In a film, a protagonist must change in order to have a compelling character arc. This is most often presented through the transition from the protagonist chasing what they want, to discovering what they need. The wants are often superficial and materialistic, the needs more spiritual and virtuous, like love or humility. An example of this is the popular “workaholic dad who misses his child’s birthday and realizes his selfishness” storyline. It’s an easy character to write and an easy change to convey on screen. One minute he’s at his desk, then he’s brought to his senses by a magical being (Captain Hook, penguins, Buddy the elf, etc.) and he learns to treasure his family.
While there are many ways to show what a character wants and needs, one of the more subversive ways to do this is through the community the character inhabits. Taking the example above, if the protagonist is a workaholic, her workplace is the community she inhabits. But once the protagonist realizes she needs to be less selfish and love her family more, she can no longer inhabit that community. She has to find a new one that supports her new self.
This transition, from one community to another, is one way to show the change a character goes through. But what this community looks like varies, and can be found, I would argue, in any type of movie. To prove this versatility and examine the convention further, let’s look at three wildly different films.
First is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing from 1989, a pulsing, unique, intimate look at race and anger in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Second, Billy Wilder’s 1961 Academy Awards Best Picture winner The Apartment, a dramedy that pushed the edge of the envelope in Hays Code Hollywood. Third, The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s magnum opus and 2012’s only Best Picture nominee with dinosaurs and a gratuitous amount of tree shots. Each film has the protagonist start out wanting something and identifying with one community, to finding out what he needs and identifying with another.
One of Lee’s first films, Do the Right Thing follows a handful of citizens of a Brooklyn neighborhood during the hottest day of the year. It is a racially diverse area, with Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), the Italian owners of Sal’s pizzeria; a handful of black residents including Mookie (Spike Lee), Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn); Latinas like Tina (Rosie Perez); a Korean store owner named Sonny (Steve Park); and two white cops that patrol the area (Miguel Sandoval and Rick Aiello).
It’s a film about race, escalating tensions, and what simmers beneath the surface. In the film, everyone thinks their community, the place they belong, is within their own race. People stick together and only cross lines in a friendly manner at intersections like the pizzeria. Every character wants to protect his own. That’s why Buggin’ Out wants “brothers on the wall.” That’s why the men on the corner want the Korean couple to be kicked out. That’s why the white guy in the neighborhood, representing gentrification, is harassed. That’s why Pino wants the pizzeria to move to an Italian part of town.
The only true exception to this is our protagonist Mookie, who does not live within his own racial lines. He’s a black man, fathering a child with Tina, a Puerto-Rican, and works at Sal’s. His own character embodies the diversity of the neighborhood as a whole. Sal to a lesser degree is similar, but he’s not our protagonist. Mookie is the only character who truly lives in a racial intersection.
What keeps everyone within their own race is what all of the characters want, which is to be heard. The core of every interaction in the film can be boiled down to each character feeling unheard by the other. Buggin’ Out wants Sal to listen and understand his reasoning for wanting black portraits in the pizzeria. When Sal doesn’t, Buggin’ Out tries to start a boycott. Pino wants his father to move out of the neighborhood, and in effect, understand his racism. Mookie wants to be paid. The three men on the corner want to express their anger at the Korean couple’s success, but they don’t listen to each other and instead cut each other’s ambitions down. Everyone’s desires keep them separated into their individual racial communities.
In the film’s fourth-wall breaking montage, everyone has something to say about another group. The characters don’t feel heard when they talk to one another in the film, so to be heard they have to talk directly to the camera, to the audience, to get their feelings across. Yet this does not produce the catharsis the characters desire. They still aren’t communicating with each other. So instead of dispelling the anger, it escalates it, spiraling the film towards the climax.
What the characters of Do the Right Thing need is to listen and to see where the other person is coming from. This is, in part, why Radio Raheem dies. Sal grows impatient and destroys Raheem’s radio in order to let his anger be heard, and the police don’t listen (or care to listen) to the people telling them they’re killing Raheem.
Mookie throwing the trash can is him finally being heard, as everyone reacts to what he has done by following suit, destroying Sal’s pizzeria. Everyone is listening to Mookie. This may not be the good kind of listening, as this is not a sustained solution and ultimately just hurts everyone involved. But the community does, for a few moments, come together (save for Sal) after hearing Mookie’s rallying cry. This is when the community unites and sees what it could be as a neighborhood, not as a collection of races.
Examining the riot scene only works when comparing it to the only other scene in the film where everyone in the neighborhood comes together, which is the earlier water-hydrant scene. This scene is not necessarily about the character’s wants and needs, but is a positive vision of the neighborhood coming together. These two scenes, that almost bookend the film, mirror each other sinisterly, with dramatically different tones but the same actions in both.
