-- Spike Lee’s film, “Do The Right Thing,” is a chilling morality tale of police brutality, telling the story of a deadly choke hold by police, sparking a race riot.
“Do The Right Thing,” which debuted 25 years ago, is eerily similar to what was captured on a cell phone video in the final moments in Eric Garner’s life. So much so, that a day after Garner died, director Spike Lee inter-cut scenes from his landmark movie, with the video taken of Garner’s struggle with police.
“Do The Right Thing” takes place in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. Lee starred as the character Mooki, a pizza delivery guy and deadbeat dad, who ultimately incites the riot with police. The film put the then-32-year-old producer-director and Oscar-nominated writer on the map in 1989.
Over the years, its cultural significance is only growing. The film is now taught in school, and is part of the National Film Registry.
In the ‘80s, Lee discovered Rosie Perez, who is now a co-host of ABC’s “The View,” dancing in a nightclub and cast her in “Do The Right Thing.” Perez delivered a raw performance as his fiery girlfriend, struggling to raise their child.
When she saw the Eric Garner video, Perez said she immediately thought of Lee’s film.
“When I first saw the video, which is horrific… we’re literally watching a man die over and over, ‘Do The Right Thing’ just popped in my head. The 1980’s in NYC just flooded me from head to toe and but that’s what really is so striking to me that we’re going backwards,”
And then, Perez said, she felt “fear.”
“As a person of color, fear,” she said. “Because it doesn’t only pertain to young African-American boys, it pertains to a lot of people of color. I myself knew when I was younger if a police came your way just shut up, don’t make any moves, ‘yes officer, no officer,’ and I still feel that way.”
Bill Nunn played the ill-fated Radio Raheem in “Do The Right Thing,” said he is still reeling from the parallels between his fictional portrayal and the Eric Garner case.
“I’m just getting a little tired of watching these mothers on television, these poor mothers grieving their sons and children,” Nunn said. ‘It makes me wonder sometimes about where the compassion is here. I mean I feel like we are all Americans here, why can’t we just get along?”
“I still believe that love is stronger than hate,” he continued. “I think that’s why we will prevail, but I wish people would see it more and have more compassion and not be so quick to polarize and take sides over every little thing.”
In the film, Raheem plays loud music from his boom box – a prop that recently sold at auction for more than $9,000 – which irritates his Italian neighbors and a street fight erupts. Raheem is killed. Nunn said his character’s death teaches us that in “tragic situations, there is more than one source of blame.”
“You got to get along with one another, people don’t want you playing music in the store, don’t go in there blasting your box, man,” he said. “That’s the way we were brought up, ‘don’t mess with the police, OK?’ I was taught that, actually.”
“Do The Right Thing” was loosely inspired by the real life case of Michael Stewart, a young graffiti artist who died of asphyxiation in police custody.
“[The Eric Garner case] is life imitating art,” Nunn said. “First it was art imitating life and now it’s gone full circle but the bottom line is we kind of did a thing about a moment in time that had happened it wasn’t the first moment and it hasn’t been the last.”
In the Stewart case, three police officers were acquitted, but only after being indicted for criminally negligent homicide, assault and perjury when the city’s medical examiner found Stewart had been strangled.
Perez was shocked a Staten Island grand jury chose not to indict the officer who was accused of putting Eric Garner in a chokehold, saying “we were robbed of our day in court.” But over the years, she said she grew to understand the complexities of being a cop when her cousin became one.
“The first thought wasn’t, ‘oh we’re so proud of you,’ the first thought was, ‘oh my gosh, you could be shot and killed,’” she said. “To understand that police officers but their lives on the line for us, an immense amount of respect was put inside my heart for all of them.”
President Obama praised Spike Lee for “holding a mirror up to society” about race relations all those years ago. The moral of the story told through “Do The Right Thing,” Perez said, “is that we have to live together” and learn how to peacefully coexist.
“And at the end of the day when the pizza parlor is burnt down and a young man is lying dead on the sidewalk,” Perez said, making a nod to the film. “Now look at that community. It experienced a human loss and an economic loss and it would never be the same for a very, very long time.”
But she said she still sees “a lot of the same things” happening.
“It breaks my heart as an American. It really does. This is a great nation, we have our blemishes but this is a big one, so it’s heartbreaking for me,” she said. “Listen, I have had a very, very enchanted and successful career when I go out on 6th Avenue and try and hail a cab I still can’t get one.”