Does art imitate life, or is it the other way around? In Spike Lee’s legendary 1989 film Do the Right Thing, one of the lead characters, Radio Raheem, suffocates to death when a cop places him in a chokehold. It’s a vivid, chilling scene — and it played out in real life this week when NYPD officers killed a 43-year-old man named Eric Garner, who was asthmatic, by placing him in a chokehold.
The NYPD actually banned chokeholds in 1994, after a cop killed a man named Anthony Baez, 29 at the time and also asthmatic, by putting him in one. It wasn’t the first time that had happened; in 1983, graffiti artist Michael Stewart died in the same way. Stewart’s real-life death was the impetus for Radio Raheem’s fictional one, which now eerily resonates once again in real life with the killing of Garner.
The difference this time is that today we all have cell phone cameras, which allowed a bystander to capture Garner’s killling on video; it is a horrible, extremely fraught thing to watch. In response, Spike Lee has taken this footage and spliced it with clips of Radio Raheem’s death from Do the Right Thing. The resulting video isn’t the most artful, but it is powerful.
On the surface, despite the shared circumstance, the two scenes seem quite different: in the film, Radio’s death happens in the midst of a riot, with people screaming and fighting all around; in Staten Island, Eric Garner was killed on a sidewalk so quiet and empty you can hear him plead for his life (“I can’t breathe”). Yet both show the terrifying ease of committing police brutality, and manslaughter, in plain sight. The only real distinction is that one is fiction, while the other only feels like it.