Best Known As Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing,' Nunn Once Revealed Role As Jazz Musician In Lee's 'Mo Better Blues' Made His Heart Sing Most
When I learned about Bill Nunn's death from an Instagram post by filmmaker Spike Lee, I was hurt. Then I immediately thought about the conversation I had with Nunn and Lee six years earlier. It was the 20th anniversary of Lee's jazz film Mo Better Blues where Nunn played Bottom Hammer, a bass player.
Everyone agrees that Nunn's portrayal of Radio Raheem was easy to remember in Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. The role won him notoriety as the young man whose death caused by a police chokehold sets off a riot. Strolling through his neighborhood, carrying a boombox that blasted Public Enemy's song Fight The Power, Radio Raheem wore gold rings on both hands, one bearing the word love and the other hate.
On the day of that interview, I couldn't help but recall how Nunn was quietly, away from the spotlight, fighting the power in a different way. He mentioned his battle with cancer and asked that I not reveal it in the Mo Better Blues piece that I was writing. The Morehouse College grad wanted to talk, to laugh and to simply look back at that moment in 1990. Nunn spoke with pride as he discussed Lee, the kid at Morehouse who told him he wanted to become a filmmaker, succeeded against the odds to do so and became the keeper of his Morehouse brothers in an industry where Hollywood wasn't checking for Black folks.
A teacher at heart, the Pittsburgh native explained how his health challenge allowed him to be still enough to bless aspiring actors through the Bill Nunn Theatre Outreach Project (BNTOP), which provides a platform for underserved Pittsburgh public school students to gain access to theatre arts and work with seasoned veterans within the field. One of the core components of the BNTOP is presenting the Annual August Wilson Monologue Competition where high school students perform monologues from Wilson's 10-play Century Cycle.
Radio Raheem used music to fight the power; Bottom Hammer showed it was all about that bass. Bill Nunn brought the noise--a resounding melody--to both characters by doing the right thing. Here's that full interview.
Margena A. Christian: It has been 20 years since the making of Mo’ Better Blues. What are your thoughts?
Bill Nunn: Oh, God, is that scary!
Christian: Can you believe it's been that long?
Nunn: No, I can't. I really can't. I thought I was old then.
Christian: This movie was nearly fresh off the heels of your performance as Radio Raheem in 1989's Do the Right Thing and then you played Bottom Hammer, a bass player, in Mo Better Blues. How did you prepare for your musician character?
Nunn: It was really one of the greatest experiences of my career, because Spike didn't want us to be looking bogus, so we all had teachers. Spike set me up with a good friend of his dad’s, who is also a bass player. He's one of the well-known cats in New York named Michael Fleming was also in the all bass orchestra. He’s a great bass player from New York. Spike got me together with Michael. We started maybe a month or two before shooting the film and then he stayed with me during the whole shoot. So, I was actually learning how to play the bass at the same time that we were making the movie, and it was incredible, because we also had like a small budget where we could go almost nightly and hear some of the best music in the city. It was an incredible. Really for me, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my career. It was just awesome.
Christian: During your scenes, were you actually playing?
Nunn: No, but I was in the area.
Christian: You were improvising? You knew how to do the movements, but the sound was actually somebody else?
Nunn: If you were a bass player, and you were looking at my hands and listening to the music, you would say, ‘Well, he could be playing. He's in the right area.’ But, actually, I wasn’t playing the bass for that film. No way. That was Branford Marsalis’ bass player, and I can't think of his name right now. He used to play off a lot because he was so good. It was hard to try to keep up with him.
Christian: I found old production notes. They revealed that you learned to play so well, or tried so hard, that you callused your hands. Is this true?
Nunn: I blistered my hands. They were bleeding, so I disappeared from Michael for a couple days and he told on me. Spike was like, ‘What's going on?’ I said, ‘Man, my hands are bleeding. I've got to take a break.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you take a break. You know, November so and so.’ That was like the day after we’re done shooting. Yeah, that was quite a lot on the fingers. Until you develop that callus, you develop blisters, sometimes if you have to go through a lot. There was a lot of playing involved. So that’s a true story. Not calluses on my hands, but I had blisters. Calluses, some, after the blisters. You’ve got to work through the blisters to get to the calluses. I got through them and I got something. You know I was able to just keep playing. I was in an incredible amount of pain. That gave me a break from Michael Fleming. He was really tough. Michael thought the movie was called Bill Nunn: A Man and His Bass.
