By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009 12:00 AM
"Do the Right Thing" -- the Spike Lee joint that kickstarted some tough conversations about racism and prompted boomboxes across the country to blast "Fight the Power" -- celebrates its 20th anniversary today with a new DVD ($29.98) and Blu-ray ($39.98) release, both of which feature digitally remastered versions of the film, perfectly polished for the new millennium. The question is: does this day-in-the-life-of-Bed-Stuy saga still hold up in the (allegedly) enlightened era of Barack Obama?
The answer is a resounding yes. "Do the Right Thing" remains, arguably, the most honest, funny and brave film about racism in the history of American cinema. True, certain details -- notably the hi-top fade haircuts, the Air Jordans and the references to controversial incidents like the Tawana Brawley rape case -- place the movie precisely in the late '80s. But the confidence of Lee's direction and the issues he confronts remain as relevant as ever. Two decades later -- as coverage from The Root demonstrates -- we still debate the reasons why Mookie (played by Lee) throws that trash can through the front window of Sal's Famous Pizzeria, inciting a riot and stoking the flames of an already simmering, summertime rage in one Brooklyn community.
This special edition of "Do the Right Thing" comes with some brand new extras, most notably the retrospective, "Do the Right Thing: 20 Years Later," directed by Lee and featuring the filmmaker in conversation with members of the cast (including Rosie Perez and John Turturro) and other key contributors (director of photography Ernest Dickerson and Public Enemy's Chuck D, co-writer of the anthem "Fight the Power") to the film. Also freshly created for this edition: a new commentary from Lee and 11 interesting, if not terribly enlightening, deleted and extended scenes, including a longer take of the final, rancorous exchange between Mookie and Sal (Danny Aiello).
It's all good stuff. But on the whole, it doesn't quite match the quality of the numerous featurettes found on the second disc in this set, all of which appeared on the 2001 Criterion Collection DVD. Of course, if you don't already own that release, you'll be more than pleased to check out what's here, particularly the best piece of bonus material in this collection, "Making 'Do the Right Thing,'" a one-hour, behind-the-scenes documentary that captures everything from Lee running lines with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to real members of the Bedford-Stuyvesant community expressing skepticism about welcoming a Hollywood movie shoot to their block. ("The President of the United States [could] come through here," says one man. "They'll clean the street for one day, but that's it.") The mini-movie provides a candid view of how "Do the Right Thing" got made as well as a compelling, time-capsule-style look at Bed-Stuy in its pre-gentrified era.
Really, this DVD needs just one more key thing: a retrospective that puts "Do the Right Thing" in its proper cultural context. It's clear that this film is significant, but for newcomers to Radio Raheem's world -- especially those who don't quite remember the '80s -- this release only partially tells us why. Lee, for example, mentions briefly during his commentary that some critics expressed concern that the movie would incite actual riots. But we don't get much more information about the controversy the film generated or the impact it had on other artists who followed.
There is no question that "Do the Right Thing" is a must-add to any serious film lover's library, and this version certainly won't disappoint most. But the very best DVDs not only give us a great movie, they tell the full story behind that movie. In this 20th Anniversary Edition, we get some excellent chapters, to be sure. But I'm still hoping for a release that covers the whole, terrific "Thing."