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‘Do the Right Thing’: Why Spike Lee’s 1989 masterwork remains relevant

It was life imitating art in the cruelest of ways.

On July 17, 2014, in a scene captured on camera, Staten Island man Eric Garner was killed by members of the New York City Police Department who put him in a deadly choke hold.

Garner would painfully repeat, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Those three words became a rallying cry for a series of demonstrations and social unrest surrounding his death and the deaths of other black men and women at the hands of police.

RELATED: Read AJC Sepia’s full Black History Month Series

Director Spike Lee poses on the set of the 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” HANDOUT (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Two and a half decades earlier — in an albeit fictional encounter — it was Radio Raheem, a hulking Brooklyn character in the film “Do the Right Thing,” who was put in that same choke hold and killed because he was playing his radio too loud. Unlike Garner, who was stopped for selling loose cigarettes, Radio Raheem, played by Morehouse College graduate Bill Nunn, never said a word, instead spitting and gagging as the life was choked out of him.

“When I saw the video of it, I was not the only one who thought of the choke hold of Radio Raheem in my film ‘Do the Right Thing,’” Spike Lee told the BBC in 2014. “What you have is that amongst communities of color in the United States there is a deep mistrust of the police departments. There is an epidemic of black men being killed by police in America.”

Actor Bill Nunn played Radio Raheem in the 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” HANDOUT (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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It is hard to believe that until this year’s “The BlacKkKlansman,” Lee had never been nominated for an Academy Award for best director or best picture. Critics agree that “The BlacKkKlansman” is very good and deserving of all its accolades.

But they also agree, with perhaps a strong argument from the “Malcolm X” camp, that “Do the Right Thing” is Lee’s masterpiece. Don’t be distracted that the year “Do the Right Thing” should have been nominated, “Driving Miss Daisy” won the Oscar for best picture.

Opening on July 21, 1989, “Do the Right Thing” was a sweltering look at a Brooklyn block on the hottest day of the year and the tension the heat and simmering racial issues unleashed.

Centered around the Italian-owned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, Lee filled the block with characters that could have come from a Zora Neale Hurston novel: Mother Sister, the neighborhood watcher; Da Mayor, the neighborhood drunk; Mookie, the neighborhood slacker; Coconut Sid, ML and Sweet Dick Willie, the neighborhood chorus; with Mister Señor Love Daddy providing the neighborhood soundtrack — but only when Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” wasn’t blaring out of Radio Raheem’s massive boombox.

Dee and Davis in director Spike Lee's acclaimed film, "Do the Right Thing."Photo by (David Lee) (David Lee)

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Filmed in reds and yellows to signify the heat, the movie’s premise hinged on one question dripping with irony, race, patronage, privilege and Brooklyn’s past and future with gentrification: “How come you ain’t got no brothers up on the wall?”

Moments before engulfing a slice of pizza, Buggin’ Out, played brilliantly by Giancarlo Esposito, notices that in the overwhelmingly black Bed-Stuy neighborhood, photographs of Frank Sinatra, Michael Corleone, Robert DeNiro and Joe DiMaggio beam down on him from the walls of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.

The question sets off a series of subtle but increasingly menacing events as everyone in the neighborhood struggles to “always do the right thing.”

Should Buggin’ Out and others in the neighborhood have a say in whose photos go up on the wall? Or as the owner of the only restaurant on the block, should Sal be afforded the right to do whatever he wants with his place?

By the end of the movie, Buggin’ Out incites a riot that ultimately results in the death of Radio Raheem and the torching of Sal’s pizzeria. For 30 years, scholars and critics have argued about what was more valuable, Radio Raheem’s life or Sal’s restaurant?

We're throwing it way back with the one and only Spike Lee to talk about the classic movie "School Daze" for the film's 30th anniversary.  The year 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing.”

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A 1991 book about Lee’s works, “The Films of Spike Lee: Five for Five,” includes an essay by Nelson George in which he writes: “The violence of ‘Do the Right Thing’ invites a feeling of uneasiness as characters the audience cares about make wrong, life-rupturing decisions. It is not cartoon mayhem. It can be characterized as spur-of-the-moment aggression, echoing what occurred in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach. It is the kind of reactionary violence that changes lives and divides cities.”

George’s reference to Bensonhurst and Howard Beach is Lee using art to imitate life.

In 1986, 23-year-old Michael Griffith was killed in the Howard Beach section of Queens after being hit by a car as he was chased onto a highway by a mob of white youths who had beaten him and his friends. In August 1989, just a month after “Do the Right Thing” came out, Yusuf Hawkins, a black 16-year-old, was shot to death in the Italian-American working-class neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, after being attacked by a crowd of up to 30 white youths.

Fast-forward 25 years and you have the ongoing spate of black deaths at the hands of law enforcement. After Eric Garner came Michael Brown, then Laquan McDonald, then Tamir Rice, then Walter Scott, then Freddie Gray, then Sandra Bland, then Philando Castille, then Alton Sterling … and the list keeps growing.

In 2018, researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California wrote in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health that while whites constitute more than half of the people killed by police in the United States, blacks and Hispanics die at a disproportionately higher rate based on the overall population.

Back in 2014, about two months after Garner’s death, Spike Lee found himself once again in the editing room with “Do the Right Thing,” which the Library of Congress had selected for preservation in the National Film Registry because it was deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

This time he was splicing the video of Garner’s choking with his footage of Radio Raheem being choked.  

It was disturbing how similar they were. 

But perhaps more disturbing was how seamless the edit was.

Black History Month

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Click here to read AJC Sepia’s Black History Month Series and for  more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.

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