Released during one of New York's most hotly contested mayoral elections, as well as one of the hottest summers on record, 1989's Do The Right Thing prompted a controversy that threatened to overshadow its artistic worth. The mindless, reactionary criticism the film generated—largely centered on the idea that Lee's smart, evenhanded, honest drama would provoke racial violence—seems to have had a huge effect on the filmmaker, whose subsequent work has often been strident and simplistic. But neither those initial criticisms nor the muddled politics of many of Lee's later films lessen the impact or importance of his brilliantly constructed breakthrough. Following the day-in-the-life-of-a-community paradigm popularized by American Graffiti and Car Wash, Do The Right Thing focuses on one exceedingly hot day in the life of Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, a primarily black community enduring an uncomfortable codependence with its primarily non-black shop owners. Danny Aiello and Spike Lee lead a large, excellent cast as an Italian-American pizza-store owner and his delivery boy, respectively. Both characters uneasily navigate between idealism and pragmatism, between the white world behind the counter of the pizza shop and the black world that supports it, however bitterly. At the time of its release, Do The Right Thing was attacked for allegedly painting a hopelessly bleak view of American race relations. But the film's supposed nihilism isn't as striking as its warm, empathetic depiction of a community wracked with poverty, aimlessness, and misdirected anger, yet still bursting with vitality and solidarity. Rather than peddling false uplift, the trademark of Hollywood dramas about racism, Lee's film depicts a universe where the social strictures designed to maintain order are forever endangered by an underclass no longer willing to work within a system that has failed them. As America enters a second Bush administration, Lee's incendiary masterpiece remains as provocative and timely as ever. Criterion's terrific double-disc DVD helps place the film in a broader social context through numerous extras, chief among them extensive behind-the-scenes footage and an audio commentary featuring Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, Joie Lee, and production designer Wynn Thomas. (Their appearances on the track are announced, for little discernable reason, by the unmistakable Chuck D.) The DVD also includes an hour-long making-of documentary and an enormously revealing press conference from the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, featuring a testy Lee and his largely silent cast facing the international press, answering questions that run the gamut from fawning to insulting to borderline incomprehensible.
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