Lee released the short during an appearance on CNN, where he told anchor Don Lemon that “the attack on black bodies has been here from the get-go.” He said that, while he doesn’t necessarily condone violence, he understands why people are reacting to Floyd’s death — as well as other instances of police brutality — the way they are. Protests like the ones happening nationwide are “not new,” Lee continued. “We saw this with the riots in the ’60s, with the assassination of Dr. King. Every time something jumps off and we don’t get our justice, people are reacting the way they feel they have to, to be heard.”
The four Minneapolis officers involved in Floyd’s death were fired the next day, but it wasn’t until Friday that Derek Chauvin, who was captured on video pressing his knee into a handcuffed Floyd’s neck, was arrested on murder charges. Last year, after nearly half a decade of legal proceedings, the Justice Department declined to bring federal charges against anyone involved in Garner’s death — including Daniel Pantaleo, the former New York officer seen on video with his arm around Garner’s neck.
Demonstrations after Floyd’s death summoned questions that, as Lee noted, have been asked many times before: “Why are people rioting? Why are people doing this, doing that?” In “Do the Right Thing,” Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who is arguably positioned as the moral center of the film when he speaks to Mookie (Lee) about the struggle between love and hate, chokes to death at the hands of a New York officer after getting into a fight with a pizzeria’s white owner. After this climactic moment, Mookie throws a trash can through the pizzeria window, sparking a riot that leads to additional arrests.
On CNN, Lee criticized initial reviews that claimed the film would encourage viewers to riot. (He also spoke about this on its 25th anniversary, telling Rolling Stone he couldn’t recall “people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.”) After Lemon asked Lee to respond to accusations made nowadays against public figures like them, who say they understand why some demonstrators are behaving as they are, the filmmaker said, “The reason why people are out is because black people are killed left and right. It has nothing to do with you and I.”
This isn’t the first time Lee has revisited “Do the Right Thing” in light of current events. After Garner died in 2014, Lee shared a different videocomparing the cellphone footage with Radio Raheem’s death. The film itself was inspired by real life, according to The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi, who noted that it concludes with a dedication to the “families of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood and Michael Stewart,” black New Yorkers killed before the film’s release.
In a T-shirt reading “1619,” a reference to the year enslaved Africans were first brought to the English colonies, Lee told Lemon that “it’s been the same thing, and now we have cameras.”