Essays · Movies

The New Social Realism of American Cinema

American cinema has been the frontrunner of genres including horror, drama, and action. But the one genre the U.S. notably hasn’t dabbled in is Social Realism. Until recently.
Patti Cakes
By  · Published on January 17th, 2018

France has the Dardenne Brothers and Céline Sciamma; the UK has Clio Barnard, Andrea Arnold, and, of course, Ken Loach; and Italy set the foundations and expectations for what Social Realist film can be thanks to the likes of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti and their Italian Neo-Realism.These Social Realist films reflect the working person’s life, casting a critical commentary on the government, class-divided society, or cultures that exclude the working class based on prejudice. The Dardenne’s repertoire often creates realist suspense from the anxiety and stress its protagonist’s face everyday, facing problems the rich would never face in their lives. Barnard’s The Selfish Giant reworks Oscar Wilde’s nineteenth century story, showing that, in terms of class, Britain hasn’t really changed it’s poor and rich divide, and the prejudices that come with this divide, at all.

America, however, has been unable to create a distinct filmic voice in the Social Realist genre; it has its 1970s focus on the male working class with films like The Deer Hunter (1978) or Blue Collar (1978), and John Hughes’ 80s teen films often explored poverty through a teenager’s perspective, like in Pretty in Pink (1986). But the former films often, as Jeffrey Fleishman puts it, ‘slip’ into tales of ‘stock masculinity and false redemption,’ whilst Hughes’ insight to the working class teenager is merely used as another device to divide the unpopular kids from the popular kids rather than as a realist depiction of working class life.

Yet with recent films from Sean Baker and Geremy Jasper, it’s clear that American filmmakers are approaching Social Realism in a new way: by portraying both the realism of the working class, and the inherit need for escapism that comes with this. This focus on escapism suggests American Social Realist film could, instead, be called Escapist Realism; however, a film like 2017’s Patti Cake$, which begins in the dream of its central character, still adheres to the conventions found in Social Realist drama. The majority of actors are either unknown or inexperienced, and it’s filmed on the streets it depicts in New Jersey.

Patti Cake$

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Patti Cake$ also calls back to 8 Mile (2002) and Precious (2009), its street setting, rap-focus, and fantasy sequences knowingly paying tribute to these seminal films that precede it. The film’s hints of the Eminem-starrer and the Sapphire adaptation is a reminder of how few class struggles have been depicted correctly, with both authenticity and artistic emphasis, on film. There’s seven years between 8 Mile and Precious, and eight years between Precious and Patti Cake$. Whilst Courntey Hunt’s Frozen River, Ava Duvernay’s Middle of Nowhere, and Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka were each released between 2002-2017, only 8 Mile and Precious are the ones to have received so much attention that they can be deemed modern classics (whilst Patti Cake$ may also hold this position, it’s too soon to tell). There has been no working class movement in American film, only the odd film every few years that stands out and receives enough attention.

There is, however, a clear trend in how filmmakers approach working class lives. As in Patti Cake$, 8 Mile uses music to escape from the reality and violence that surrounds the characters, and like Patti, or Patricia Dombrowksi, removes herself from her small neighbourhood and small life by dreaming of meeting her idol, Precious uses her imagination to block out the pain of her life, often dreaming of her fantasies in the middle of the street. Escapism follows these characters everywhere, and there’s a reason for it: Patti’s hopes and Precious’ dreams are the only things that can’t be taken away from them. The ending of Baker’s The Florida Project re-emphasises this American need for escapism in Social Realism. As Moonee runs to Disneyworld with her friend, she momentarily flees from the present tense to a temporary world in which she can be in control. The fact this moment is through a child’s lens, as emphasises by Baker’s change in camera as we shift down to Moonee’s height, only makes it more authentic.

The Florida Project A24


Yet Moonee’s escape is temporary, and Baker and his audience know this. The viewer understands she will have to face parting from her mother. The final moments of Precious show the Gabourey Sidibe’s character leaving her mother behind, walking out of her social worker’s office holding her two children. As Labelle’s ‘It Took A Long Time’ plays, Precious smiles. It’s at once a happy ending – Precious is free from her mother and with her children – but silently heart breaking: we know she’s going to die. And when Patti meets her life-long idol, he turns out to be a jerk, demeaning not only Patti, but, more importantly to her, her dream, too. Each of the films’ contrast between portraying the realities of the working class against the main characters’ escapist dreams reemphasises the American style of Social Realist film as it visualises the dream worlds its characters create for themselves rather than stays in the reality they face everyday.

