Rising Above the Rink: Remembering Bill Nunn

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“Why did you have to do it? Sal?”
–Radio Raheem’s last words

When he was thirty-five years old, Bill Nunn (1953–2016) created an American icon in Brooklyn, New York. Nunn’s “Radio Raheem” in Spike Lee’s 1990 Do the Right Thing has been celebrated in large part for Radio’s “Love KO’s Hate” soliloquy, and also mourned for Radio’s tragic homicide near the end of the film. These scenes no doubt wield immense magnitude in this important film; however, it was Nunn’s roughly ten minutes of screen time surrounding these scenes, as well as much unsung work later in his career, which touch upon a peaceful vision of America still waiting to flourish in a country continuously KO’d by rote adversity, misunderstanding, fear, and, with alarming immediacy, hate.

As channeled through Nunn’s hulking 6’4″ frame and face brimming with emotional complexity, Do The Right Thing’s Radio Raheem is a vessel of childlike gentleness, humor, pathos, acute intelligence, and anger—all which cohere into a hulking vessel representative of a Black American struggling to find a decisive voice to trump institutional racism.

Radio’s “The Story of Love and Hate” scene is ripe for philosophical discussion as applied not only to institutional racism, but also to the nature of mankind. Wearing two large brass knuckles spelling “LOVE” and “HATE” over his bear-paw sized right and left hands, Radio unleashes a boiling monologue while Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” booms in the backdrop. “The story of life is this: static,” Radio declares before he begins to furiously shadow box in front of Mookie (Spike Lee), thrusting a violent blur of “Love” and “Hate” across the screen while his eyes grow beadier. “One hand is always fighting the other hand,” Radio continues, before he jumps to an inconsistent, bow-tied ending: “Left hand, KO’d by Love!”

But Lee was going for more, as seen through Nunn’s emotional stir up directly after the speech. “If I love you, I love you. But if I hate you…” Radio reflects, before staring off into a disturbed distance. In those three short seconds, Raheem conveys the idea that amid all of Love and Hate’s pounding at one another, there’s also the likelihood that Hate can do by far worse, and perhaps never really go down for the count.

radio-raheem

It’s a terrible moment to digest—the idea that Love and Hate’s battle may remain forever static—and further still, that nobody is there to understand or even listen. Consider Radio’s expression once he snaps out of his haze—he then stares at Mookie like a confused youth, his eyes cast with sadness as he waits for Mookie to say something to resolve Raheem’s inner turmoil. Initially, when Mookie shrugs his shoulders, ambivalently responding, “There it is, Love and Hate,” there’s an impulse to laugh at Mookie’s doltishness. But Nunn guides the audience’s emotions to a deeper place. “I love you Mookie,” Radio responds with a sad grin, unheard not only by Mookie, but everyone around him—those whose comments are geared strictly to his size, or only the volume of his music.

Conversely, Raheem’s own lack of maturity and ability to fully grasp the paradoxical implications of Love trying to pummel Hate contribute to his tragic arc. Nunn credibly transformed Radio’s countenance midway through Do the Right Thing from a taciturn philosopher to a cantankerous knucklehead during his visits to Sal’s Pizzeria and Kim’s Korean bodega. On a surface level, Radio’s transformation is a shift from “Love” to “Hate,” and it is one accentuated by Nunn’s petulant expression of a spiteful high school bully.

But Nunn adds a few light touches into each scene for added levity, providing hints of an escape from a perpetually polarized slugfest between Love and Hate. Although childish and profane, there’s also something poetic to how Nunn delivers Radio’s pizza order after Radio finally acquiesces to Sal’s repeated demands to turn his music off. “Put some extra moozarell on that motherfucker and shit,” Radio lyrically commands. While textually the line may seem entirely churlish, as channeled from Nunn, there is just a hint of diffusive self-aware humor to its delivery. Likewise, when Kim—who has clearly had enough of being harassed as an outsider in the neighborhood—yells “motherfuck you,” in response to Radio’s foul-mouthed obstructiveness, Raheem lets out a warm chuckle. “Motherfuck me?? You’re alright man,” he responds bemusedly.

In those little moments, a higher truth emerges from above the rink: with some humor, peace becomes more possible.

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Nunn assumed nearly sixty film roles in his career—versatile performances rife with tonal shifts of subtle dimension. In addition to a memorably ebullient physical therapist Bradley in Mike Nichols’s Regarding Henry (1991) some of Nunn’s best work was in future Spike Lee Joints, such as the unsettlingly zany Uncle Bubba in He Got Game (1998). But it was in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues (1990) where Nunn’s quieter theatrical gifts were on display as “Bottom Hammer,” the relatively soft-spoken bassoonist in Bleek Gilliam’s (Denzel Washington) otherwise garrulous jazz quartet. While Hammer’s quips are a blip on the radar of young egomaniacs with outsize personalities, Nunn’s chill demeanor and penchant for lighthearted jest were vital counterbalances to an otherwise acerbic crew. As with many of Nunn’s performances, his work in Mo’ Better Blues leaves a desire for more, but also a feeling of satisfaction about what he did with so little.

regarding-henry

Despite Nunn’s subtle craftsmanship throughout his career, conversation about Nunn is inextricably linked to Radio’s physically brutal final sequence at Sal’s Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing, which ends with Radio’s abrupt death by asphyxiation at the hands of Detective Long (Rick Aiello). This is a shame. And yet with an alleged instance of police brutality emerging on a seemingly weekly basis, Radio’s final scene must be highlighted—and not only for its palpable physical brutality.

