On Saturday afternoon, acclaimed director Spike Lee announced that Bill Nunn, who got his acting debut in Lee’s 1988 film School Daze and who was most famous for playing Radio Raheem in Lee’s 1989 classic Do the Right Thing, passed away at the age of 62 in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa after reportedly battling cancer. It was fitting that Lee, who went to Morehouse College with Nunn, would be the one to let the world know that we lost one of the better character actors of our time, especially within black cinema.
Bill Nunn’s played a number of memorable characters, including the Duh Duh Duh Man in New Jack City, Robbie Robertson in two Spider-Man films, and was featured in everything from Sister Act and Idlewild to Fox’s New York Undercover series and most recently on USA’s Sirens. He’s been regarded as a strong actor, breathing life into any role given to him, but without a doubt, his portrayal of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing will be his most important.
In Do the Right Thing, Lee created a film that showcased what happens when racial tensions got as hot as the summer temperatures in the city. While New York City is seen as such a racial and culture melting pot, Lee's film looked at the extreme cases of prejudice, and what happens when those ill feelings towards your fellow men and women of different backgrounds can get ugly.
Do the Right Thing takes it there, with the tragedy in the film’s climax mirroring the problems with police brutality that the black community faces right now. Bill Nunn’s character, Radio Raheem, was one of the most unapologetically hip-hop characters in cinema at the time. Raheem, with his huge ghetto blaster, crispy Jordans, and four-finger rings, was an opposing figure on the block, especially when the only song that blasted out of his boombox was Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” One of Raheem’s most memorable scenes was his story of love and hate, a play on Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter who had “love” and “hate” tatted on his hands (Raheem iconically had “love” and “hate” rings on).
Doubly iconic is the way in which Radio Raheem represents problems with police brutality in black communities, an issue that still exists in America, 27 years after Do the Right Thing debuted. One of the plots in the film was the “Wall of Fame” at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which only had Italian-Americans on the wall. Raheem didn’t get too involved in affairs in the neighborhood, but he had a run-in with Sal; Raheem didn’t want to turn down his radio while ordering his slice, and Sal wouldn’t serve him until he turned down his stereo. Raheem linked up with Buggin’ Out (who was beefing with Sal over the infamous “Wall of Fame”) to confront Sal over the issues with the Pizzeria in the community. After a huge confrontation at Sal’s Famous, the police were called, and in the subsequent dust-up, officers administered a lethal chokehold to Raheem, kicking off a massive riot on Sal’s Famous.
After Eric Garner’s July 2014 death, Spike Lee was quick on the draw, splicing footage of Radio Raheem’s death in the film to the tragic chokehold that was administered to Garner. At the time, Spike Lee was influenced by the Howard Beach assault in December of 1986—where two African-American men were beaten and one killed by a white mob—but with the influx of black people being killed while dealing with the police—which sparked the #BlackLivesMatter movement—the on-screen death of Radio Raheem is just as important now as it was then, if not more.
The police have killed almost 200 black people in 2016 already. Many of them are black males who look similar to Radio Raheem. Hell, many of them look like me. Whenever I see that another black person has been killed due to a situation involving a police officer, I remember being a kid when I first watched Do the Right Thing and seeing Raheem’s tragic death. It was impactful then, and has never gotten any easier to watch. I felt the same way hearing Eric Garner say he couldn't breathe.
Bill Nunn played the hell out of Radio. In 2013, he told EW that “Radio Raheem was really good for me because I like those characters that don’t have a lot of lines but they’re kind of significant to the story.” It’s hard to argue with a man about how he saw one of his most iconic roles, but Radio Raheem’s bigger than any number of lines he may have had. It was the look on his face while in the cop’s clutches. The tale of the right hand and left hand that he told Spike Lee’s Mookie. The hip-hop swagger that he walked down the block with. Radio Raheem was a tragic hero in a film that should be required viewing for anyone trying to understand how quickly a black life can be taken out of this world.
Rest in power.