Christian: You said you guys were given a small budget to hit the jazz clubs. I understand that from a couple people, you all thought you were a real jazz trio at one point and tried to go up and play?
Nunn: Well, we could jam a little bit. We would go on stage and stuff, fumbling around. As long as we had Jeff “Tain” Watts, we could really play. It would start sounding half way right. Yeah, it got really serious.
Christian: You thought you guys sounded halfway decent?
Nunn: Well, in a kind of garage way. You’ve got Jeff “Tain” watching and playing with you. You can make it sound good. As long as we had Jeff, we were in the ballpark.
Christian: Whose idea was it to go up and actually play at the clubs?
Nunn: We didn't. We didn't go out to any clubs and do that. We’d be filming the scenes in the clubs. Just between takes we’d be standing up there and we’d just start jamming around. All the audience would be there. It was all the extras from the films, and they would just be watching us. We’d be going for it. We were trippin! We were all well dressed, and we looked the part.
Christian: Tell me about your character. I know Spike gave you guys a creative license to kind of do what you wanted. What did you bring to your role?
Nunn: Well, I kind of always had that bottom. You know, the rhythm section of the music. So, I was really, really happy and flattered to be the bass player. I used to play percussion when I was younger and I would always play the bottom section because I was pretty consistent. I could get a good strong beat and keep it. I felt like I was that guy who probably could have been a good bass player if I had gone in that direction. Michael Fleming told me that I was able. I probably could have played a gig by the time we were done shooting the movie, but I was just so burned out. I never really picked up…well, actually, I do sometimes pick up the bass around Christmas time. I might do a party or whatever. I’ll go pull out the bass, because I still have it.
Christian: Wow! You play for the holidays?
Nunn: Yeah, get a little jazz going.
Christian: Now what was going on in your life at the time that the film was being made? I know Spike was on an aggressive schedule where he was doing a movie a year. Like I said, if I'm correct, this was fresh off the heels of your powerful performance in Do the Right Thing. What was happening in your life at the time when you were making Mo Better Blues?
Nunn: I was still a young father. I mean, my daughter was maybe around 6 years old. We had finished doing Do The Right Thing. It opened that summer, and I was in New York for the opening of it. At that time, I used to stay up in Harlem, in Sam Jackson and LaTanya’s basement apartment, because I still lived in Atlanta. When I came to New York, I would stay with them. So right after Do The Right Thing opened, I pretty much stayed in New York and started bass lessons. That was like just a really great time for me. I was lucky to be able to go from film to film like that.
Christian: There’s that Morehouse College connection. You guys are brothers until the end. There’s you, Samuel L. Jackson and Spike, but you guys were a little older than Spike, right?
Nunn: Yeah, but it really blurs because they're – I mean, when you're in the art department, the drama department, you find yourself still hanging around after you're done and you're working with the kids that are coming up. Like, Kenny Leon came up behind us and so we all did theatre together. Spike was a big fan of the theatre scene back then in Atlanta. All of the theater seen came out of the Atlanta University (AU) center. And, Spike would hang around back then and come to a lot of shows and plays we did. I got to know him at that time. He would say he's going to become a filmmaker, and I was saying to myself, ‘Yeah, right,’ but out loud, I would be really encouraging to him. I'm glad I was because he really pulled it off, didn't he?
Christian: Spike certainly did in a major way! What made you think ‘Yeah, right’ when he said, ‘I'm going to be a filmmaker’?
Nunn: Back in those days, it was so different than it is now. I mean Spike was really a pioneer. There weren't any Black filmmakers around. So, do you really think you're going to be the guy? I was at a loss. I didn't know the guy Spike really was. I didn't know the kind of persistence he had. I didn't really know about Spike until I read his book, Gotta Have It: Inside Guerilla Filmmaking. Reading that really showed me the determination it took him to get his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, done. I recommend that to any young filmmaker who wants to know what it takes, it’s a really, really rough process and for him it had to be triple rough because he was Black. It wasn’t like it was 20 years ago. It is a different time now.
