Do the Right Thing - Radio Raheem

Do the Right Thing is the movie that should have won the Best Picture Oscar for 1989, but like Glory — a film that depicted the real American Civil War, as opposed to the ongoing figurative one — it went without the nomination it deserved. The Academy Awards can be notoriously shortsighted. Earlier this year, Spike Lee finally took home a gold-plated statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay, but with the controversial Green Book still triumphing in the top category, his film, BlacKkKlansman, almost literally took a back seat to another Driving Miss Daisy.

It was as a college student in New York circa 2001 that I made my own personal discovery of Lee’s directorial work. He Got Game was playing in a darkened TV lounge in the campus center. Ray Allen and Rosario Dawson were sitting on a bench in front of the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island, their faces lit green, the camera gliding side-to-side as they exchanged dialogue. When you’re a 20-year-old riding the Metro-North Railroad alone into Midtown Manhattan, it feels like entering the center of American life. Lee’s films centered on other parts of the city, making slices of life there — and important chapters in history — come alive.

Do the Right Thing showed us the hottest day of summer in one Brooklyn neighborhood, where simmering racial tensions would boil over into a situation where few, if any, did the right thing. History repeats itself and life imitates art, just as it did five years ago on Staten Island when the police-chokehold death of Eric Garner showed the world a real-life version of Radio Raheem. This time, we didn’t need the empathy machine of a movie to make it real. All you had to do was watch a cellphone video on the news to see how little American society had changed.

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