If you haven’t seen Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in a while, you might not remember that the boom-box-toting Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) got killed the same way Eric Garner did — by a New York City police chokehold. That a real man in 2014, Garner, could be killed the same way as a fictional character in 1989 (and other real men, Michael Stewart in 1983 and Anthony Baez in 1994, with Baez’s death coming a year after the NYPD banned strangulation as a way to subdue suspects) became the inspiration for a cold reading of Lee’s original script this Black Friday.
The idea began with Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler. He’s part of a network called Blackout for Human Rights that formed in the wake of Garner’s death as a way to, he says, “put an end to human-rights violations being committed by public servants, men and women being paid by tax dollars.” Along with other groups, they were trying to turn the day after Thanksgiving into a day of activism rather than consumerism and to provide events that people could go to as an alternative for shopping. When he planned the reading, Coogler says, “We had no idea what was going to happen in Ferguson, and everything that’s happened in the last few months.”
First he got his friend Nate Parker (Beyond the Lights) to give him Spike Lee’s cell-phone number. “He gave us his full blessing,” says Coogler. Then he started calling in favors. His first call was to Shaka King, director of Newlyweeds, who knows Lee and grew up in Bed-Stuy a block from where Do the Right Thing was filmed, to handle the casting and organization. Next, Coogler asked his Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan to play Mookie (Lee’s role), and Melonie Diaz, also of Fruitvale, to play Rosie Perez’s part, Tina. For the most part, they refrained from inviting original cast members back, but a few made sense. “We wanted to show how time passed. It’s been 25 years and we’re still dealing with the same things,” says Coogler. “We wanted to see if we could play with that creatively with casting.” John Turturro took over Danny Aiello’s role as pizzeria owner Sal, father to Turturro’s original character Vito. Lee’s sister, Joie Lee, took over Ruby Dee’s part of Mother Sister (she’d originally played Mookie’s sister Jade). Frankie Faison, who’d played a trash-talking “corner man” named Coconut Sid in the original movie, kept the same part, since old men griping on a corner never change.
Nearly 30 actors sat in two rows of chairs before an audience at the Film Society of Lincoln Center who’d been awarded free tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. It would be a cold reading of the original script, which is very different from what wound up in the movie. “I want to thank all the actors for taking out their time and doing this for free,” said Coogler. “Free?!” shouted out D.K. Bowser, cast as the corner man Sweet Dick Willie, and pretended to storm off. Everyone laughed. It was a good break in the tension of a long day that had already seen protesters invade Macy’s, shut down two malls in St. Louis, and create a human chain to shut down the BART train in the Bay Area, where Coogler is from and where Oscar Grant, the unarmed black man whose story is the basis of Fruitvale Station, had been shot by a transit police officer.
Coogler and King had been on the phone with Spike Lee all day, and he gave them a message to tell the crowd, that he wished he could be there but had family obligations. “He wanted to dedicate this to Ruby Dee, Ozzie Davis, and Danny Aiello Jr.,” said Coogler. “Spike says, ‘I know it’s a shame that Eric Garner died the same [way] that Radio Raheem did, and that this madness has to stop.’” The room had a moment of silence before the reading began.
It was a raucous and fun affair, with the relevance of the movie becoming ever-more clear as the story progressed, particularly with Buggin’ Out’s calls for a boycott of Sal’s Pizzeria and with Radio Raheem’s death. “Yesterday I was like, ‘Are you clairvoyant? Could you have possibly imagined?’” says King. “The parallels are uncanny, that we’re using a boycott as a form of protest today. It’s crazy that it happened at the same time, but it always happens, unfortunately. That’s just the reality. Just as people were getting enraged about Darren Wilson not getting indicted, Tamir Rice got killed, and the young guy [Akai Gurley] who got shot in the Pink Houses. It’s nonstop. People say it’s timely, but it’s more like it’s timeless. It’s a constant topic that’s never been dealt with and addressed.”
Turturro had taken some convincing to do the reading because he considered Sal to be Danny Aiello’s part, and he was still processing after he finished. How was it? “Bizarre. Like an out-of-body experience. Strange. Interesting,” he said. “Because what we wound up in the movie was very different. We had a lot of drafts of the screenplay, a lot of rehearsals. It was a long experience. This was strange, it was fun. It’s a relevant movie and it’s still relevant.” Michael B. Jordan didn’t have the same kinds of associations with the script. He’d seen the movie for the first time when he was 12 and couldn’t believe he was in a reading with John Turturro. “I took a selfie of me and him during the reading!” said Jordan. “He didn’t know. He was looking down. Really cool. Memories! Man!”
While he was reading, though, Jordan said he did feel that what they were doing was profound. “It’s so honest,” he said. “So when you’re reading some honesty back, at times you hear it comes out of your mouth and you’re like, ‘Wooo! Yeah! That was good! Oh man, that was risqué, and I liked it.’ It was very powerful. You could read the tone of the room, when people were starting to feel it and how it resonated with them today, and how things are still very much the same as they were 25 years ago.”
Jordan had been at a Q&A for Fruitvale Station — he played Oscar Grant — last year when the decision to acquit George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin had come down, and he was a little tired of having to talk about unarmed black men getting killed. When he heard about the Missouri Grand Jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, he said, “The sad part is I wasn’t surprised. I kind of expected it to go the way that it was. You know, you can kind of tell. There were a lot of disclaimers the way the information was laid out. I just wanted to do my part, which is this reading, do my work. I’m not going to reiterate the same things over and over again. It’s not like it’s changed! It’s the same thing. So I’m supposed to say it a different way? Know what I’m saying? I feel like I answered it so many times with [Fruitvale Station] and with Trayvon right after. I want to talk about something else. “