Both scenes start with a character destroying something- the two men opening the hydrant, Mookie throwing the trash can through Sal’s window. Then the movement of the scene is the same. Everyone joins in. There is yelling and frantic motion, a collage of bodies. Women are screaming as their sons and brothers push them into the water at the hydrant; women scream as the destruction rages. The two elements- water and fire- drench the scenes and backlight the faces of the characters. The water hydrant scene is overwhelmed with music, (“You Know You Can’t Stand It” by Steel Pulse), the destruction scene has a deafening void. Both scenes have the entire neighborhood come together, and the emotions in each one, while completely different (playfulness versus anger and fear) bind everyone together. That is where the real community is, not along racial lines, and it only occurs when everyone is listening to each other and having their desires aligned. Of course, in both of these scenes, there is a group not in on the action- the white man in the car during the water hydrant scene, and Sal and his sons during the riot. But I’m addressing the greater majority of characters, and it is a testament to Lee’s writing that this film cannot be described in absolutes.
In the last scene, Mookie goes to Sal and they, I would argue, cautiously reconcile. The reconciliation is not within racial lines, but outside of them. This reconciliation happens after Mookie is not only heard but listens and is listened to, the transition from want to need.
Do the Right Thing is a messy example of this convention because it isn’t obvious, nor is it particularly hopeful. The ending of Do the Right Thing, despite the characters getting a brief taste of getting what they need, is not magically optimistic. It’s a movie that sees race and racism with clear eyes. There are characters that are exceptions to a lot of the situations and conflicts I’ve outlined. But in broad strokes, Do the Right Thing still shows how a community in a film can change with the protagonist’s character arc.
Now for contrast, let’s look at how a protagonist can completely change what community they are a part of as they change personally. The Apartment was written (with help by I.A.L. Diamond) and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder. It follows C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a “company man” of an insurance corporation, who rents out his apartment to his bosses and their mistresses, in exchange for promotions he doesn’t deserve.
The corporation is a hierarchy that rewards loyalty and silence. The men that fill the higher ranks operate with a Harvey Weinstein-level of assurance of their impalpable positions. This is best characterized by their extramarital affairs and the casualness in which they manipulate their women and wives. The environment of sleaze and privilege is alluring, and the drive for distinctly male success(and his wishy-washy personality) forces Baxter to continue renting out his apartment even when he no longer wishes to.
While Baxter is the protagonist, this environment even affects the actions of Fran (Shirley MacLaine). There’s clear misogyny in the workplace (the first scene with Fran includes Kirkeby slapping her behind) and a glass ceiling for women. She sees her future as a rejected lover in Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen, who rattles off a list of other lovers Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) has had. If Fran broke off the relationship, it’s clear she would be the one to suffer, both personally and career reputation-wise. It is ingrained in the office to have an attitude of easy love and common heartbreak, particularly for women.
Baxter wants the job, and Fran wants the man, both goals of which manifest in Sheldrake, who himself represents the company. This is what Baxter and Fran think they need, and the environment they think they want to be a part of.
It is only after their romantic suicide-watch date night, isolated from the corporation, that both characters are able to come to terms with what has been holding them back. Once detoxed from Sheldrake and the environment, it can be seen how the community was coaxing them into making the harmful decisions that led them to this situation.
They discover what they really need is each other, and to be free of their relationships with Sheldrake. Baxter has to lose his ambition, and Fran her self-destructive relationship.
After tasting this freedom, Baxter quits and decides to move out. He has to leave the community to assert his own autonomy and make the decision that feels right. Fran is able to finally make the choice to leave Sheldrake. While the ending is not clear about what will become of Fran and Baxter, their decision to leave a toxic environment is their final decision, and a good one at that. They are able to go from finding their wants in one community, to finding their needs within another one, the community they build together. Unlike the characters of Do the Right Thing, the characters in The Apartment are able to fully experience what it is like to leave a bad environment and join a new one.
Finally, let’s look at The Tree of Life, an experimental, metaphysical film that strives to look like how a prayer feels, and you’ll probably interpret the film like you interpret that statement. Rest assured, though, there is a coherent narrative within the close-ups of Jessica Chastain and flowers.
It starts with a man named Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), who is disconnected in his life as an architect. His world is full of sleek and modern lines that imprison him. The voices of people around him fade in and out, their words meaning nothing. Everything is in direct contrast to his childhood in Texas, full of warm, natural colors and the soulful presence of his gentle mother (Jessica Chastain). However, haunting those memories of wonder is the presence of his abusive father (Brad Pitt) and the death of his brother. But Jack has to come to terms with his past to move on, so he dives deep into his memories.
In the film, there is a recurring theme of the “way of nature” and the “way of grace,” embodied by the father and mother, respectively. Jack as an adult is following the way of nature, the one he inherited from his father. But as he travels metaphorically through his life and grief, he comes to desire the way of grace, the way of his mother. With that change from want to need, comes the change of community. To be on the way of grace, he has to forgive his father and come to terms with his brother’s death, like his mother does.
The film ends with Jack on a beach with his family in their adolescent years and his childhood friends. This is his new community, most likely an image of heaven, but still an embodiment of Jack’s new priorities and community values. It comes through a rejection of the materialistic life he thought he wanted, and reconciliation, which is what he needs.
In each of these stories, Do the Right Thing, The Apartment, and The Tree of Life, the protagonist’s idea of community and where he belongs changes as part of his character arc. If this theme can be found in such uniquely different films, then it is ubiquitous. It can be sought out in any genre, in any type of story. There is a universal quality in the experience that filmmakers and audiences search to portray and describe.