Where Barnard’s British Social Realist film The Selfish Giant highlights the harsh reality of the film’s Bradford setting, following the young Abor as he collects scrap metal to survive, Baker’s The Florida Project is full of bright colours and ice cream and fireworks, these childhood attractions being temporary distractions from the mother’s struggle to pay rent every week. Barnard’s style of filmmaking is at once poetic and realist, but ultimately asks her viewers to confront the hardships those in the UK face. The Florida Project, like Patti Cake$, instead implores its audience to question the world’s we create for ourselves, and the relationship between a need to escape to a fictional world and a need to survive.

Whilst The Flordia Project and Patti Cake$ are independent films, they solve the problems that British Social Realism faces: the lack of working-class viewers. Richard Armstrong in the BFI’s Screen Online examines the post-World-War-I audience, asserting:

“In the years following World War I, it was widely felt that the key to a national cinema lay in ‘realism and restraint’. Such a view reflected the tastes of a mainly south-eastern middle-class audience. Meanwhile, working-class audiences, it was said, favoured Hollywood genre movies. So realism carried patrician connotations of education and high seriousness. These social and aesthetic distinctions have become running themes in a cinema for which social realism is now associated with the arthouse auteur, while ‘entertainment’ plays at the multiplex.”

Whilst it may not be his intent, Armstrong’s statement comes close to suggesting the working class’ need for ‘Hollywood genre movies’ stems from their taste, which is inferior to the ‘education and high seriousness’ realism carries. To imply taste is factored on class is obviously false, but Armstrong’s observation is valid. The fact the working class were drawn to, and are most likely still drawn to by box office rates, mainstream Hollywood genre films does suggest an inherit desire to escape. If you’re paying for a cinema ticket and travel to the cinema, which can be a lot of money, would you want to see a film that reflects the difficult reality of what you live, or would you want to escape for a couple of hours to a new world? There’s no right or wrong answer, and there’s no simple answer, either, since the questions of cinema as escapism, intellectual stimulation, and/or as a reflection of our reality is a whole other argument.



However, the American approach to Social Realism, from Precious to Patti Cake$, seems to solve and answer at least one part of the question. By depicting their characters’ moments of fantasy, the filmmakers address the conflicts between realism and escapism their characters often find themselves on the borders of. Audiences are able to see Patti’s dreams through her freestyling and fantasies, and thus Jasper departs from realism and shows a dream. Working class audiences are able to both escape and see reflections of themselves on screen, whilst higher earners can see the reality the working class face.

American film is more accepting of working class actors, with actors and actresses including Leighton Meester, Viola Davis and Hilary Swank able to work their way to success. Meanwhile in the UK, there’s a clear divide between privately educated actors vs. state school. With the dramatic arts being cut from many state school’s curriculum in the UK due to budget cuts, it’s only the private school pupils, and the people who can afford drama school, with any chance of gaining contacts or professional training. A report in 2016 showed the damaging effects of the lack of accessibility for working class actors, with half of Britain’s most successful actors being privately educated, whilst 67% of British Oscar winners in the Best Director, Leading Actor, and Leading Actress categories are privately educated. Gary Oldman, the star of Darkest Hour, is a reminder of an era and a generation that embraced working class actors in Britain, as Danny Leigh observes in his Guardian essay.

However, even Oldman fled Britain for a career in Hollywood — the US providing more opportunities and less judgement than the class-divided UK. In the UK, the problem isn’t that there’s no films about the working class, but that the working class aren’t given a chance to make their own films. In America, the opposite is true: the working classes can be found at awards shows as successful actors and directors, but the films that are about them are too rare.

In the Los Angeles Times‘ article ‘Realism or cliche? Has Hollywood lost touch with American values?’, Scott Cooper discusses his film Out of the Furnace, stating that the working class “are stereotyped and mythologized in film. They come across as cliché.” It’s not only the stories of the working class that need to be told, but it’s the working class that need to be given the chance to tell them. The piece finishes with another quote from Cooper, the director arguing that “The American dream is dead and it is not really coming back.” This writer both disagrees and agrees. Films like Patti Cake$ show that the working class have reinvented the American Dream, using their dreams not only to escape into their fantasy but also to motivate them to make the dream a reality. However, as Patti’s fantasies are brought down into reality, the character and the viewer are reminded the dream did not, and will not, come true. Precious will die. Moonee cannot stay in the castle. But at least the reality of their stories was told.

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Freelance writer based in the UK.