A quick survey of United States media discourse from the past two years makes it look like one crucial demographic holds cultural and electoral sway right now. They don’t have college degrees; they have been ravaged by an opioid epidemic as well as the decline of good, unionized manufacturing jobs; they are born with our nation’s most foundational privilege (if not always the circumstances that allow them to effectively capitalize on it). They are the white working class, and they are, according to most accounts, misunderstood. Until it started to seem consequential throughout the perpetual shock of 2016’s election cycle, academics, journalists, and politicians did not seem to give due attention to that class’s particular struggles. As the story goes, their neglect bred an unexpectedly impactful sort of public resentment trained on aloof Democrats, “identity liberalism,” and immigrants.
For much of the last year, those power brokers—especially journalists and policy types in Washington—have convened in their echo-chambers, attempting to outdo each other on who can pin down the many mysteries of what low-income white folks want. JD Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy, an introspective examination of downtrodden white Appalachians, is now in its 64th week on the New York Times’ bestseller list. The Democratic Party now finds itself in a dilemma, unsure whether to downplay a racial justice platform to get more white votes in the Upper Midwest. Just the list of op-eds I’ve seen that promote this exact view makes for a daunting number of words.
To my mind, the new focus on the white underclass has mostly been a dangerous turn. It’s had the effect of putting a very specific group of people at the forefront of political consciousness even though rising economic inequality is both a general affliction and a more particular injury to people of color; it centers whiteness to the detriment of continuing conversations about the persistence of white power, which could leave most people to conclude that mere economics is today’s only lever of privilege. Nevertheless, even as a Black American with interests different from theirs, it would be false to say I don’t feel some degree of empathy for those hollowed cities and the citizens lost to their despair. The socioeconomic dynamics I worry about in the lives of my folks aren’t wholly separate from their own.
I was thinking of these grievances a couple of weeks ago, when I watched Sean Baker’s The Florida Project at Brown’s Granoff Center. The enigma in the film’s title intrigued me, putting me in mind of an ethnographic documentary about one of the more contradictory states in the union. What followed uncannily mirrored my intuitions, then exceeded them.
In the movie, a smart six-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in Magic Castle, one of the many pastel-colored extended stay motels in Orlando, Florida. It’s this premise that gives the film’s title another valence. The motel’s unand underemployed guests flout the management’s rules, using the space as a sort of substitute for the public housing they might otherwise live in. Though I’m hesitant to map onto the film a racial politics that it doesn’t really advance on its own, I did find the recasting of “project” interesting; usually, “the projects” connote low-income Black people stacked on top of one another in indistinguishable government housing units, and the unconventional family Moonee and Halley form is very much a white one.
What’s more, “the Florida Project” was the name given to Walt Disney World, the theme park that looms over Magic Castle, in its development stages. Here is where the film’s youthful optimism crosses poignantly with its cynicism about what corporations like Disney represent: the central implied drama of the film is how theme parks concentrate opulence in Orlando by promising child-friendly fun, only to exclude many of the children left at their mercy just for being born and raised in a tourist trap where the economy operates for the moneyed visitor (a one-day pass for Moonee to go to Magic Kingdom would cost about $100, three times the amount Halley pays for their room each night).
Baker masterfully depicts what happens to the child in this situation without resorting to tired clichés about the insults of poverty. Halley is young, single, and out of work, preferring to spend time listlessly smoking blunts. Sometimes she hangs out with a waitress who lives in the motel, and whose son Scooty (Christopher Rivera) is Moonee’s partner in crime. Valeria Cotto plays Jancey, another accomplice who lives in the Futureland Inn next door. No real plot governs the kids’ days; mostly the film progresses in long expanses where they eat ice cream, play pranks, and make the most of their vacation in that way unique to children who don’t get to go summer camps. The closest thing they have to supervision is motel manager Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe in a complex performance that constantly shifts between kindness and frustration. There is actually great joy and humor in the characters’ life on the margins, and we get a sense for it as much for Baker’s direction and cinematography as for the sharp acting. The elliptical, slow storytelling can be off-putting to viewers used to action-filled cinema, but I thought it was a pitch-perfect evocation of muggy, pointless, unattended summers, which I often had growing up in neighboring Georgia.
