No serious actor wants to be defined by a single role or an isolated piece of dialogue. But in the case of veteran thespian Bill Nunn, his contribution to a larger societal examination of injustice and police brutality through the lens of the character Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s brilliant film Do The Right Thing will forever be at the forefront of our cinematic consciousness.
While there are many poignant moments in that exceptional film, one of my own guilty pleasures and personal favorites is “20 ‘D’ F****** Batteries!!!”
Nunn passed away this weekend after battling cancer. He was 62 years old.
My Dear Friend, My Dear Morehouse Brother- Da Great Actor Bill Nunn As Most Of You Know Him As https://t.co/UMtTpSsPtn
Spike Lee (@SpikeLee) September 24, 2016
“Radio Raheem is now resting in power,” Lee said via social media when the news broke. “Radio Raheem will always be fighting da powers dat be.”
His role as Nino Brown’s bodyguard, Duh Duh Duh Man, in New Jack City is among my other personal favorites.
In 2004, he appeared alongside Audra McDonald, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Phylicia Rashad in the Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic work, A Raisin in the Sun.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1952, Nunn went on to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, which is also Lee’s alma mater. In addition to his work in film and television, Nunn was connected to the world of sports through his father, William Goldwyn Nunn, Jr., who was an accomplished sportswriter, editor and scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In his role with the NFL team, the elder Nunn helped to create one of football’s most revered dynasties by scouring the rosters and identifying talented players at historically black colleges and universities.
The younger Nunn proved early on that he was willing to take risks. While ball boys for the Steelers, he and current Steelers President Art Rooney II once stole “Mean” Joe Greene’s Lincoln Continental and took it for a joy ride during training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
“Somehow Bill got the keys one night and we decided to take it for a ride,” Rooney once said. “We only told Joe that story about 10 years ago. We figured that enough time had passed that we could disclose our little joy ride.”
As an actor, Bill Nunn was equally mischievous in his subtle delivery, humor and versatility.
And thankfully, he left us with a defining performance that will stand the test of time in Radio Raheem, who was a metaphor for the past mistreatment and violent deaths of victims like Eleanor Bumpers and Yussuf Hawkins, along with those to come later like Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Freddy Gray and so many others.
At the crux of Do The Right Thing, Spike was telling folks, “Enough is Enough! Stop the Madness! Stop seeing the black body, even when unarmed, as a threat! We’re being harassed, assaulted, detained and killed with impunity! And there’s only so much we can take before things boil over.”
As Liam Stack of the New York Times wrote, “Radio Raheem sits at the moral heart of the film, delivering a soliloquy directly to the camera on the ceaseless contest between love and hate, symbolized by the four-finger rings he wears on each hand. The character’s choking death at the hands of police officers in front of a crowd of his neighbors incites the film’s wrenching final scenes.”
A big man who was a gentle street philosopher, Raheem is the epicenter and pivot-point of the movie, as he walks the streets with his boombox, blaring Public Enemy’s brutally pulsating theme song, Fight the Power.
His hypnotizing monologue, “Love vs Hate”, is the films’ most riveting and thoughtful moment.
“Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand,” Raheem philosophizes. “It’s a tale of good and evil.
Hate: it was with this hand that Cane iced his brother.
Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man.
The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished.
But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down.
Left-Hand Hate KOed by Love.”
Thank you, Bill Nunn. Those words, your work, your passion as an artist, will never be extinguished.