On July 17th Eric Garner, an unarmed 43-year-old African American, was killed by white police officers who put him in a deadly chokehold. Caught on video that quickly went viral, the murder reminded many of the scene in Spike Lee’s 1989 movie Do the Right Thing when a white cop strangles the unarmed Radio Raheem to death. Lee himself mashed-up footage of the two killings in protest. Do the Right Thing was already resurgent in our cultural consciousness this summer, having been fêted with screenings, tributes and even a block party in celebration of its 25th anniversary. The killing of Garner and the subsequent events of the summer, especially the August 9th shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath, served to underscore the continued urgency of the film’s narrative.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, Do the Right Thing is simultaneously dated and prescient, inextricable from its 1989 setting and pertinent to ours. Its relevance stems from the killing of Raheem, restrained by a billy club until his feet stop kicking and his body goes limp. Its datedness stems from the joyous latitude characterizing the public space of its Bedford-Stuyvesant setting, from the geographic specificity of the racial conflict at its center, and from its depiction of crowd control that contrasts with the current militarization of law enforcement policing assembled African Americans.
Do the Right Thing is set on one block, on one summer day, the hottest day of the year, in one largely African American neighborhood in New York City. Within such constrictions, the film parades a dizzying array of vignettes, clashes, and soliloquies–most playing on characters archetypal for 1989 New York. Its main plot is simple: the local pizza joint is decorated with photos of famous Italian Americans, so a customer named Buggin’ Out agitates for the inclusion of African Americans, until the end of the day when the shop and the block erupt in violence and fire. The police arrive, kill a neighborhood teen, and turn hoses on the angry crowd.
The film’s events and blistering temperature reflect the race-and-class-inflected anger that saturated late-1980s New York City, manifesting in episodes such as the Howard Beach and Central Park Jogger incidents and the Tawana Brawley case. Do the Right Thing invokes Brawley via a graffito that proclaims, “Tawana told the truth!”; rioters chant the words “Howard Beach” during the climax. Do the Right Thing appeared during a summer that culminated years of racial antagonism and class conflict sensationalized in the media. Adding to the heat was a pointed mayoral primary campaign pitting incumbent Ed Koch against David Dinkins, who would become the city’s first African American mayor. The understanding that the film captured the city’s polarized atmosphere was immediate; I was a 17 year-old Upper West Side white kid and I got it, loud and clear, when I saw the movie with my friends in a Times Square cinema (after our first choice, Batman, sold out). So astutely did Do the Right Thing tap into the zeitgeist that unnerved mainstream critics made the accusation that it would inspire further violence. “If some audiences go wild,” wrote David Denby, Lee would be “partly responsible.”
Here’s how interwoven Do the Right Thing is with the summer of 1989 for me: I can’t hear the syllables “nine-teen-eighty-nine” in any context without mentally filling in the first line of the film’s theme song, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” 1989, the number, another summer… Chuck D and Flavor Flav rap commandingly as the movie cranks up. “Fight the Power” blared from boomboxes and car stereos all summer, as ubiquitous in the 1989 New York streets as in the film. While the tune’s third verse (and black-nationalist music video) specifically hone in on African American resentment, its first two verses and chorus exhort general resistance to institutions of power. To anyone sitting in a 1989 New York City cinema, the message was plain: this is right now, right here. Playing over the film’s opening credits, “Fight the Power” accompanies the dancing of Rosie Perez, who wields boxing gloves and punches at the air and toward the camera. The sequence establishes the film as a clarion call, and first line of dialogue–Samuel Jackson’s “Wake uuuup!”–doubles down on the message: Wake up, New York. There was anger to spare in 1989 New York, which was experiencing a Wall Street-spurred recession at a time when yuppie culture was romantic for some but enraging for the rest, and when clashes in Tompkins Square Park spotlighted the incompatible forces of private ownership and the culture of public space.
Watching the movie after Ferguson, however, underlines Do the Right Thing‘s overriding concern with the societal devaluation of African American lives. The murder of Raheem speaks strongly to our current climate, and, in turn, is illuminated by Michael Brown’s murder. The film offers Raheem as an example of someone who inexorably pushes the buttons of white fear. He is larger than his peers and plays his stereo loud, with his music of choice on this day being “Fight the Power.” He is quiet and uninterested in violence, even rehearsing a morality play in which love triumphs over hate. But when Sal takes a baseball bat to his boombox he loses his shit. Raheem is a threatening figure for people acculturated to responding with fear to imposing African American males–for anyone else, he’s a guy with a portable stereo and an athletic build. The film, astutely, emphasizes Raheem’s size through its fish-eye lens technique, actor Bill Nunn looming toward the camera, dominating the frame as Public Enemy dominates the soundtrack. This is Lee punking his audience, using cinema style to provoke the anxieties surrounding black male bodies, and linking such fears to Raheem’s murder.