Given the media’s current obsession with people like Halley, it’s not surprising that The Florida Project has mostly attracted critical acclaim with undertones of commentary about the state of American politics. “As economic inequality plagues the United States and shapes its politics, there has never been a better time for The Florida Project,” Adam Epstein introduces a review of Prince’s performance in Quartz. A more critical assessment in the New Yorker is nonetheless quick to name “the indignities of class.” The consensus blurb on Rotten Tomatoes—a site whose effect on cinema I’m, Scorcese-like, normally skeptical of—reads: “a colorfully empathetic look at an underrepresented part of the population that proves absorbing even as it raises sobering questions about modern America.” Dafoe, Prince, and Vinaite are all being floated as potential Oscar contenders.
It’s that crucial buzzword, “underrepresented,” that’s peculiar to the moment. The past few years of film and television have seen a renaissance in the media of the “underrepresented,” as well as continual, fraught dialogues about when directors and producers fall short of adequate representation. Representation in this context essentially always means race and ethnicity on screens large and small; given that race is the most visually-oriented of American hierarchies, that visual culture is preoccupied with it only follows. With somewhat lesser frequency, the gender and sexual identities of actors and their characters are cited as “representation.” Platforms like YouTube and Vimeo gave filmmakers from those underrepresented groups a chance to prove their talents outside of an industry that, unless it becomes profitable, is hostile to people of color and queer people.
In some really abstract ways, my watching and thinking about The Florida Project reminded me of last year’s Moonlight—though the latter film is both a greater aesthetic victory and more radical in its portrayal of unseen lives. Both works are visually stunning, making up for their sparse dialogue with moody shots of the decrepit Florida settings they share. I watched Moonlight with a group of Black friends the day after the 2016 presidential election, brought to tears as much by the movie as by the unexpected circumstances in which I saw it, and my anxieties about what they’d mean for our most vulnerable. I cried near the end of The Florida Project, too, having seen the result of so much resentment, and having understood that the class of disadvantaged people who voted with it would never get the payday they expected. That’s the only sense in which I consider racism a pitiable worldview—people who take a privilege they never deserved for granted and revolt when it’s threatened.
What’s unusual in this sense of underrepresentation is the fact of Halley and Moonee’s whiteness; Halley, with her blue hair and tattoos, is someone I almost expect to allege that she’s also discriminated against for looking different and listening to trap music. The casting choice doesn’t feel like an accident considering Sean Baker’s ambition to tell those stories that don’t get told—he made his name with 2015’s Tangerine, which recounts a day in the life of two Black transgender sex workers. Strictly speaking, poverty and homelessness in America are still much more likely to be a fact of Black or brown lives. It wouldn’t be fair to Baker to expect a list of identity boxes to be checked off—he only sets out to depict our problem of economic stratification, and does that much quite well.
But what is the actual utility of works like The Florida Project right now? In American cinema, white protagonists have always had an easier time arousing the sympathies of viewers, for obvious reasons. The same phenomenon has played out more generally in media narratives of the white working class. The opioid epidemic afflicting disadvantaged white Americans has been medicalized where crack cocaine, an epidemic in Reagan-era Black neighborhoods, was criminalized; unemployed white people are the victims of globalization’s whims where Black and Latinx Americans in a similar spot are assigned blame for their lots. Most concerning is where a writer seems to excuse a voter’s prejudices because of the ancient cruelties they’ve only become acquainted with recently.
As Richard Brody says in the New Yorker review, Baker never passes much judgment on Halley’s dysfunctional behavior, and neither can the audience; it’s frequently just cute, the way she acts like a fun big sister to her daughter. Even in the movie’s upsetting conclusion, bureaucracy is made the villain after all of Halley’s transgressions and refusal of assistance. Perhaps Baker deserves some criticism for playing, however unknowingly, into this narrative of a white woman’s victimhood, and for not giving the characters enough space to be more than symbols.
In some other senses, I couldn’t help but think about the many lacking representations, especially as American class structures—which aren’t unrelated—begin to oppress even white people with new vigor. Many of my own frustrations with media come down to race, some to class. More of it, still, has to do with the ways that millennials in New York and Los Angeles, some of whom are people of color, depict some version of their lives in ways that seem more and more centralized, leaving little room on the screen for the more humdrum lives Americans lead elsewhere. Under those criteria, I did think of The Florida Project as a movie we hadn’t seen, and it’s made me consider more broadly how art and cinema could address increasing inequality. I’d only hope, however, that the complexities of the task are kept in mind.
KELTON ELLIS B’18 actually just cries at every movie, no joke.