The Working Class Heroes of 2017

This was a year in which Hollywood reached out into the rest of America to find some of its heroes.

From the very start of 2017, something felt deeply wrong with America. The movie of that moment, a moment that felt sandwiched in between poorly attended Presidential inauguration and the crowded public protest the day after, was a horror drama called Get Out, an indie debut from Jordan Peele that seamlessly melded a tidy history of filmic horror tropes with the pervasive pounding of the present. Eleven months later, it’s still our movie of the year which suggests that Peele’s dark vision has not so much refused to pass but, instead, become the entirety of our present. In the DVD commentary, Peele describes the movie’s central villains, the wealthy parents of a seductive Brooklynite, as “sort of liberal elite god and goddess.” If Peele had managed to a strike universal chord in a nation that many were in the habit of calling intractably divided, then it would suggest that these politely liberal denizens of social perfection had become our villains too.

Juxtaposed with a vilified liberal elite, was a mystical middle America that was being elevated to cause célèbre. If the aspirational paradises that had been vigorously celebrated throughout the Obama era (Brooklyn, Silicon Valley) were now insidious, then popular audience wanted to see what else was there. Writers, for the Times, for The Guardian, were spending the year on drives through the countryside. A book called Hillbilly Elegy, written by a venture capitalist named J.D. Vance, about life in rust-belt Ohio, was on the bestseller list for over a year. “What are the new narratives in a changing economy and racial strains driven by identity politics?,” asked Jeffrey Fleishman in the film section of the Los Angeles Times, at the year’s very start.

These were the terms of the discourse and, like many, Fleishman cited Trump’s election as an event that had to be responded to, with attention paid to the “disillusioned and bitter parts of the country.” At the Oscars, a month later, last year’s movies were suddenly discussed excessively in that language. “[It] allows you to understand the socio-political predicament in which the US currently finds itself,” Andrew Pulver observed in February about David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water. Jeff Bridges was even more explicit, revealing that the movie “shines a light on why the election went the way that it did.” In the marketing of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, we discovered that the movie was about “what’s going on in the country right now — a story of working-class white people,” Bob Berney, Amazon Studios’ head of marketing and distribution, winked. Strangely, the one major Oscar season contender that actually took place in a major swing state, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, avoived that conversation, despite its similarly narrow geographic focus and characters persevering in the lower rungs of the service economy, working fleetingly in diners or outside the system entirely. Moonlight was, instead, about “black male intimacy,” it was about “what it means to will yourself into an uncertain existence,” it was even about “drug abuse, mass incarceration and school violence,” long-standing movie subject heavyweights. Yet this seemed the preclude discussion of the movie as a reportage from the front lines of the working poor American experience, the wilting paradise of plazas and parking lots where it took place.

Over in the pages of the conservative National Review, Kyle Smith drew an even more deliberate line between movies like Moonlight and Sean Baker’s similarly Florida-set The Florida Project that, also, takes place among the state’s struggling, working poor. Grouping Moonlight with two other movies with black protagonists (Precious and Beasts of the Southern Wild) Smith writes: “[Those] celebrated films cast their protagonists as passive victims. All three are tearjerkers aimed mainly at activating the pity reflex of well-off white liberals, and all of them, crucially, center on children and teens in order to sidestep questions of personal agency.” On the other hand, “movies such as The Florida Project clarify that poverty is mostly the predictable outcome of various types of unwise behavior.” Smith calls this genre “white-trash cinema” and Smith’s desire to read Baker’s movie as a reader on the general problem of the poor suggested how critics wanted to look at them: white people, bereft outlying problems, without money.

While The Florida Project could made do, for some, as a film adaptation of Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the Atlanta-born Steven Soderbergh returned from his brief feature-film retirement to actually making a movie this year about actual hillbillies. Logan Lucky was centered on a pair of siblings (played by Adam Driver and Channing Tatum) who commit a “hillbilly heist,” who were thus “the ‘white working class’ whom Hollywood is constantly accused of ignoring,” living inside in a location that was “coded, again and again, as Trump Country.” The latter, from Anne Helen Petersen’s version of the movie, in the more left-leaning Buzzfeed, reads the movie’s rural, poor-working class setting as deliberately exaggerated, surreal, with its own political cues that underlined “the ease with which we follow the cues set before us — much as many Americans accepted the simplified explanations offered throughout the last election cycle for who was supporting Trump.”