The summer of 2014 has shown how law enforcement depicts African American victims of police violence in the worst possible light. The Ferguson police offered purely fictional versions of Michael Brown’s murder, and many mainstream media accounts soon bought into the police smear campaign, painting a stereotyped picture of Brown as a thuggish criminal, as opposed to, say, highlighting that he was about to embark on a college career. Some attempts at even-handed journalism were equally infected, exemplified by the New York Times obit calling Brown “no angel.” At least as sinister as these accounts were the uses of Brown’s image. In the days after August 9th the media seized upon a photo of Brown wearing a basketball jersey and making what resembles a gang sign–as opposed to, say, circulating the picture of him in his high school graduation attire. The outrage inspired the “If they Gunned Me Down” social-media campaign, which protests the depictions of Brown with twinned images of civilians, asking the question, which photo would the media use if this person were killed by the police? If there were to be media coverage of Raheem’s death, the mainstream media would surely find a picture demonstrating his attachment to hip-hop, and his size, with the implication that these traits vindicate his treatment. Of course, whether someone is college-bound should not matter, for Brown or Raheem. A refusal to conform to mainstream mores should not equal forfeiting the right to due process, or to oxygen. Do the Right Thing points this out: property is never more valuable than life, but Radio Raheem is killed over a boombox, and it’s hard to wake up when you’re dead.
Buggin’ Out’s attempt to get positive images of African Americans on display is indeed an attempt to do something positive for the community–as the film itself represents. For all its social commentary and tragedy, Do the Right Thing is bursting with sights and sounds of a neighborhood that delights in social interaction. The denizens of this Bed-Stuy block sit on stoops, call out one another’s names, and enjoy their neighbors in public space. Three middle-aged men who serve as Greek chorus play the dozens and laugh through their disagreements. The sense of community is bolstered by the ensemble nature of the cast, featuring Lee and his sister Joie Lee, New York up-and-comers Perez, Giancarlo Esposito and John Turturro, and underground figure Richard Edson, alongside established actors such as Danny Aiello and the two luminous guests from the African American theater world, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. All characters are knitted together by the common challenges of geography, heat included. The senses of aesthetic and community intertwine in Do the Right Thing, in whose world you can create chalk art on the sidewalk, drink a beer outside with your comrades, give your lover an ice massage, establish a friendship across racial boundaries, express yourself politically, or engage in a good-natured boombox battle. This is why the block party for the anniversary made a kind of sense: a Jane Jacobs ideal, the film’s street culture is fun and funky until the horrific end.
That climax shatters the ideal, revealing the limitations of community culture when unaccompanied by social justice. The film’s end offers the image of African Americans being sprayed with firehoses, spurring hysteria from Mother Sister (Dee), for whom such sights awaken the trauma of a survivor. It is a direct allusion to images from the Civil Rights Movement, as if to suggest that 1989 society has failed to progress much beyond the conditions of 1963 when televised scenes of police brutality against peaceful protests invaded US living rooms. After Ferguson and the summer of 2014, we know that so-called progress has also made things worse: tanks instead of squad cars, automatic rifles instead of billy clubs. Here the movie’s datedness emerges, its images setting in high relief the 2014 images of police sporting equipment built for warfare. This summer awakened us to the fact that US law enforcement is taking its cues, and its gear, from the US military, that our ongoing interventions in countries populated by people of color are previews of domestic attacks on people of color. If Do the Right Thing were re-made, set in 2014, the police would control the African American crowd not with firehoses, but with the excessive force of secondhand weapons, vehicles, and armor, the better to dehumanize both the act of suppression and the people being suppressed. The film’s horror lies in the return of the old images, the old ways; in the summer of Ferguson the ways are still old but the means are new, are so are the scenes.
Jonathan Goldman is Associate Professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology, author of Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity (2011). His essays about twentieth-century culture appear in publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, James Joyce Quarterly, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, and The Paris Review.