Whether Radio, if given the chance, would have ultimately strangled Sal to death in response to Sal bashing Radio’s boombox is open to interpretation. On the surface, Nunn’s incendiary performance—during which his eyes bulge with anger while beads of sweat burst across his face and his arm muscles violently spasm—is a portrait of murderous rage. But both Nunn and Lee add layers of complexity to the cacophonous scene. When Radio grabs at Sal when they are trading fists he first proclaims, “C’mon, I’m going to kick your ass some more”—fairly standard brawl fare which doesn’t indicate murderous intentions. In the next moment, however, Radio is strangling Sal on the ground, yelling out “I’m going to goddamn kill you.” Perhaps this last line should make Radio’s intentions clearer but for Lee’s focus on a very particular moment near the end of Radio’s strangulation of Sal: the brass knuckle “Love” wrapped violently around Sal’s neck.

The combination of these observations strongly implies that Radio’s intent wasn’t calculated: certainly not before the incident, or even during it. Rather, Radio’s assault of Sal symbolizes doubt as to whether a battle between Love and Hate can ever end, or whether the struggle is doomed to spin out of control with no clear victor. On a broader level, Radio Raheem and Sal’s escalating conflict loosely parallels a maddening world, where wars in the name of peace, love, or justice paradoxically spawn even more hostility and injustice.

My analysis may seem an apologia for Radio’s behavior, but consider Raheem’s last words while Officer Long and two other officers pull him away from Sal. Just moments before Long begins to choke him with a police baton, Radio cries with the plea of a confused kid: “Why did you have to do it? Sal?” Radio’s heartbreaking final words are a seamless shift from rage against oppression to a cry for justice and compassion. Sal’s racist, profanity-laced tirade, which ended in destroying Radio’s expensive boombox with a baseball bat, was a hostile act in a situation that demanded less. Within Radio’s resultant rage, however, was a misunderstood young man who wanted answers as to why Sal went so far, but who just hadn’t yet embraced how to peacefully attain those answers.

radio-death

Whatever one’s opinion on this matter, the crucial nuances in Radio’s altercation with Sal run deep. But what is by far more harrowing in its plainness is Officer Long’s homicide of Radio Raheem. At best, Officer Long intended to choke Radio into unconsciousness, even when it is abundantly clear this measure was unnecessary with a group of officers well on their way of restraining him. At worst, Officer Long knew exactly what he was doing. In any event, Long’s act oozes with hatefulness and a blatant disregard for a young man’s life.

With Hate, there is no room for interpretation, no room to grow or to learn. Hate simply begets more hate.

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So much has been made of Radio Raheem’s significance in American culture that Nunn’s quieter activism was not as widely known or discussed. In 2008, Nunn founded the Bill Nunn Theater Outreach Project in his hometown of Pittsburgh, which since then has served several thousand public school students with the opportunity to work with seasoned actors in theater, and to compete in the August Wilson Monologue Competition in New York.

Years later, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Do the Right Thing, Nunn was working at the Project as well as other community-based programs. When ABC caught up with Nunn in 2015, however, questions immediately gravitated toward Radio Raheem’s final scene. Insofar as relegating discussion of Radio Raheem or Nunn’s career to an asphyxiation scene is tragic, it’s also a necessary evil as a re-emergent symbol of police brutality in the United States. Eric Garner’s fatal asphyxiation in 2014 is the closest recent parallel to Radio Raheem’s death. However, just about every instance of allegedly unjustified police shootings of black individuals are connected to Radio, as they are all based on (at least allegedly) excessive force to encounters with black individuals which an increasing number of young Americans wish had reached an otherwise non-fatal conclusion. Under these circumstances, the same question arises: why hasn’t Love KO’d Hate? What’s missing here?

In that interview, when Nunn was asked to expound on his feelings concerning the loss of Garner, he provided an illuminative response:

You’re watching a guy lose his life. It was incredibly sad. For me, I’m just getting a little tired of watching these mothers on television. These poor mothers grieving their sons and children. It makes me wonder, sometimes, about where the compassion is.

Compassion is not a call for a KO, but rather, for Love to enshroud animosity so thoroughly that the latter becomes a mere afterthought. Under our adversarial legislative and judicial systems, effectively reducing the number of allegedly unwarranted lethal measures involved in police encounters—a matter of day-to-day urgency—may take years to accomplish. These measures are necessary, but they aren’t entirely what Nunn is talking about.

bill-nunn-abc-interview

Everyone—from those who are upset at authorities to the authorities themselves— can have compassion for one another. It can begin first for the mothers, wives, and children of those who die during unwarranted police shootings. Take, for instance, Eric Garner’s widow’s tears. Or the unimaginable sorrow of Samaria Rice, who lost her twelve-year-old son Tamir to a police shooting in 2014 during which Tamir’s toy gun was mistaken for a real one. Or for Terence Crutcher’s mother, his sister, and his four young children who will now grow up without a father. And then this love-swept feeling must spread for anyone who is disturbed whenever any innocent suffers an avoidable death where a more compassionate solution could have been attained.

Going back to Sal and Radio one last time, what if Radio had compassionately turned his radio down for a pizza storeowner toiling in a kitchen with temperatures north of 100 degrees? What if Sal had overcome his bigotry and actually asked Radio why he was playing his music, or perhaps to play it softer? What if compassion became a universal expectation for all, in the same vein as, for instance, the constitutional right to bear arms?

Those kinds of questions aren’t addressed by risking a KO in the rink, but with open, loving communication outside of it. Nunn embraced this concept during his lifetime with a full heart. Radio may have eventually too, if he had lived longer.

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Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2, image 3.


Argun Ulgen is a film and culture writer residing in New York, NY. In addition to contributing film essays to The Rumpus, Argun is a staff writer at PopMatters.com and a contributor at Salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BrooklynCycles. More from this author →