mixed beautifully through the speakers, with movement between the fronts sounding natural (like when characters move from one side of the screen to the other for example). It will come down to personal preference obviously, but the mixes are both good, I just felt the Dolby Digital track had a bit more oomph to it during a handful of the louder scenes I compared.
Criterion had previously released the film on LaserDisc and this DVD was pretty much a port of that edition, adding a few more things to the mix. The first disc contains only one supplement: the LaserDisc’s audio commentary featuring Spike Lee and his sister Joie Lee, along with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and production designer Wynn Thomas. Like most commentaries from Criterion at the time all of the participants have been recorded separately with the material edited together. Thomas and Dickerson focus on their specific duties, Thomas on preparing the neighbourhood and the interiors, with a lot of detail about the pizzeria (and yes, it ended up being a fully functional pizzeria), while Dickerson talks about creating the look of a hot day. The two are very technical, with Dickerson getting into deep detail about setting up particular shots and the luck he ran into along the way.
Spike Lee is the primary contributor to the track, talking about the genesis of the film, casting, and goes over incidents that influenced moments in the film. Much to my surprise Lee is very open about his intentions, even going so far as explaining how he agrees or disagrees with characters in the film, which of course leads to him explaining how he intentionally wrote the film’s characters as flawed, and even made it hard to sympathize with a lot of them, which of course made the film a bit harder for some audiences because there is no clear cut good guy/bad guy. Both he and his sister talk about the social issues brought up in the film, address the “concerns” that were brought up about the film from the studio and critics, take on unfair criticisms, and talk about the other actors and their own performances (with Spike Lee dryly saying he doesn’t feel his acting “ruined the film”). I’ve listened to the track a few times now and it’s still an extraordinarily rich track, and I think newcomers to the film who are lost after their first viewing will find it invaluable.
The remaining supplements are then found on the second dual-layer disc. After a quick 1-minute introduction by Lee (explaining how viewers should find this edition to be treat) there is a collection of behind-the-scenes footage, divided into 6 sections. This portion starts off with another introduction by Lee who explains how he likes to capture behind-the-scenes footage. The remaining 5 sections then cover a lot of the production from the read-through to the finale, with some rehearsal footage thrown in (like Lee and Aiello working out one of their scenes). In whole the footage runs about 57-minutes, and features interviews from the time with various members of the cast and crew, though I was surprised how often Rosie Perez shows up. There’s a real family vibe to everything.
Criterion then presents a section called The Riot Sequence. Spike Lee again appears to explain how he doesn’t usually like storyboards, but he needed them for the riot sequence because of how large scale it was. Criterion then presents a navigable gallery that you can then page through. In a nice little touch you can select the individual panels and “zoom in” on it to see the text and details.
One of the bigger features, though, is a one-hour long documentary, The Making of “Do the Right Thing,” which appears to be sourced from a video tape. It pairs nicely with the behind-the-scenes footage, but this has a far more narrative push to it and covers more ground. A majority of the film of course covers the actual filming, and it gathers some wonderful interviews with members of the cast and crew (even the extras!), with my favourite being the one with Giancarlo Esposito. But the most interesting aspect is when the film looks at how this production is impacting the neighbourhood, some people thrilled with it, others not so much. Lee provides yet another introduction and then follows up the documentary with a 5-minute return to Bed-Stuy, featuring Lee and producer John Kilik, recorded for the DVD in 2000, revisiting the shooting location to see how it’s holding up (the murals, for example, are still there but heavily faded) while also sharing some stories from the time (like how Universal was very concerned they were filming in that area).
An interview with the editor Barry Alexander Brown pops up next. It's divided into 4 sections and runs about 10 minutes in total. Brown explains how he came onto the film and how structured the script was, which made editing easier. Some of the film’s stand-out moments sound to have been completely made-up in the editing room and it’s amusing to hear that Brown ended up having to film his own quick moment to fix one scene that just wasn’t working.
Criterion then digs up footage from the press panel following a screening of the film at the Cannes Film Festival. This segment features Spike Lee, Joie Lee, Richard Edson, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. This lasts about 42 minutes and is yet another interesting feature as you can see how the film had an impact on the audience, and the questions (of which there are many) offer examples of what Lee has been talking about in the commentary and some of his introductions spread throughout this disc in regards to audience reactions to the film. There is then a theatrical trailer and 2 TV spots (the latter of which really tries to sell the film as a straight-up comedy), and then Lee shows up once more for what is labeled as “Spike’s Last Word.” In this 6-minute conclusion to the disc Lee addresses the hysteria that arose around the film’s release from white critics and provides quotes from articles stating how this film will cause violence (queue Ron Howard narrator voice: “It didn’t”), while expressing frustrations over how some reacted to the film’s conclusion.
The set then concludes with an insert featuring an article by Roger Ebert about his reaction the film. In all it’s a superb set of features, providing great background information on the film’s production and at the same time helping contextualize the film for audiences that might come away confused as to what the film is saying. Later editions released since (including a DVD and Blu-ray from Universal and Criterion’s own Blu-ray upgrade) provide more material, but as it is here this is still a wonderfully put together set of features.
The presentation hasn’t held up all that well I’m sad to say: it’s still bright and detail is pretty good, but compression is a more obvious problem now, a disappointment considering some of Criterion’s other releases from around the same time still hold up well. But it’s still one hell of a special edition when it comes to supplements, which are some of the most satisfying I can recall from the time.