Although it’s been nearly 30 years since Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing, the film is still relevant today; unfortunately, it doesn’t feel as though much progress has been made in the last few decades regarding racial tension and police brutality. This article details some of the racially charged events in the 1980’s that inspired the film, especially the 1986 Howard Beach Incident, in which a confrontation outside a pizza parlor resulted in the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith, who was hit by a car after being chased into traffic on the Belt Parkway. The film is also dedicated to the families of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood and Michael Stewart, who were all black New Yorkers killed in the recent years before the film.
However, these types of events have even continued today; some recent events practically mirror the events in the film. Radio Raheem’s death by police chokehold is uncomfortably familiar to the the 2014 death of Eric Garner (often called the “Gentle Giant”), who was strangled to death during a police takedown. Shortly after the footage of Garner’s death went viral, Spike Lee posted a compilation video of Garner’s death and Radio Raheem’s death in the film
Warning – This video is very uncomfortable and shows Eric Garner’s death.
Unfortunately, although the use of force by police is poorly monitored/documented, it seems as though police killings/police brutality has hardly improved. This website gives some easy-to-read police violence statistics for recent years. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, 30% of black victims were unarmed, and 69% of the victims were suspected of a non-violent crime. In fact, levels of crime in a city do not even seem to have a correlation between the likelihood of police killings. Most strikingly, 99% of cases in 2015 have not resulted in the officer being convicted of a crime.
So why are we still having the same issues with police brutality that were present in a 29-year-old film? I suspect part of it is due to our society’s ideology. Beyond a police officer’s official duties, there is an ideological justification for police violence. A large portion of society expects this of police officers, and therefore gives them the authority to be violent. I recognize that there are many gray areas and case-by-case bases on this topic, but this ideology is so ingrained in our society that no matter how obviously avoidable a killing may be, someone will try to justify it. It’s admirable and important that Spike Lee steps away from this ideology to show what real experiences with racial tension and police violence feel like. It is also interesting that he does it in a way that lets the viewer reflect on their own views and beliefs without forcing them to change their ideology.