This addition to our series examining different cultural representations of flyover country takes a look at the film industry.
What struck me about the 2018 Oscars ceremony wasn’t so much the still simmering rage and smattering of black dresses. The first Academy Awards ceremony since the Harvey Weinstein scandal engulfed Hollywood was always going to feature numerous A-listers – men and women alike – condemning the mistreatment of female actors.
They were right to do so, of course. Such abuse has existed for years, hidden in plain sight. And it no doubt still exists – extending way beyond the previously rarified circle of a once powerful film mogul with a predilection for black t-shirts and greeting his guests in a bathrobe.
No, what I found particularly interesting about this Oscar season, the first of the Trump era, was that it featured two major movies set in blue-collar middle America, the kind of ‘flyover’ country that rich, liberal coast-dwellers so often fail to understand.
The first, and most celebrated, was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a fictional story about rape, violence and racial tensions in the US ‘heartland’. It won Best Picture, with leading actors Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell also recognised as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively – a feat they first achieved at the Golden Globes.
The second blue-collar movie was I, Tonya, the real-life, world-famous story of the rise and fall of Tonya Harding, American figure skating’s best-known, self-confessed “redneck”. Less critically acclaimed, it still won an Oscar, with Allison Janney, who plays Harding’s ghastly, embittered mother, taking Best Supporting Actress.
Even though they were released a year into his presidency, these movies would have started to take life long before Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential election victory, before he had even declared as a candidate for the Republican nomination.
Both of these films, though, two of the biggest of 2017, can reasonably be characterised as portraits of Trump country. The worlds depicted in Three Billboards and I, Tonya are a very long way from the lives of middle-class Americans who tend to watch the kind of films that vie for Oscars and Golden Globes.
Both films describe the ‘wrong side’ of America’s cultural divide; they tell the stories of the white working class, of the Trump supporters that Hillary Clinton so disgracefully described as “deplorables”. Alongside Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville, both factual literary accounts from America’s blue-collar school of hard knocks, these films are set in places where Trump’s election victories were forged.
I, Tonya, though, like the books by Vance and Goldstein1 is ultimately uplifting: a real-life story of an under-privileged person who, despite suffering poverty, alienation and class contempt, achieves a greatness of sorts.
Three Billboards is not only less authentic, but risks being patronising and condescending. The characters are typecast – whether racist, lazy, bull-headed or plain stupid. Despite superb individual performances by McDormand and Rockwell, the story seemed contrived to promote all the clanking stereotypes, showing ordinary working people in the worst possible light.
Tonya Harding, on the other hand, is portrayed as a complex individual. To anyone over 40, her story is well known. From Portland, Oregon, Harding was the squat, snub-nosed ‘white trash’ competitor that the US skating establishment never learned to love. Their choice was the lithe, almost impossibly beautiful Bostonian Nancy Kerrigan. So when a thug whacked Kerrigan’s knees with a crowbar head of the 1994 Olympic qualifier, apparently paid by Harding’s deranged ex-husband, it seemed that the whole of America – the entire world – held Harding in contempt.
What emerges in I, Tonya is that Harding was not only an incredibly gifted skater – she was the first American woman to land the famously tough “triple-axel” in competition – but also that she was a grafter. Yes, she swears and smokes and eats bad food, but she is up at 5am to train, then waiting tables all day, then back at the rink, and all the time dealing with a heartlessly cruel mother and a husband who seems to take pleasure in hitting her.
Shackled to these ghastly people, lacking the financial or emotional resources to strike out alone, Harding perseveres, nurturing her talent, not only dreaming of greatness, fame and riches, but getting out of bed every day to take and make them real, pushing a body not built for skating to its limits and beyond.
“I can do a triple-axel, so fuck you,” Harding says to camera, after getting knocked back yet again by the snooty skating establishment. “Am I ever going to get a fair hearing?” she says to a row of judges, as the crowd slow handclaps her. “I mean, I am clearly out-skating everyone. What do I have to do?”
I found I, Tonya extremely moving. Of course Harding is flawed – and, while she denies ever knowing about the planned “hit on Kerrigan”, she did plead guilty to hindering the subsequent investigation, resulting in a lifetime ban from professional skating.
These are the grievances and hardships that Trump has understood and, whatever you think of him, exploited so successfully to propel himself to power. These are the issues that US Democrats, having lost the support of their traditional working class base, pitching themselves against low-income workers in America’s escalating culture wars, will need to recognise if they are to regain the White House.
Three Billboards is, by any standard, a very good film. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from seeing it. But for all its moral seriousness, it is deeply contrived. From the bigoted rural policemen, to the bandana-wearing leading lady (channeling Rambo) who firebombs their police department, the story seemed unreal. Coincidences abound – the point seemingly always to create another moral dilemma that can be resolved so as to please a liberal, well-heeled audience. Pretty much all the working-class characters are, if not outwardly violent, then spoiling for a fight.
Yes, there is a sense of tragedy, memorable cinematography and spell-binding performances (did I mention that McDormand is great?). But Three Billboards, to this viewer anyway, for all the air-punching moments, ultimately reinforces middle-class prejudice, mocking the inhabitants of Trump-country, doing nothing to bridge America’s fast-growing cultural divide.
I, Tonya, in contrast, is an attempt, long overdue, by wealthy, well-connected Hollywood filmmakers to empathise and understand.