Listening to Spike Lee in “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “3 Brothers” (2020)

Spike Lee has directed many influential films in his career, but his 1989 tour-de-force Do the Right Thing arguably remains the first many turn to when they speak of him and his work. While it was famously snubbed at the 1990 Oscars for a whole host of reasons related to white fragility, white fear, and the racist past (and present) of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it has risen above a ruling film class that seemed content to let it fade to obscurity. Countless directors, including, but not limited to, Ryan Coogler, John Singleton, and Jordan Peele, have cited both Lee and specifically Do the Right Thing as a formative piece of cinema in their creative careers. On a personal note, it is the movie I teach in my film class when I want to discuss directing because I can think of no finer example of the craft than what Lee executes in the film. It is daring and beautiful, heart-wrenching but tender, and rightly remains required viewing for any serious cinephile. It also happens to be a film that endures as disappointingly reflective of our national sins.

For those unfamiliar with Do the Right Thing, the film chronicles the events in Bed-Stuy, New York, during the hottest day of the summer. The story centers on Mookie (Spike Lee), a Black man who lives in the neighborhood and delivers pizzas for white pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello). Tensions start to run high when Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) calls Sal out for having a wall of fame in his restaurant without any photos of Black actors, singers, or celebrities. Sal says it’s his pizzeria, so he can do whatever he wants, but Buggin Out pushes back, saying that if Sal is running a restaurant in a Black neighborhood he should feature “brothers on the wall.” From there, the story plows on to the heartrending finale when Buggin Out and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) confront Sal, which leads to a brawl and the arrival of the police. Before long, one officer (Rick Aiello) starts choking Radio Raheem and does not let go until he is dead. Sound familiar? It should.

When interviewed in 2014 during the 25th anniversary celebration for Do the Right Thing, Lee told USA Todayhopefully the things we discuss in [Do the Right Thing] will not be current news” and how “that is my hope and prayer. I don’t want to see another viral video that looks like Radio Raheem or Eric Garner.” Six years later, here we are again, and Lee took notice. Early last week, he released a three minute short film entitled 3 Brothers (2020). In it, Lee cuts a scene from his film Do the Right Thing together with footage from the killings of George Floyd and Eric Garner. The scene Lee chose from Do the Right Thing is Radio Raheem’s death at the hands of a white police officer. Raheem, Floyd, and Garner are the eponymous three brothers, three men unified by their senseless murders. 

This is not the first time Lee has made the connection between real life and his work, as he previously cut together the Raheem scene with the footage from Garner’s death in 2014 when that murder occured. He followed that up with a stirring epilogue in his Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman (2018) where he added footage from the murder of Heather Graham at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. I point these out because it highlights the way that Lee is always attuned to the real-life parallels with his work, and so 3 Brothers represents his continuing attention  to the way that the two interact. While the 2014 video featured grainier footage and felt like a quick and passionate response, 3 Brothers reflects an agonizing emphasis on the similar details between the three sets of footage and how best to bring them together. Lee’s editing is chillingly precise, weaving between the three to reveal how the interactions between these Black men and the officers evolve from tense to violent to deadly. I will not comment on the specifics of these murders, you can go watch 3 Brothers yourself if you feel the need, but there is no denying the chilling ease with which each officer takes a Black man’s life. 

After watching 3 Brothers, I turned on Do the Right Thing and watched it all the way through. Each time I revisit it, I am struck by the mounting dread that the movie inspires knowing what is coming, while also recognizing how Lee takes time to celebrate the vivacious lives that are lived in Bed-Stuy. There is so much laughter in this movie, so much joy, and all of that makes the final turn towards Raheem’s murder all the more gutting. Lee reveals the depth of life that we white Americans often turn away from when we see news reports, opting to let the murdered Black man or woman remain distant, a tragedy but not one we internalize. Do the Right Thing challenges us white Americans to never turn away again, to remember that there is a story and context for every police killing of a Black American, and it is unforgivable to try and pretend otherwise to belay white guilt or discomfort.

During an appearance last night on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Lee spoke about 3 Brothers and took time to comment on current events. Before Fallon showed 3 Brothers in its entirety, Lee stopped him to point out the fact that Radio Raheem’s death is based on the real life strangulation of graffiti artist Michael Stewart. From there, he laid  out what I see as the closest thing to a thesis for his work connecting Do the Right Thing to reality: 

…when I saw Eric Garner, I’m like- that’s Radio Raheem based upon Michael 

Stewart. And then to see our brother King Floyd, and I know that he saw what 

happened to Eric Garner. So he’s seeing that in his mind as his last eight and a 

half minutes are being suffocated out of him.

Here in his own words, Lee outlined the fault lines of violence that lead from real life tragedy, to art, and back again on its infernal cycle. That statement also clarified, in case any found it opaque, why Lee chose these three men for his 3 Brothers. In the images and the circumstances of their deaths, they are linked forever even though they are separated by time. 3 Brothers and  Do the Right Thing are not easy viewing, but they are vital and artistic reminders of the stakes that face Black Americans every day. The very least the rest of us can do is take the time to watch them and sit with what Lee is showing us.

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