So finally we’ve captured that elusive beast: a great movie with a passive protagonist. In face, we have sometime even more rare: a great movie that’s not about the solving of a large problem!
Let’s start with our hapless hero Mookie, and all the ways he deviates from our list:
- He’s not especially resourceful.
- He has a lot more flaws than strengths.
- He doesn’t make a lot of difficult decisions.
So that sounds about right, and indeed this problem will get larger and larger, but Mookie himself will not do much of anything to solve that problem until it suddenly gets out of hand, more than an hour of screentime later.
(There is one scene about halfway through in which Mookie mildly repeats his advice to Buggin’ Out, but he actually makes the problem worse, because he also confirms Buggin’s worst fear by noticing that Buggin’s “Jordans are dogged”. He doesn’t suspect that the ruining of Buggin’s Air Jordans by a white homeowner on the block is by this point the real source of Buggin’s mounting anger.)
Meanwhile, Mookie skips most of the steps that we expect to see a hero go through:
- His offhand commitment to solving this problem doesn’t lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person.
- He doesn’t grapple with a lot of tough moral dilemmas.
- He has no lowest point or midpoint disaster.
- He doesn’t turn proactive until the height of the climax, when he acts suddenly, belatedly, and rashly.
First of all, why doesn’t Mookie’s passivity infuriate us?
- Like Jake Gittes back when he walked a beat in Chinatown, Mookie is in a position where it seems (at first) like the “right thing” to do is to do as little as possible. Shut down Buggin’ Out, shut down Pino, humor Smiley, compliment Raheem on his rings. We don’t get frustrated with him because it seems like he is indeed “doing the right thing” and successfully keeping the peace (You could say that the one time Mookie breaks his commitment to mildness is when he gets angry at Sal about being nice to Jade, and it is perhaps this violation of his code that karmically brings about the crisis.)
- We can tell that a problem is brewing, and we sense that we can’t trust Mookie to resolve it, but that makes the movie more exciting. This isn’t a movie about the solving of a big problem, it’s about the gradual combustion of a suppressed problem.
This movie asks a lot more of us. It asks us to jump around, and never plant ourselves too firmly in any one character’s shoes. This makes it harder to care, but Lee and his collaborators know how to compensate for this lack of a comfort zone:
- It’s just really funny. The dialogue is funny. The performances are funny. The vibe is funny.
- The editing style is bracing and invigorating. It’s bouncy. It’s brash.
- It’s absolutely gorgeous to watch. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s number one influence was Jack Cardiff, who shot Michael Powell’s movies, such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and he successfully recreate the eye-popping use of impressionistic and vibrant color.
Next time, one more big deviation…