Two years ago, the pivotal events were the public support for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, despite his not winning the popular vote. Now, Brexit is a British embarrassment for at least the foreseeable future, while Trump faces the consequences for his latest stunt, shutting down the U.S. government, and multiple investigations of his inner circle for criminal activities. The increasing toxicity of Brexit and Trump has highlighted class divisions by exposing the ersatz populism that had previously created the illusion of political unity.
Not surprisingly, when class issues start to break into the media-scape, stories about working people gain traction. And the story of this year is how films not only led with this kind of storytelling; they hit any number of creative peaks as they pushed the boundaries of race and gender at work.
In a particularly audacious move, If Beale Street Could Talk, which director/writer Barry Jenkins adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, rewrites the working-class melodrama. There is heated friction—emerging in an early scene, that, while somewhat stagey, is damn funny—between the African-American families of young lovers. But the biggest problem that they all face is that the man is in prison for a serious crime and, although he was not in the vicinity at the time, his skin color makes him fit to take the fall in the eyes of the prejudiced police officer handling the case. This desperate time is fractured by flashbacks to the planning of a future that will not arrive. While on the soundtrack Miles Davis and Nina Simone echo an icy resistance, the camera movements around NYC map spaces of longing that remind me of what Baldwin wrote in “Sonny’s Blues” (1957), “All that hatred down there … all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.”
Jenkins’s focus on the prison underclass sends a rather unforgiving message that clashes with the image of social mobility, that image long having been a staple of mainstream films. Although Jenkins’s previous film, Moonlight (2016), won Best Picture, but not Best Director, we must conclude, perhaps cynically, that those were different times: If Beale Street Could Talk was not nominated for either award.
If, on the other hand, Roma has a softer focus that makes it more appealing and ties a record for most individual Oscar nominations for Alfonso Cuaron, it carries a historical weight that simply cannot be overlooked. Producer/director/writer/cinematographer Cuaron crafts an exacting study, drawn from his childhood, of a maid who works for a middle-class family. The father’s running out places still more responsibilities on the maid’s shoulders. Her resilience to shakeups like this one, however, counts for little when she is caught in a street protest—where college students are gunned down in cold blood by paramilitary forces—that changes her life. What she does at the end, moreover, reminds us that making visible her work is not the same as suggesting that this work magically transcends her own experiences, which she directly voices, as part of her class identity.
Distinctly alien to the majority of Hollywood, the working-class world has a unique temporal dimension. Writer/director Andrew Bujalski, responsible for a delirious take on retro-futurism, Computer Chess (2013), is aptly qualified for conveying the off-kilter comedic rhythms of Support the Girls. Showing us a day in the life of an African-American manager (which turns out to be her last) at a quasi-Hooters sports bar, the film steadily ratchets up the tension as she guides her female employees, who have varying degrees of self-awareness, in putting their bodies on display for their male customers, without crossing any number of tricky boundaries. That her work doesn’t fit neatly with her life—and both are coming apart—is treated without hyperbole, and makes the open-ended finale hit even harder: the “girls” memorably break the rule of being seen and not heard.
If Support the Girls articulates the working-girl solidarity celebrated by 9 to 5 (1980), albeit with less star power, Burning evokes the class antagonisms and grim humor of the hardest-boiled noir. The sudden and unexplained disappearance of the love interest of an impoverished writer, with perhaps an overactive imagination, leads him to a trail of clues that suggest a decadent and bored rich man’s complicity. But these clues all seem to hide in plain sight, questioning how locked in we are to the writer’s consciousness. You might think that this South Korean film, directed by Lee Chang-dong, could possibly catch the Academy’s attention for its global invocation of class politics that hinges on the psycho-social trope of dominance, with North Korea as the threatening id. That didn’t happen, although Burning made number one on the AV Club’s yearly best of list.
What did attract the attention of voters was The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, that just happens to be set in the early 18th century. Shot through with commentary on Brexit, the film takes place in 1708, a year after the United Kingdom was created. Queen Anne, the last of the problematic Stuart line, looks exhausted throughout as she rather feebly manages the baby steps to empire in the War of Spanish Succession (1701-15), battling with the French to decide the kingship of Spain. The aristocrats around Anne couldn’t be more out of touch as they wile away the days absorbed in mindless amusements and jockey for her attention. A sardonic parable of how the ruling elite bungled the Brexit deal, the film ends with an attendant who seals her own fate by taking out her frustrations on one of Anne’s cherished pet bunnies.
In his last veiled Brexit allegory, The Lobster (2016), Lanthimos used animal imagery and fluid gender/sexual dynamics to create a provocative story about zero-sum relationships. The Favourite stealthily moves animals to the forefront; while the men at court play dress-up as much as, if not more than, the women, the abuse is evenhanded. After the cruelty (imagined, as no animals were harmed during filming), which goes beyond human, the screen fills with bunnies. Who or what might have the killer instinct, and to what ends?
Animal imagery figured even more directly in class warfare in Sorry to Bother You, surely this year’s outlier. Director/writer Boots Riley gives us a gonzo mix tape—Karl spliced into Groucho Marx—that traces the intersections of labor exploitation, race, and species. After adopting a “white voice,” signifying identity loss, to climb the corporate ladder, our anti-hero is recruited against his will to form a company union for the next generation of hybridized human-horse workers. Riley knows his history: company unions were used to give workers the illusion of control (much like the deception openly practiced by right-wing crisis pregnancy centers). At the end, the CEO’s peaceful existence is shattered as “OYAHYTT” blasts through the speakers: one line sticks in my mind, “Imagine this hymn is a hand grenade.”
Note: I am indebted to the bunnies I live with, Marley, Sonya, and Sebastian, for their technical assistance on my analysis of The Favourite.