Not many people recognized the name Bill Nunn when his death was announced on Sept. 24. More of us paused to reflect when we were reminded that the actor Bill Nunn played Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s masterpiece “Do the Right Thing.”
“Do the Right Thing” is a classic of American cinema. I know of few films that took the risk that Spike Lee did in this movie about one beastly hot summer day in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The tension in the film rises with every degree on the thermometer, culminating in an ending that is as tragic as it seems inevitable.
Radio Raheem lurks in the background for most of this film, a menacing presence to many in the neighborhood, yet a person admired by others. He becomes a central character in the movie’s ending, but it is his soliloquy in the middle of the film that is seared into my memory.
Radio Raheem’s nickname comes from his walking around the entire day with a massive boombox blaring “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. But at the midpoint of the day’s heat, Radio Raheem turns down the volume on the boombox and looks directly into the camera for what is probably no more than four minutes, though it seems like an hour.
Radio Raheem holds his two fists up to the camera and shows what could be jewelry or could be brass knuckles. On one hand, spread across his knuckles, is the word “hate.” Across the knuckles on the other hand is the word “love.” His hands dance in front of the camera much like a boxer’s as he describes the conflict in his world, and maybe in his mind, between hate and love.
The viewer watches as these two deepest human forces, hate and love, battle one another, the outcome uncertain until the end, when Radio Raheem’s menacing face melts into a smile as he announces the victor — love.
The scene forms the sermon of the movie, a sermon on the most ancient human theme — the battle between good and evil, love and hate. We who are viewers form the congregation, and it isn’t until the end of the movie that we discover which of the two forces is stronger.
Given the violence that is occurring in our country, “Do the Right Thing” is essential viewing right now. This film of 27 years ago offers more insight into the issue of Black Lives Matter than anything offered by the pundits and candidates after Ferguson, Baltimore, Florida, Texas, Cleveland and Chicago.
And that is the tragedy of “Do the Right Thing.” One would hope after 27 years that the film would no longer make sense. One would hope Spike Lee’s film would seem dated, like seeing cars from the 1950s parked along a movie set.
One would hope that “Do the Right Thing” would be a movie that would confuse us, one we’d shake our heads at, disbelieving that such violence ever occurred in our nation.
Unfortunately, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” mirrors all too accurately the pain and sorrow of our times. Yet the film offers a hidden message of hope — that we will know that racism is defeated in our country when “Do the Right Thing” no longer makes sense.
That will mean our country has finally done the right thing. May that day come soon.
Rest in peace, Bill Nunn. Rest in peace, all the Radio Raheems who have died unnecessarily in our country.
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College and the author of “Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World” available in bookstores or on Amazon.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.