In David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson’s discussion of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, I was surprised to find a very different kind of film analysis than I was used to reading. Where usually we read analyses intent on decoding or evaluating a movie, Thompson and Bordwell look to evaluate where Lee’s film stands in the grand scheme of film movements – how formally conventional is it compared to classical Hollywood cinema? Where does it depart from convention and why? What genre of film does it conform to?
To these questions, Bordwell and Thompson seem to explore how Do the Right Thing experiments with some of the theories discussed in The Film Experience chapter on critical theories – namely formalism and structuralism (if I am understanding each theory correctly). According to Bordwell and Thompson, Lee’s film is a “social problem” film, and they arrive at this conclusion through a structural and formal analysis of Do the Right Thing in relation to traditional Hollywood fare.
While Lee employs mostly conventional continuity editing techniques to build his narrative, Bordwell and Thompson note how Lee’s narrative structure is striking. Where a conventional movie focuses on one or two characters attempting to fulfill some defined goal, Do the Right Thing centers on a community of characters, each with vague goals of their own, none of which are necessarily fulfilled by the film’s end. It seems as if, while Mookie’s character moors the narrative, the film treats the Bed-Stuy community as its central character, exploring the conflicts that its constituents incite with each other.
As Bordwell and Thompson suggest, it is possible to find meaning in these structural departures that Lee makes. Lee likely wanted to work within the stylistic and narrative confines of traditional cinema to make his social commentary as accessible to viewers as possible. The lack of a clear resolution to any of the communal conflicts then twists convention from within. Lee seeds in his soundtrack and cinematography an emphasis on community to subtly apply traditional narrative arcs to a community rather than a single character. In doing so, he can leverage viewers’ natural engagement in a conventional character arc to the development of this Bed-Stuy community.
Through Bordwell and Thompson’s dissection of the film, I feel as if I have a more considered and defined structural understanding of what makes a “social problem” film. By their comparative analysis of how Do the Right Thing toes the line between the radical and the comfortable, it becomes much easier to see how a successful “social problem film” can become a template for future works. While I obviously have not yet seen Do the Right Thing, Bordwell and Thompson’s description leads me to see structural parallels in recent films like Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri which also attempt to tackle social commentary (perhaps less successfully) through an examination of a community’s interactions.