Saturday, September 24, 2016

On Bill Nunn

I have TA'd two classes which taught Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989). The first was at the University of Iowa in 2010, years before the media started covering police killings of young black men on a regular basis. I have varying feelings about these killings. Each of them involve complicated circumstances. I do believe most of these deaths could have been avoided if we improved police training and instituted national regulations that would require more federal control of our country's many police departments. I also believe that no matter how many regulations we create, black people will be disproportionately affected by bad policing for a very long time to come.

I'm going to break a rule I set for myself awhile ago on this blog to not talk about my classroom experiences in detail. The students in my classroom at Iowa were uniformly white. Many of them were from small towns and grew up seeing few if any black people, and they were living in a town with ugly racial politics. I remember hearing some, not all, of my fellow TAs complaining particularly about their white, male, heterosexual students who just didn't "get" race. These complaints often spilled into genuine anger at their students, which in turn morphed into disgust. And those complaints always spiked whenever they showed one of the roster of our "black" films in the department's DVD library, Do the Right Thing, Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989), and The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996). I never felt that anger, mostly because the students' responses to Do the Right Thing weren't all that different from my own when I first saw the movie in middle school, and again, when I re-watched it in high school.

I remember thinking that Sal (Danny Aiello) was the most sympathetic character in the movie. He was easily the most developed. He was no one-dimensional racist. It took a lot to get him to say the "n-word." It didn't seem to me that he was stealing anything from the black people in his neighborhood. He was running a business that the black people in Brooklyn liked. The Korean grocers looked hard-working to me, and, you know, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) did strike me as obnoxious. All the black characters in the movie were cartoons. I also saw the movie after Lee had made Mo' Better Blues (1990), a movie in which he had betrayed his anti-Semitism. Who the hell was this guy to lecture me about prejudice?

I was 29 when I taught the film. I knew the basic socio-political narrative the movie was telling and I knew that it was more or less accurate. I better understood the tragic breakdown in communication between the Koreans and the black characters. After four years in Giuliani/Bloomberg's New York, I knew that white cops could and did bully black people who had done nothing to deserve such bullying. I knew my Iowa students hadn't been told that narrative. I knew they didn't realize that their poor black neighbors in Iowa City lived in a city that degraded them simply by offering them terrible transportation options, and that those poor transportation options were the least of their problems. But when my students complained that they didn't understand why the black people in the movie wanted to burn down Sal's pizzeria, or that the movie made all black people look terrible (a criticism repeated by at least a few black film critics), or that the movie stereotyped cops as fascists, I knew by that point how they got it wrong.

Lee often complained that white viewers were always more upset by the destruction of Sal's pizzeria than by the death of Radio Raheem. To be honest, I'm not sure if that's where my students were coming from. To begin with, the movie gave them far more access to Sal than Radio Raheem. Even if it didn't, I think like most of white America, my students thought that Sal was real, that he was someone they may have recognized, and that they may have related the destruction of his small business to the economic problems in their own dying towns. The death of Radio Raheem was maybe the least stylized and most sickening depiction of violence upon a black body in mainstream American film until 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013). It was too much. They just couldn't believe his death was real.

Lee looked to Roma (Federico Fellini, 1972) not Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) as inspiration for the film's mise-en-scène. For black audiences, Lee's abandonment of realism didn't matter. He could have set Do the Right Thing on the moon, 500 years into the future, and black audiences would know they were looking at a true story. Hardcore white racists wouldn't have cared one way or another what you showed them. Decent white people needed hard, documentary evidence. But, well, even then, they probably wouldn't have believed their eyes.

RIP Bill Nunn.

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