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What inspired ‘Do the Right Thing’ character Radio Raheem, and why he’s still relevant today

Actor Bill Nunn, right, at a Point Park University rehearsal for his experimental project, dramatizing an African folk tale, in Pittsburgh in 2008. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
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Actor Bill Nunn, who played Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s classic movie “Do the Right Thing,” died at age 63 on Saturday. He had been battling cancer and died in Pittsburgh, his wife confirmed to the Associated Press.

While he went on to play numerous other roles, both on film and on stage (including as Joseph “Robbie” Robertson in the “Spider-Man” series), Nunn was best known for his role as Radio Raheem, a neighborhood fixture who carted around a giant boombox blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and wearing love and hate knuckle rings. He is a pivotal character in Lee’s 1989 movie.

Radio Raheem — who explains the struggle between love and hate to Lee’s character, Mookie — has a standoff with the neighborhood pizzeria’s white owner that erupts into a fight. His death, at the hands of police officers who put him in a chokehold as the neighborhood looks on, is the plot’s climax, the breaking point for anger and frustration that boils over into rioting on the hottest day of the year.

The Radio Raheem character has increasingly been invoked in recent years, as videos of fatal encounters between police officers and black civilians have become headline news, prompted protests and spurred a national conversation about racial bias in law enforcement.

“Ironically for these times one of Bill’s most notable roles is Radio Raheem the [black] man who died from police brutality,” tweeted Morehouse College President John Silvanus Wilson. Nunn was an alumnus of the college.

“Bill Nunn’s depiction of Radio Raheem in ‘Do the Right Thing’ illuminated the murder of black men by police before recent real life videos,” actor Wendell Pierce tweeted.

Lee himself has highlighted the relevance of Radio Raheem today, particularly following the 2014 death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man who died during a police takedown caught on bystander video. “I can’t breathe,” Garner gasped, and those words became a rallying cry as protests ignited across the country after a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved.

Shortly after footage of Garner’s death went viral, Lee posted a video combining the footage with the “Do The Right Thing” scene showing Radio Raheem’s death by chokehold. Garner had been described in the news media by those who knew him as a “Gentle Giant,” and Radio Raheem’s was depicted as a towering character.

“Do The Right Thing” was inspired by real-life incidents, and the movie ends with a dedication to  “families of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood and Michael Stewart,” all black New Yorkers who had been killed in the years leading up to the film’s release.

In a 1989 interview with the New York Times, Lee said the idea for the movie first came about as he read accounts of the 1986 Howard Beach incident. Three black men were attacked by a group of white teenagers outside of a pizzeria in the neighborhood; Griffith, 23, was chased into traffic on the Belt Parkway, hit by a car and died.

In his production journal from 1987, Lee wrote “I’m making an allusion to the Howard Beach incident by using a pizza parlor” as a central element in the plot.

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“If a riot is the climax of the film, what will cause the riot?” Spike Lee wrote in 1987, about the film’s making. “Take your pick: an unarmed black child shot, the cops say he was reaching for a gun; a grandmother shot to death by cops with a shotgun; a young woman, charged with nothing but a parking violation, dies in police custody; a male chased by a white mob onto a freeway is hit by a car.”

Of the Radio Raheem character, Lee wrote he envisioned him as “the misunderstood Black youth,” that he is sympathetic but “not an angel, either. He’s lost.”

Lee wrote, “white people cross the street when they see him coming. The Bernie Goetzes of the world want to kill him.” (Bernard Goetz was acquitted of assault and attempted murder for shooting four black youth he told police he feared were going to rob him on a subway car in 1984.)

In the movie, Lee wrote that in the climactic scene,  “the cops arrive and put a choke hold on Raheem, a la Michael Stewart, the young graffiti artist from Brooklyn who was killed while in police custody.”

Stewart was an aspiring artist and model who in 1983 was arrested for tagging a subway station and lapsed into a coma while in police custody, dying 13 days later.

In “Do the Right Thing,” a crowd watches as police officers restrain Radio Raheem, choking him with a nightstick. A bystander says, “They did it again. Just like Michael Stewart.” Another says, “Murder. Eleanor Bumpurs,” a black woman killed in 1984 by two shotgun blasts from a police officer during an eviction dispute in the Bronx.

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Even before the film’s release, controversy swirled around it. Some top critics wrote that the movie would incite real-life rioting. Lee, speaking in 2014, described such responses as racist, essentially as saying black people “weren’t intelligent enough to make the distinction between what’s happening on screen and what happens in real life — so they would come out of theaters and riot all across America. You can Google it! Blood was going to be on my hands.”

Lee continued: “I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.”

Years after “Do the Right Thing,” Nunn recalled what it felt like to film that final, dramatic scene, telling ABC in 2014 that the day “was electric.”

“I felt an electricity in the air,” Nunn said. “It was palpable throughout the whole neighborhood. I felt a responsibly to the story. I wanted to get it right — get it authentic if we could.”

The 25th anniversary of the movie coincided with the same year Garner was killed. Of that bystander video, Nunn said, “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,” Nunn said. “It makes me wonder sometimes where the compassion is.”