Did the Right Thing

Casting’s a precarious thing.

While directors must focus on who’s best for the character at that moment, as the movie ages, the ever-changing career of a thespian can alter the audience’s relationship to their performance. It might be stuck in time in terms of being recorded for posterity, but its effect can be bolstered or upended based on their legacy.

Case in point: Laurence Fishburne recently revealed he turned down Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing, ultimately played by Bill Nunn. Though the prospect of adding one of the all-timers to one of the all-timers might be too juicy not to salivate over, there’s a chance that Fishburne’s subsequent fame would’ve thrown off the movie’s inherently-tenuous ensemble balance for those watching today.

If 2020 viewers saw Morpheus carrying around that boombox, our expectation that a celebrity must occupy a crucial role in the proceedings could dampen the surprise of Raheem’s eventual tragedy. One of the many elements making his demise so heartbreaking is that it kind of comes out of nowhere; for most of the story, he feels like just another member of the cast, fully-formed, but without overt indicators that he’ll be the focal point of the climax, a crucial component to the theme that racial America’s a ticking bomb, liable to explode whenever and wherever, and anyone could be caught in the blast, anonymity be damned.

To modern audiences, Bill Nunn is, unfortunately (his talent far surpasses the relative strength of his career), an anyone. But with Fishburne, we’d expect his character to be pivotal enough to warrant being played by a globally-recognizable name and face.

Which goes to show, yet again, that who an actor is is not who an actor will always be. As such, what a movie is is not what that movie will always be, for better and for worse.

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