2019 At the Movies: Crossing the Class Divide
Cinema can sometimes be slow to reflect a specific sociocultural moment, particularly when such moments involve issues that are potentially controversial or divisive. Part of the reason for that is purely logistical. Movies can take a long time to finance, produce, and distribute; attempting to capture the zeitgeist as it happens can be a tricky proposition when there may be months (if not years) between production and release. Another obstacle is the economics of the industry. Movies are expensive, so in order to recoup costs and turn a profit (particularly for studio-backed and larger budget films), many films aim to reach a broad audience, and in so doing may seek to avoid commenting on the events of the day.
Still, nothing, including filmmaking, occurs in a vacuum, and it’s inevitable that certain larger trends will bubble up and reveal themselves in the films of any given year. In 2019, long-simmering global tensions around income inequality and class anxieties boiled over onto cinema screens, revealing themselves in character motivations, visual motifs, and thematic subtext. Though they took place across continents and over centuries, the films of 2019 showed us that the challenges posed by economic inequality and social stratification are universal and inescapable--especially for moviegoers. Warning: This post contains discussion of important plot details in Us, Parasite, and Knives Out. The year in class conflict kicked off with a bang when Jordan Peele’s Us burst through from its underground dungeon and set off a red-suited uprising. The Tethered invade our world and attempt to violently supplant their earthly selves, but they aren’t simply acting with mindless malice--quite the opposite. As Lupita Nyong’o’s Red explains when she first confronts her doppelganger, the Tethered are motivated by envy for the life their overworld counterparts possess. The Tethered could be a stand-in for any marginalized or oppressed group living in the shadows and ignored by those with status, and their coordinated act of revenge should serve as a cautionary tale of the consequences of societal neglect. Like with his directorial debut Get Out, Peele once again marries genre thrills with a nuanced social parable. He uses the tools and tropes of horror cinema to enhance the film’s thematic weight, while simultaneously weaponizing social commentary to evoke deeper terror. It’s no accident that the scariest moment in Us is in its final moments, when Evan Alex’s Jason looks on with horror as he realizes that his mother Adelaide not only knew about the Tethered, but was one of them, and condemned her mirror image to a life of torment when she made her escape. The class tensions explored in Us are not a uniquely American phenomenon; half a world away, Bong Joon-ho explored similar themes in Parasite, where issues of class and wealth are prevalent in every frame. The contrasts between the wealthy Park family and the lower-class Kim family are evident in the visual design of their respective homes; the Kims live in a dingy, crowded, partially-underground basement apartment, while the Parks occupy a gorgeously designed multi-level home at the top of one of Seoul’s wealthy neighborhoods. The visual stratification of the two families’ homes immediately establishes the social strata that they occupy, and even as the Kim family attempts to escape their station by infiltrating the Parks’ domestic staff, patriarch Kim Ki-taek cannot mask the literal scent that marks him as a member of the lower class. No matter how much he and his family ingratiate themselves, Park Dong-ik always looks down at the Kims--especially Ki-Taek. The irony of this intractable division is highlighted by Bong’s choice of title--both the Parks and the Kims are the titular Parasites. The Kims literally invade the Parks’ home, deceiving their way into employment, and with that, money and status. They feed off the Parks’ wealth to improve their own lot in life; meanwhile, the Parks rely entirely on the Kims, not just for labor, but also for companionship. Their relationship isn’t so much parasitic as it is symbiotic, and their mutual dependence serves only to reinforce their respective positions in the social pecking order. The status quo is less secure in Knives Out. Rian Johnson’s whodunnit centers on the wealthy Thrombey clan, whose lives--and financial security--are thrown into uncertainty when patriarch Harlan disinherits his family and chooses instead to leave his entire fortune to his young caregiver Marta. In the film’s opening act, the Thrombeys are magnanimous in their interactions with Marta to the point of condescension. They all voice their appreciation for her dedication to their father, repeatedly stating that she is “part of the family” and that she’ll be “taken care of” in Harlan’s absence. However, once they learn that Harlan amended his will to leave everything to her, the pleasantries subside; they become utterly ruthless as they relentlessly resist any threat to their financial security. The Thrombeys aren’t bound by any consistent political ideology--they range from Jacob’s alt-right internet troll to Meg’s bleeding heart college student--but all of them are unified in their desire to maintain their status, regardless of who they need to step on to ensure their economic survival. Fortunately, Johnson isn’t interested in letting the Thrombeys off without consequences for their callousness; Marta ultimately triumphs, exposing the Thrombeys’ hypocrisy and making off with their wealth--striking a blow for selflessness, decency, and hard work. Two more 2019 films explored class conflict through unexpectedly similar prisms. Though they may seem superficially dissimilar, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women are both driven entirely by the economic struggles of working-class women. In Hustlers, Constance Wu’s Destiny and Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona are forced into crime by the dire circumstances of the 2008 financial crisis, compounded by the pressures of single motherhood and an unforgiving job market. Consumed by desperation, they set their sights on the men whose reckless attitudes and callous behavior caused the crisis, making greed and hypocrisy the targets of their criminality. A century and a half away in Little Women, the March sisters are consumed by the challenges of their everyday economic situation and the constraints on them as women in particular. As they pursue their artistic dreams and ambitions with varying levels of vigor, all four sisters are painfully aware of the financial burdens they must address to support their family and achieve some measure of security. This all-consuming preoccupation is never plainer than when Amy explains to Laurie, the privileged scion of a wealthy family, that for a 19th century woman, marriage is an economic proposition at its core. The Marches don’t have the luxury of marrying purely for love--no matter how much the poets might disagree. In both Little Women and Hustlers, the gender dynamic of class is right at the forefront; the protagonists of both films are battling to survive the economic limitations imposed on them by virtue of their womanhood, and challenging the patriarchal systems that restrict the opportunities of women far more than those of men. These five films are certainly not the only ones where concerns about class and economic security play a major role. On the contrary, many of the year’s films--like The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Joker, Wild Rose, and Atlantics--feature characters who are motivated by economic anxieties, even if the films themselves don’t explore those themes as directly as some others. In those films, class conflicts play a more subtle role, bubbling underneath the surface of the main action and coloring our perception of the protagonists and the worlds they inhabit. That those movies are set across three different continents further emphasizes that income inequality and class tension were universal themes across global cinema this year, and an essential component of my moviegoing experience in 2019.