In just over a month, Spike Lee’s masterful Do the Right Thing will be 31 years old. Me and a group of friends skipped out of our summer work program to see the film. We were budding Black and Brown cineastes who marveled at Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and begged our caretakers and school counselors to help us apply to HBCUs after viewing School Daze (and A Different World) — well, those of us who could activate our dream machinery enough to believe we could escape the projects and could make it in university. It was the summer before our senior year and we all knew that in a year’s time, things would be different. Some of us would be off to the military. Some of us would go to either a four-year college or a junior college. Some of us would go directly into the workforce. And there was me. I had no idea what was waiting for me after high school. All I knew was that as soon as I graduated (if I graduated) I was running as far away and as fast as I could from my abusive mother. I didn’t care where. I just needed to get the hell out of that house. All this was bouncing around in my head as the lights dimmed.
As soon Public Enemy’s Fight the Power dropped and the red light illuminated Rosie Perez dancing a Brooklyn version of the ‘cool jerk,’ I was in. Maybe it was because I was a Brooklyn kid who was ferried back and forth from BK to Minneapolis whenever my mom did or didn’t feel like parenting, but seeing Rosie dancing in front of this hyperreal stoops — it felt like home.
Under its wild misogyny, Do the Right Thing is a master class in thinking about race, class, gender, and what it means to live, love, and thrive in a cultural melting pot. Lee gave us the highs and the lows of what living in Planet Brooklyn felt like. And we loved him for it. He showed the love and the beauty of living in the hood — it ain’t all bad. Most people are just trying to make their way. Have a clean place to stay, good food to eat, find some lovin’, and make it to the next day. I will be forever grateful to Spike for showing the absolute wonder and beauty that existed in Mundane Brooklyn.
I won’t recap the story, it’s old hat by now. But here is what you need to know: Sal’s Famous Pizzeria is the focal point of the neighborhood. Several generations have eaten there. It is a neighborhood institution. It is an Italian owned and operated business in a predominately Black neighborhood, with a history of racial tension. There’s a running gag between Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito — is there a better actor?) and owner Sal (Danny Aiello) about there being no photos of Black people on the wall of the pizzeria. Radio Raheem — played as if Radio were a neighborhood legend by Bill Nunn (RIP) — enters Sal’s blaring his boombox. Basically Radio’s familiar; like a cat and a witch.
An already heated Sal, after a tense exchange, takes a bat to Radio’s box, shattering it, giving him the peace and quiet he was arguing for. He basically killed Radio’s soul. Mayhem ensues.
(I left a whole bunch out because if you haven’t seen this film, you need to).
I’ve seen fights like that my whole life. I figured they’d scrap it out and then it would be over. But the police are called and they use a chokehold to restrain Radio. The NYPD choked Radio to death, dropping his body on the street like a Grecian key coffee cup.
Mookie (Spike Lee), a delivery walker for Sal’s, tosses a trash can through Sal’s window. The neighborhood destroys Sal’s pizzeria. Spike captured the hurt and sorrow of a neighborhood in both physical and existential anguish in such an honest way that I openly wept in the theater. I was not the only one.
When the film was over, we sat there in the dark, quiet and still. The entire theater sat through the credits. When the lights came up, it was like air rushing from a balloon. Everyone just started expressing themselves. We all knew that we just witnessed a cinematic classic. We also knew that film was more akin to documentary than fiction. In my crew, all of us had run-ins with the NYPD. Sixto’s brother was shot in the face by them. Ray Thomas’ cousin was beat to death by them. I’d just healed from two broken ribs courtesy of the fine gentlemen of the 88th Precinct.
Thirty-one years later, the death of Radio Raheem continues to haunt me. That scene, coupled with my own encounters with the police and other violence, are significant parts of my trauma. And now, with the spate of police killings of Black folks — metastasized by social media — I’m routinely retraumatized. Crazy how pop culture can have this effect.
A kind of freedom is knowing that you’re safe. I never know. Black and Brown folks never know. Every time I see a cop, my heart seizes. I’ve been pulled over a handful of times, and each time I wondered if I would make it home. I have very little fear in any other part of my life, except for the police. And I’m not just afraid for myself. I’m afraid for Black and Brown people everywhere, and I’m sad and sick for the one’s the police have stolen from us; whom they’ve damaged.
Like a bell that continues to ring, long after it’s been struck, their names haunt me:
- Sandra Bland
- George Floyd
- Breonna Taylor
- Ahmaud Arbery
- Michael Brown
- Abner Louima
- Amadou Diallo
- Tanisha Anderson
- Gabriella Navarez
- Jayne Thompson
…and too many others to name.
It’s 2020. They are still killing Radio.