Before there was Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile, there were other names ringing out across the country. Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur MIller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart—all New Yorkers, all black, and all dead under racially motivated circumstances, many at the hands of the NYPD themselves. Spike Lee, a lifelong Brooklynite, was undoubtedly moved by the deaths which took place between 1978 and 1987. In each case, the NYPD was cleared of all charges; only Michael Griffith’s killers were convicted. Is it any wonder then that Do the Right Thing, the cinematic representation of New York’s fiery racial tensions, was born out of these years?
African American communities rallied around each death, frustrated by the apparent ease with which black life could be snuffed out to no serious repercussions. Spike Lee was different only with how he chose to express his fury, particularly his fury with then-mayor Ed Koch. With regards to Eleanor Bumpurs specifically, the 66-year-old mentally ill woman who died after two shotgun blasts from a cop as he tried to subdue her during an eviction, Lee said in a 2008 interview with New York Magazine, “Mayor Koch, he was the one responsible, I feel, because he was giving the signals, the wink-wink, like it’s open season.”
Do the Right Thing is riddled with specific contemporary references of the times from the Korean grocer mocking Mayor Koch’s “How’m I doing?” slogan to the graffiti proclaiming, “Tawana told the truth!” Such blatant contextualizing should make Do the Right Thing feel like something of a relic, a time capsule holding all of the racial tension of 1980s New York. Instead, in the more than 25 years since its release, the film has only gained relevance.
The news has been littered with stories like those that so infuriated Lee since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and the parallels between the current and past cases are strong. Eleanor Bumpurs becomes Alfred Olango, who was shot dead during a psychotic episode instead of receiving the medical assistance that had been requested. Edmund Perry is akin to Michael Brown. Yvonne Smallwood becomes Sandra Bland. The most startling comparison, though, is thanks to Lee himself where Radio Raheem feels like a stand in for Eric Garner.
Yes, there are stark differences, the most crucial being that where Radio Raheem is attacking Sal and needs to be forcibly restrained (albeit in response to Sal calling him the n-word and smashing his boom box with a baseball bat), Garner was nonviolent. That said, the moment when the police baton reaches across Radio’s neck and we suddenly hear the cries of the crowd—“You’re killing him! You’re killing him!”—it hits like a punch to the gut. Echoes of Garner’s last words that have since become a rallying cry for the entire Black Lives Matter movement reverberate within us as the scene plays on: “I can’t breathe!”
Lee’s closeups of Radio’s feet make his death seem like a lynching. He’s not pulling any punches here. There is no confusion about guilt for Spike Lee. The ensuing riot, the scene that had (white) audiences asking the literal question, “Did Mookie do the right thing?” is the one the sparks the most dialogue, and it’s the one most reminiscent of the response to deaths like Trayvon’s and Michael Brown’s.
White America sees the mayhem and the chaos and asks, “What was he doing before the camera was turned on? What’s the rest of the story?” What Spike Lee was illustrating with Do the Right Thing was just how easy it is to get hung up on Mookie’s actions or even Buggin’ Out’s rage without pausing to think how none of that justifies a death.
In 1989, New York was still four years away from banning the chokehold completely, but even in 2014, complaints about its use continued. A banned chokehold, a movement that had been strictly against NYPD policy for more than 20 years, is what killed Eric Garner. When Do the Right Thing is recontextualized for 2017, it’s hard to see how anything has changed, which in turn makes it harder to watch.
On the film’s 25th anniversary in 2014, Barack Obama (who famously took Michelle to see it on their first date) said, “Do the Right Thing still holds up a mirror to our society, and it makes us laugh and think, and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.” This is true, but it’s also challenging in the way it offers nothing in terms of solutions. Lee reminds us that there is no easy answer, and perhaps no real answer at all, but that we won’t get anywhere if we keep pretending the fight is over. Re-watching it now, it reminds us just how difficult it is to admit the ways we’ve failed. Too many were too eager to see Obama as some sort of solution, a sign that the single most sensitive issue in American culture was finally done with. The way Radio Raheem’s death could easily have been torn from today’s headlines tells us that it’s not. Lee looks at the state of things this way, “I’m optimistic, but we’re going to hell in a hand-basket.” I would offer only that we’re not there yet, and if people like Spike keep making art like Do the Right Thing, there might be some hope for us yet.