White work­ing class gains in film

The Denver Post - - LIFE&CULTURE - By Alyssa Rosenberg

It’s a peren­nial con­ser­va­tive com­plaint that Hol­ly­wood is too lib­eral, that it ig­nores — or worse, den­i­grates — the val­ues of many Amer­i­cans and doesn’t treat their ex­pe­ri­ences as wor­thy sub­ject ma­te­rial.

But in a year where mem­bers of the white work­ing-class, es­pe­cially men, were the sub­ject of in­tense po­lit­i­cal de­bate and a se­ries of much-dis­cussed books — in­clud­ing J.D. Vance’s mem­oir “Hill­billy El­egy,” “Strangers in Their Own Land” (Ar­lie Russell Hochschild’s so­ci­o­log­i­cal study of con­ser­va­tive Louisianans fac­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe) and his­to­rian Nancy Isen­berg’s “White Trash” — credit ought to be granted where it’s due.

In 2016, Hol­ly­wood turned out three ex­cel­lent movies about work­ing­class white men that nei­ther classed their char­ac­ters as de­plorables nor re­sponded to them with slav­ish def­er­ence. “Hell or High Wa­ter,” “Deepwater Hori­zon” and “Lov­ing” do what great movies al­ways do. They treat their char­ac­ters as fully re­al­ized hu­man be­ings and take their con­cerns se­ri­ously. In this one area, at least, pop cul­ture did what great art is ca­pa­ble of: staged con­ver­sa­tions that break out of rigid po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tions.

The men in these movies face se­ri­ous but hu­man-scale chal­lenges, and ones that might even be rec­og­niz­able to lib­er­als.

In “Hell or High Wa­ter,” Toby and Tan­ner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Fos­ter, re­spec­tively) be­gin rob­bing banks to pay back a $40,000 re­verse mort­gage on their mother’s land so they can sign a long-term oil lease on the prop­erty that will give Toby a mea­sure of fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity and al­low him to pay his back child sup­port. In “Lov­ing,” Richard Lov­ing (Joel Edger­ton) wants to set­tle with his wife, Mil­dred (Ruth Negga), on the land he bought for her with­out fear that they’ll be ar­rested for vi­o­lat­ing Vir­ginia’s anti-mis­ce­gena­tion laws; the film fol­lows the cou­ple dur­ing the court case that even­tu­ally granted them their safety. And in “Deepwater Hori­zon,” Mike Wil­liams (Mark Wahlberg) wants to make it through his stint on the ag­ing off­shore drilling rig he helps to main­tain and get home safely to his wife and daugh­ter.

These men aren’t par­ti­sans, though their lives are tied up in im­por­tant is­sues of pol­icy: for the Howards, fi­nan­cial in­stru­ments, for Richard Lov­ing, racist laws, and for Wil­liams, lax en­force­ment of safety reg­u­la­tions.

And the movies bring them all up against dif­fer­ent sorts of elites. The Howards steal from branches of Texas Mid­lands Bank, which gave their mother the re­verse mort­gage, and they are pur­sued by Mar­cus Hamil­ton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birm­ing­ham), the Texas mar­shals as­signed to their case. Richard Lov­ing is hu­mil­i­ated by racist lo­cal law­men who den­i­grate him as a race traitor and also finds him­self misun­der­stood by lawyers from the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, who see his fam­ily’s case as a chance to make his­tory when he only wants to go home. And Wil­liams and his fel­low Deepwater Hori­zon work­ers find them­selves pit­ted against Vidrine (John Malkovich).

In strik­ing con­trast to the po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of work­ing-class white men this year, though, none of these char­ac­ters is de­fined by griev­ance or frus­tra­tion over the sort of per­ceived line-cut­ting that Hochschild de­scribes in “Strangers in Their Own Land.” The Howard broth­ers rob banks out of des­per­a­tion rather than re­venge. Richard Lov­ing puz­zles both white and black peo­ple be­cause, in mar­ry­ing the woman that he does, he chooses an am­bigu­ous sta­tus that places him be­tween sep­a­rate racial worlds and makes his life more dif­fi­cult than it might have been oth­er­wise.

That they’re not big­ots or sex­ists or lash­ing out in re­sent­ment doesn’t make these men saints; these movies are in the busi­ness of sketch­ing hu­man­ity, not hand­ing out cook­ies. In­stead, these films are all will­ing to linger in their char­ac­ters’ flaws and bro­ken­nesses.

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