One of the plot points in Logan Lucky involves a beauty pageant where the child of one of the robber’s children (Farrah Mackenzie) prepares to perform a cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” but then, at the last minute, sings a John Denver song instead. This gesture is both cute (her father, Tatum’s character, delivers a monologue in the movie’s beginning about the song) but it also, in the spirit of Peterson’s search for coding in every layer of Soderbergh’s hillbilly America, evokes a world that enjoys its hit songs on the radio but prefers their own children to sing from a different canon. It reminded me of another, slightly earlier movie about poor white people that also pivoted, somewhat, around a Rihanna song, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. In a much beloved scene, a group of white adolescents led by Shia Labeouf, entrance a teenage runaway played Sasha Lane, who is mixed, by performing “We Found Love” atop the check-out lanes of a Target, another image lush with exaggerated, trashy visual value. But the more interesting music choice is probably “American Honey” itself, the Lady Antebellum song that the movie takes its name from. At one point, Lane’s character is asked if she recognizes it, by Krystal (Riley Keough), who is both named “Krystal” and is wearing a bikini with the Confederate flag. Lane doesn’t and, thus, she remains codified, in racial and cultural terms, an outsider in that world.

Writing about that scene a month after the election, Ira Madison III read it in the language of a newly combative political clime: “[her] ignorance of the song is Krystal’s first sign that she isn’t truly ‘one of them.’” Ditto Arnold’s abundant Americana iconography: “[it] represents ‘us’ — working-class Americans who drive national elections, the ones politicians pander to, the ones who rule Nielsen boxes, the ones whose values are, we’re told again and again, the only ones that matter.” In another reading of the movie, Jourdain Searles at Fishnet Cinema calls it “an exploitation film about a young biracial woman who abandons her depressing, abusive life to start another depressing, abusive life with pretty white people who love to say the word nigga and listen to a relentless amount of rap music.”

Released shortly before the election, American Honey felt like a curious antecedent to the worlds of both The Florida Project and Logan Lucky: jazzed-up versions of the thieving, white trash American South. Like The Florida Project, its largely white world is diegetically soundtracked with relentless amounts of rap music, strangely filling the movie’s aural space with a kind of unseen blackness that, for critics, translated into authenticity. Writing for Variety, Owen Gleiberman compares the experience of Arnold’s characters in the terms of the bars of one of the Rae Sremmurd songs that he identifies as “one of their favorite lyrics.” Arnold’s superficial engagement with the sonic wrapping around her film feels like a poorman’s version of the much-exalted Baby Driver soundtrack—a bunch of hipster songs that were popular in the ‘90s, playing in a car for no particular reason. But if it can be easily articulated, probably in a forgotten Nick Hornby novel somewhere, why a British dude would think songs by The Damned, Beck or T-Rex would be really cool for the sensibility of somebody who he thinks is supposed to be cool, the juxtaposition between black pop art and poor white people gels less comfortably.

In Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, they gel even stranger. Jasper’s working-class hero, a part-time New Jersey bartender named Patricia Dombrowski (played by the Australian Danielle Macdonald) dreams of hip-hop fame and fantasizes of ascending into a green haze of social accent and being greeted by a stock rap icon named O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). Jasper’s world is also racially charged: Patricia’s MC, a pharmacy clerk named Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) is addressed as “Bollywood” by a competing white rapper and her mother (Bridget Everett) urges her to give up the pursuit by telling her to “act her race.” A police officer, another symbol of racial politics in 2017, derides rap music as “everything that is wrong with this country.” Most damningly, when O-Z hears Patricia’s rap act, he calls her a “culture vulture.” Yet, one is never sure how much this means to Jasper: Patricia is enmeshed in hip hop culture but jams to Bruce Springsteen on the radio, no character responds meaningfully to these critiques, cultural tension utilized as an aesthetic effect.

This concern, that movies about the working class-rest of America were utilizing racial tension as a ripped-from-the-headlines detail, hit hardest on the discourse surrounding Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Ostensibly both a movie for “a divided blue-and-red-state Trump Nation” and aiming (in McDonagh’s own words) to be “truthful to a working-class woman,” his third movie was marketed as a bad-ass tale of small-town comeuppance, another microcosm of the rage directed at a system that is unable to resolve its problems. And like American Honey (McDonagh, like Andrea Arnold, hails from the UK), the movie heads to the outwardly racist South in order to find an authentic version of poor working America. There, McDonagh, with all the subtlety of a Law & Order screenwriter working with headlines (Ebbing is a fictional town but is in the same state as Ferguson, ground-zero in both the current wave of police voice against black people and “the battle for America’s identity”), discovers a police force full of “good men” who occasionally beat up people of color and appear visibly uncomfortable when another one is assigned to take over, racism rendered into “just another quaint regional detail.”

But this also felt like the movie’s charm, an uneasiness that made it “just the bitter pill the times call for,” it’s deliberate ambiguity indicative that, maybe, the weird, terrible world we live in might, instead of being very terrible, might instead be very ambiguous. In 2017, the ambiguity of the working poor was itself a refuge given new meaning but still rich with problems that wealthier movie patrons had already solved by not being poor. They could be human, after all.

Andrew Karpan: @donniedelillo movies are not magic but skin and bone.