How ‘Do the Right Thing’ Has Remained Relevant

In “Anatomy of a Scene,” we ask directors to reveal the secrets that go into making key scenes in their movies. See new episodes in the series each Friday. You can also watch our collection of more than 150 videos on YouTube and subscribe to our YouTube channel.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s game-changing drama “Do the Right Thing,” about the rise of racial tensions during one very hot day on a block in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. In July, the Criterion Collection released a digitally restored version of the film on Blu-ray.

For my Anatomy of a Scene series, I asked Lee to pick a sequence and discuss it. He chose the one leading to the killing of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) by police officers, and during an interview at his Brooklyn production offices, he gave an impassioned explanation for it. Here are edited excerpts from his comments:

Spike Lee: I know the column is called Anatomy of a Scene. I’m renaming this. I’m calling it Anatomy of a Murder. Some of you might not know that the chokehold of Radio Raheem, played by the late, great Bill Nunn, my Morehouse brother, was based upon the death of Michael Stewart. In September 1983, Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist, was tagging the First Avenue subway station. Eleven New York City Transit police officers jumped on him and strangled our brother to death. That’s where I got the idea for the chokehold murder of Radio Raheem.

Five years ago, after the chokehold had been outlawed by the N.Y.P.D., Eric Garner died the same way that Radio Raheem did in a movie that was based on the real-life chokehold of Michael Stewart.

And several days ago, the attorney general of the U.S., appointed by the president, Agent Orange, gave the final decision that no charges would be brought against the officers in Eric Garner’s death. When I saw that footage of Eric Garner being choked to death and saying, “I can’t breathe,” I immediately thought of Radio Raheem.

So a lot of things in this film, even though it debuted 30 years ago, are still happening today. Black and brown people are still being murdered today by police forces across the United States of America. And the people who inflict this death walk free. They don’t get fired, don’t get suspended.

So when I was asked to do this series, I immediately thought of this scene because it just happened where the murderers of Eric Garner walked. This is very, very personal to me.

Read our “Do the Right Thing” review.

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Mekado Murphy is a senior staff editor with a focus on movies coverage. He joined The Times in 2006. @mekadomurphy

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