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Bill Nunn Was More Than Radio Raheem

But there’s a reason that role will forever resonate

AP Images
AP Images

“I’m minding my business,” Eric Garner says. “Please just leave me alone.”

Images can shatter us. A minute-long YouTube video from two years ago, “Radio Raheem and the Gentle Giant,” tries to teach us this. The video intercuts footage of Garner, the “gentle giant” of the title, constrained in a chokehold by the Staten Island police, with a fictional rendition of the same thing: the death of Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. In the YouTube video, the two moments bleed into one. As Garner is shoved, Radio Raheem is shoved; as Garner falls to the ground with an officer’s arm crooked tight around his neck, Radio Raheem is pulled skyward by the police baton crushing his. The video was edited and posted online by Spike Lee himself, just four days after Garner’s death. It has an unambiguous point: History will seem to repeat itself so long as violence does.

I was but one of many people to immediately think of Radio Raheem in the summer of 2014, as the uncannily familiar footage of Garner’s death made my own nightmare, as a black man, come to life every day, everywhere I looked. That’s in part thanks to Lee and his vision of police violence, which, he predicted, would keep coming back to bite us in the collective ass. But most of the thanks is owed to the man who acted the part: Bill Nunn, whose performance made Radio Raheem come alive incisively, compassionately.

Nunn died of cancer Saturday, at 62, in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Lee announced his passing on Instagram. “My Dear Friend,” Lee wrote, posting an image of Radio Raheem mid-monologue, that iconic flattop haircut and those fist-spanning words, LOVE and HATE, emblazoned on his knuckles in brass. “My Dear Morehouse Brother.” The post is as mournful as it is exuberant. “RADIO RAHEEM WILL ALWAYS BE FIGHTING DA POWERS DAT BE.”

On Facebook, Lee posted a picture of Radio Raheem’s kicks, that fated pair of white, red, and gray–accented Nike Air Revolutions we see trembling above the concrete as he dies. An odd way for Lee to commemorate the occasion, perhaps, but then, Radio Raheem’s style was his substance. His look was his politics. And his look was Bill Nunn. Nunn, the 6-foot-3 son of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers scout of the same name, knew his body. He knew his size, his face. He worked his precisely contoured jaw and severe brow, his large frame and ample baritone, like his supporting players. If Lee’s language was the thesis, Nunn’s body and manner were the supporting evidence, masterfully wielded to manifest Radio Raheem’s most radical ideas. You cannot imagine Radio Raheem without a sense of his size and heft and skin tone, his Ali-esque footwork during a lesson on LOVE and HATE, backed by all the luscious browns and reds of Bed-Stuy on an impossibly hot day. It’s to the point that I can’t imagine black cinema — thus American cinema, thus world cinema — without that body. And that’s on the basis of a performance composed almost entirely of a philosophy lesson (“Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand …”), a fight in a pizzeria, and a death scene.

To conflate Nunn with Raheem, which we can’t help but do, is to sell his career drastically short. Nunn was a character actor in the classic sense. He was Radio Raheem; he was Duh Duh Duh Man (New Jack City); he was the cop chasing Whoopi in Sister Act. I distinctly remember, from childhood, Nunn screaming “You want some crackers?” at Ford in Regarding Henry. I remember seeing him play the wiseass, money hungry Uncle Bubba in He Got Game in theaters as a kid, recognizing his face but not knowing from where. Nunn’s turn as Raheem was just one of over 70 screen credits he amassed over his decades-long career, and it was singularly serious. Much of his other work was comedic, or at least light: He was a funny, generous actor.

Still, none of the other characters he played lived, or died, as spectacularly or vitally as Radio Raheem. There was his style, that “BED-STUY DO OR DIE” shirt on his back, those Public Enemy vibes blasting from his shoulders, his whole body offering up a fresh catalogue of black pride for the hip-hop era — the kind of pride unafraid to mark the blocks of Brooklyn with eardrum-busting fits of black expression, confident enough to demand a white pizzeria owner in a black neighborhood hang a few black faces on his wall. Nunn the actor seemed the type to downplay such a description. At a 25th-anniversary screening of Do the Right Thing in Brooklyn two years ago, he confessed, “I’m going to tell you a secret. I was not this young black kid from Brooklyn. I was a thirty-five-year-old from Atlanta. So that was the secret, of me capturing my young black manhood — I was fakin’ it, man.”

To his credit, Nunn never backed away from the role’s importance — not even when reporters in recent years, picking up on the prescience and renewed relevance of the role and Nunn’s performance, began to condescend to him as an expert on black pain. There’s an annoying logical leap at work there. Nunn was an actor, not a spokesman for the race. He wasn’t Radio Raheem. And yet, thanks to that role, he was an icon: He was the man in the image of Radio Raheem’s practically strung-up body. And after Eric Garner died and countless others kept dying, and after Radio Raheem’s death turned 25, Nunn finally said, “It makes me wonder sometimes about where the compassion is” — as if the answer wasn’t clear, as if he didn’t know it was in performances like his.