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Radio Raheem's death in Spike Lee's 'Do The Right Thing' still haunts America

The killing of George Floyd reignites memories of a still-shocking scene from Spike Lee’s 1989 film

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) choked to death by the police in 'Do The Right Thing'.
Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) choked to death by the police in 'Do The Right Thing'.

Do The Right Thing unfolds over a sweltering day in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York. The interwoven tensions and racial animosities of Spike Lee’s film finally explode in a devastating scene, which starts with pizzeria owner Sal taking a baseball bat to Radio Raheem’s boombox. An enraged Raheem jumps on him, others join in, and the brawl spills onto the street. The cops show up and immediately grab Raheem. They place him in a choke hold with a nightstick, even as onlookers yell that he can’t breathe. Raheem struggles, then his body goes limp.

Lee’s film released in the summer of 1989. It’s a perfect snapshot of its time, vividly representing the rhythms and colours of late-'80s Brooklyn, but also because Lee plays on still-fresh incidents, like the death of Michael Stewart, a black man choked and beaten in police custody after he was arrested for writing graffiti. That the film's anger and outrage still feels of-the-moment more than 30 years after its release is an indictment of race relations in the US. One scene in particular keeps resurfacing when there’s police violence against the black community, as it did after the death of George Floyd last week.

In 2014, Eric Garner, a black man, was approached by cops and, when he protested, put in a choke hold. Like Raheem, Garner was a big man; several policemen held him down as he kept saying “I can’t breathe". He eventually lost consciousness, and was declared dead at the hospital. On 25 May, Floyd, also a black man, died because a white police officer kept a knee on his neck for nine minutes. In a video a bystander shot, you can see people telling the cops that the man can’t breathe, just as in Lee’s film.

Lee has never shied away from bringing up the scene. In the aftermath of the Garner killing, he'd put out a video with shots of Garner struggling for his life intercut with Raheem doing the same in Do The Right Thing. In a 2019 video for the New York Times analysing the scene, he commented, “That’s the Michael Stewart choke hold." On 1 June, Lee released another mashup on Twitter. “3 Brothers – Radio Raheem, Eric Garner and George Floyd" starts with a question (“Will history stop repeating itself?") and then intercuts the three deaths. “This is the thing," Lee said in an interview to CNN the same day, “the killing of black bodies, that is what this country is built upon."

The media focus on incidents of looting and destruction during some of the protests following Floyd’s death also carries an echo of Do The Right Thing. After Raheem's body is carted away, his friend, the mild-mannered Mookie (played by Lee), is so upset he throws a garbage can through the pizzeria window, which causes the irate crowd to burn the place down. Lee would later say that one of the questions he’d often get asked was whether Mookie did the right thing – after all, Sal was his employer and a fairly decent person. Lee’s response was usually one of disbelief at how the destruction of property seemed to trouble some viewers more than a young man being killed in the street. As similar concerns about rioting and ransacked stores kept surfacing through last week, Lee told CNN: “People are reacting the way they feel they have to to be heard… I am not condoning all this other stuff but I understand why people are doing what they are doing".

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