Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Making A List of Rustbelt America Movies: Reflecting on the Race, Class, and Gender Politics of the New Film "Out of the Furnace"

I do not shill for movies. As readers of WARN know, I tend to write longer critical essays than straight reviews and endorsements of a movie or TV show.  I will have to break with that habit here. Several days ago I was very lucky to see the movie Out of the Furnace. It is one of the best, of the many movies, I have seen this year.

My movie tastes may deviate from those of the general public, as well as many professional reviewers. My love of the movie Cloud Atlas is an example. My likely unpopular view that 12 Years a Slave is an expert exercise in film-making, but not necessarily a great biopic, is a second outlier opinion.

Out of the Furnace is a brilliant and essential film with stellar performances by marquee actors such as Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shephard, William Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Woody Harrelson that explores how globalization, deindustrialization, militarism, and class inequality have impacted Rustbelt America and its denizens.

Out of the Furnace is set in and around Braddock, Pennsylvania during Obama's 2008 presidential run and uses that moment as background and atmosphere which forces an uncomfortable question: what will the country's first black President (not) mean for improving the life chances of a multiracial working class who are dependent upon the United States' near dead and dying industrial manufacturing base?

A great film leaves an emotional and intellectual impression on viewers after they leave the theater. More than "what is this movie trying to tell me and us?", a great film drives the engaged viewer to want to learn more about the characters, their struggles, and the larger issues of public concern we as a society are struggling with.

Given my interests in American racial politics, I was moved to reflect on the racial diversity of the communities shown in Out of the Furnace. Race was present and real--as it should be in a movie that purports to any type of "social realism". But, race was not foregrounded in the film. Race is how class is lived in America. Yet, how is that rubric modified when a whole community, across the colorline, is dependent on a dying industry?

And how are the troubles and challenges in multiracial Braddock (and rural Appalachia) damning proof of Charles Murray's thesis in "Coming Apart" about the decline of "good culture" among White America?

Given my family's background, and subsequent travels as a child and teen, I am very familiar with the dead and dying multiracial Rustbelt communities on the East Coast. They are very racially segregated. But, these same communities are also very integrated in their shared working class ethos, culture, values, and sense of pride.

America has been inaccurately described as a "melting pot". Borrowing from Eduardo Bonilla Silva, the history of American society is more akin to that of a cauldron hanging over a fire in to which different European ethnic groups were thrown into the stew pot, while black and brown people were the kindling for the fire which cooked the meal of "Americanness". Globalization, Austerity, income inequality, changing racial demographics, and resurgent white supremacy in the Age of Obama have created the "furnace" for which the title of this movie, intentionally or not by its writers, is a beautiful metaphor.

What other movies would you add if we were making a list of films (within the last 50 years) that intelligently explore the dynamics of race, class, and gender in Rustbelt deindustrialized America?

In addition to Out of the Furnace, I would start with The Fighter, Winter's Bone, and An Officer and a Gentleman. What would you suggest?


The Sanity Inspector said...

It's set in the Great Depression rather than in post-industrial America, but Cinderella Man touches a lot of those themes.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Slap Shot is a hockey movie, but set in a Rust Belt town, and the minor team is being sold now that the local mill is being shut down. It's a comedy, but there's interesting stuff about class and masculinity.

Although it's in a meatpacking town in rural Minnesota, the documentary American Dream is the best thing made about the working class getting screwed in the 1980s. The town (Austin, Minnesota) is so much like my own economically altered hometown that watching it just about makes me cry. Roger & Me is another good doc on the topic.

chauncey devega said...

Are you going to see Nebraska? Supposed to be great.

chauncey devega said...

Damn good suggestion.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Dying to see it, although I imagine it will be painfully true to life.

Black Sci-Fi said...

Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby"
Tried to cover all the bases and got close.
"Grand Torino" was another well intentioned effort that got a little "paint by numbers" with regard to character originality. The "cover all the bases" scripts churned out by "liberal" Hollywood writers and directors looking for the "sympathetic to diversity" Oscar nod usually fail to have the minority character depth necessary to be more than about the white lead. Million Dollar Baby got close despite the "stock minority buddy movie" relationship between Eastwood and Freeman and explored the poor, white trash "female" aspiring to go beyond what has been the norm both in Hollywood and in real life. A white actor could have played the Freeman role and the film would have had the same impact.
"Putney Swope" is my still my favorite comedy within this genre. It has stayed relevant, to me, over the years when other films from the same era have started to show their age.

Ametia said...

Thanks for the review, Chauncy.

buddy h said...

"Blue Collar" the Richard Pryor film from 1978, about autoworkers being mistreated by both management AND their union. (Although I've never been an autoworker, I have experience being cheated by both management and my so-called union, so I could relate to the film).

chauncey devega said...

Wonderful acting and film. I was thinking of it too.

chauncey devega said...

Wonderful acting and film.

SabrinaBee said...

Thanks. I had not even heard of this film. I hope to be able to catch it somewhere. Still have not seen "12 Years." My...umm...not very varied, area has not felt the need to bring it to the 'burbs. I'm going to check Netflix and HuluPlus, to see if they have a listing.

chauncey devega said...

Got to see 12 Years a Slave if you can in a theater with a diverse audience. The reactions are more interesting than the movie in many ways.

chauncey devega said...

Never heard of Putney Swope. I will have to check it out.

T said...

I just wish that people had been more organized back in the day, when they started to empty America of all that manufacturing. Maybe we could've stopped some of it.
I say shut the borders, no globalization, at least for us. That way we feed each other, not the whole world.
The process of making us into a 3rd world nation is about 98% complete.
What are we gonna do about it?
Good blog, btw.

AlexVanderpoolstyle said...

Be Kind, Rewind is a super lightweight comedy with an almost Bikini Carwash premise (
"Oh no they’re going to shut down the drive in movie/arcade/community center we
need to save it by throwing a bikini car wash”) and I’ve only seen it twice but
both times I was blown away by how it handled the issues of race, class and
gender in deindustrialized America. It’s set in Passaic, New Jersey and central
story is attempt to save a Black owned business in a neighborhood (where
industry has long sent left) facing gentrification. Maybe not even “save” but communally
memorialize the value that business had for the community before it’s gone.

My understanding of David Simon’s concept behind Treme was
that The Wire was about what happens to the urban communities that have been
abandoned/triaged by society, and Treme is about why those urban spaces are
worth caring about (what sustains them culturally). Be Kind/Rewind is about
culture that sustains post-industrial abandoned community and how gentrification
threatens to hurt that culture. As someone who ran those streets, I remember
how hurt I was by the Garance Franke-Ruta piece in the Atlantic on the politics
of gentrification in D.C. which seemed to suggest that there was nothing of
value in the community in DC until she moved there-the area wasn’t nice and
that the stories of the culture of the people there before her where based on
myths. Be Kind Rewind suggests that it doesn’t matter if the neighborhood is
shitty and the stories are myths, that there is still a value to the culture of
these communities and something to be nostalgic about. For a movie about
gentrification it is lightweight compared to something like Quinceanera, but it
still I think does a nice job of capturing a feel for the community.

As an aside one of the criticisms that I’d
make of Treme is that it fails to point out that New Orleans is essentially an
industrial/post-industrial area. It’s not New York City, a 9 to 5 town with an
exciting cultural life, but is instead a 7 to 3 town with an exciting cultural
life (my wife works in medicine and would describe New Orleans as a town with
more fake arms from industrial accidents than fake legs from diabetes).