Christian: What did you remember during the making of this film? Comedian/actor Robin Harris died. Do you recall doing scenes and seeing him on the set?
Nunn: Absolutely. Yes.
Christian: What are your memories about Robin?
Nunn: I met Robin doing the film Do the Right Thing. We were pretty good buddies then, and I say Robin was kind of like…I thought he was a great guy. He was incredibly funny, and he never really talked about me, luckily. He was like Matt Dillon, and he would have a lot of these young comics come up and challenge him. He was just knocking them down like a gunslinger! It was incredible. He was the undisputed king. I used to love to just sit back and watch. I liked when he would do his little bits of “Being Butterbean” up on stage. Spike would basically turn on the camera and Robin would be Robin. One day me and Denzel were standing in the back, and I'm kind of like standing back where I can't be seen. Denzel steps out and I'm like, ‘Man, you better not step out there or Robin is going to see you.’ Know what I mean? Denzel said, ‘I don't care,’ and he stepped out there. Robin did about 15 minutes on his ass. I was behind the post. He was like, ‘Look at you, man! Your head looks like a question mark.’ Yeah, he just did about 15 on him.
Christian: I'd heard Spike mention that Mo Better Blues was his answer to Clint Eastwood’s Bird. It was a modern version of jazz and showing how people should live or should play, and just showing the reality for a jazz musician. What would you say this movie did for this particular genre?
Nunn: Most of the guys that we hung out with were teachers and kind of old school. We learned about the kind of code among jazz musicians. We learned how they carried themselves, how they dressed, how they played and how they lived their lives. We were, I think, the kind of jazz musicians, at least our characters were, that more or less represented the old school. We were kind of proud to display that for the audience. And, once again, it seems to be one of those films that is a love story, too. There's a lot of other things going on, apart from just music. It's another one of those films that seems to really just hold up. Twenty years later, you can look at the film, and almost other than the haircuts, it's pretty much, it could be today. It just holds up very well.
Christian: Do you keep in touch with any of the people who were in the movie?
Nunn: Yes, I sure do.
Christian: Who are some you keep in touch with?
Nunn: Spike, Sam and Giancarlo [Esposito]. I talk to Denzel [Washington] once in a while. Wesley [Snipes], I haven't seen in a while, but I mean, we’re all really cool. I'd like to see them more but I don't. It’s one of those things that we really became pretty close on that film. When we see each other, we kind of pick it up where we left it off. Most of those guys are pretty busy which is a good thing.
Christian: Anything else you'd like to add that you want people to know about the making of Mo’ Better Blues? Any trivia or tidbits that people would get a kick out of learning?
Nunn: People often ask me, ‘What is your favorite film?’ That’s a hard question to say what is my favorite film that I worked on. But, the most fun I ever had was probably this film. I mean, it was an incredible experience to me to kind of get to live the life of a jazz man for a few months. I thought it was just an incredible experience and I really had a ball on that film. Above all, and I usually enjoy all the films that I do, but I put that one really up there. It was an experience of an actor, getting to live a different lifestyle. They’ve got some beautiful photography from that movie, too. Spike really did some fashion takes in that one.
Christian: What are you working on now?
Nunn: Well, right now I'm in my home town, Pittsburgh. Three years ago I started up the Bill Nunn Theatre Outreach Project. I'm here working with young people. The first semester I worked with young elementary kids and the next semester I worked with high school kids. That’s the big thing I've been working on. I try to do at least a film a year, but I also, I'm kind of dealing with some health issues right now, which kind of have me stuck, for like medical reasons. I'm in treatment right now for cancer. I kind of have to sit tight while I'm dealing with that. But, the beauty of it is, it really gave me the chance to start this project and it kind of just has taken off and has a life of its own. It’s been wonderful working with these young people and I hope that I can do that from now on. That kind of project, I want to continue it. It's like my hobby. It's really been a great experience.
Christian: Wonderful. Thank you so much and take care.
Nunn: Thank you. Nice talking to you.
Nunn: Alrighty, bye.
DocM.A.C. signing off. Keep the faith and always trust the process. #OnwardUpward