Cinema and Privilege

I came away with mixed feelings after seeing Girls Trip (dir. Malcolm D. Lee, 2017) at the weekend. It was refreshing to see a movie featuring someone different to the usual gamut of white guys, and to see women being riotously funny. I usually don't enjoy gross-out humour, but in some set-pieces Girls Trip had me giggling behind my hand. More of that and the throwing of shade and the dance-offs with less of the needless schmaltz and conflicts and I would have enjoyed it much more.

An aspect I couldn't overcome at all was the Sex and the City-level privilege of wealth oozing out of the film and most of its characters, even from Queen Latifah's character, Sasha, who is supposedly broke. During the film, I found myself thinking about Céline Sciamma's Bande de Filles/Girlhood (2014) and wishing I was re-watching that instead of a bunch of wealthy women getting away with violence because their statuses and bank balances and praying to baby Jesus could make it go away. The contrasting levels of class and wealth privilege in these films, which both engage with the intense friendships that form between girls and the ways this can manifest, got me thinking about how much we are willing or able to pay to go to the cinema.

During a recent trip to Northern Ireland we went to my old haunt the Queen's Film Theatre for a matinee screening of Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2017) (some of my thoughts on which are here). Tickets cost £5 each. If we had seen it in the Tyneside Cinema, it would have cost almost double at £9.75 per ticket. Seeing Girls Trip in World of Cine, which recently took over Newcastle's branch of Empire, cost £8.50 per ticket. It was a good, fun Saturday night out. But I think, as we did with Life (dir. Daniel Espinosa, 2017) last week, we would have found it better value for money had we waited and rented it when it comes available on iTunes as it didn't live up to glowing reviews we'd heard that it was side-splittingly hilarious. Some parts are, but I felt bored and unsympathetic towards the characters during the more sober parts.

While Girls Trip contributes to addressing race and gender disparity in cinema, it contributes nothing towards attaining class, sexuality, non-binary gender or ability inclusion. This is a blunt observation; the film doesn't claim or intend to solve the world's problems. However, seeing it has made me want to see a race-, ability- and gender-blind film about the antics of working-class pals who play hard because they work damn hard and love to let off steam, and not at the expense of others or in a way that excludes others. There is bound to be a way to make this kind of premise cinematic and outrageous enough for a summer adult comedy. Looks like I've set myself a new writing challenge. If you'd like to get in on this action and collaborate with me, please get in touch.

On the point of making new work, contrasting trailers for Rough Night (dir. Lucia Aniello, 2017) and Patti Cake$ (dir. Geremy Jasper, 2017) were shown before the screening. Rough Night feels like an attempt to fight fire with fire. The patriarchy isn't going to get smashed by its own fuel. The film appears to be another bunch of over-privileged women who seem to earn loads by doing little, this time the white-heavy group includes a token black member (Zoë Kravitz, who deserves better), and a token plot-pointy, clingy, fat friend (Jillian Bell, whose work I don't know but I'm guessing deserves better too) whose heaviness and eagerness to 'have a go' on the stripper they've hired causes his accidental death. This summer had been a bit light on the fat-shaming, so here we go.

Reading up on Rough Night's plot shows that as well as gender, it turns the accidental killing of a sex worker trope on its head enough to justify exonerating the group. Whatever the circumstances, the maltreatment of a dead body, no less one already an objectified surface image and what had been an apparently working/working-class body, is not something I find funny. It is also aggravating that Hollywood is packaging gender equality in such an insulting way. I know nothing about Aniello, for whom this is a debut feature. It wouldn't surprise me if she had to succumb to Sony's vision for a sellable adult comedy rather than them grant her creative control. I'm not sure if getting a foot in the door and then trying to advocate for change is the way to effect it, if that would be her ambition. As far as possible, we must begin as we mean to go on, and consumers must demand parity across new roles rather than settle for weak rehashes of old sexist narratives.

As for the actors, I imagine Scarlett Johansson as the lead liked the idea of being able to relax in an all-female main cast and to do something silly and fun. She, again, deserves better. She has more than proven herself. It is also understandable that Kate McKinnon would want to capitalize on her performance as Dr Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig, 2016) and her expanding portfolio of impressions for shows such as Saturday Night Live. Hollywood needs its consumers to tell them that the model of simply rebooting old concepts with switched gender roles masquerading as 'updating' is not in itself feminist and is not sustainable; it is already getting tired.

No doubt, Patti Cake$ will be branded as a female-led 8 Mile (dir. Curtis Hanson, 2002). It is about a young aspiring rapper from an underprivileged background who is bullied for her size. The trailer indicates that Patti is supported by a small but diverse group of family and friends. It looks like an all-round positive film for people to see, and my worry is that those who may most identify with and garner hope from the story most may not be able to access it while it is on cinematic release with ticket prices close to or over the £10 mark in the UK. This is a substantial amount when you have little to no expendable income, especially to risk on an experience with no guarantee of satisfaction and a feeling of value for money.

I, Daniel Blake (dir. Ken Loach, 2016) has proved highly important as a cultural object, not only for the film's prescient content, but also in opening out access to the underprivileged by engaging in pay-as-you-feel/can screenings in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield. This critically-acclaimed BAFTA-winning film by Palme d'Or-winning director Ken Loach had advantages from attention in prize and festival culture, and the renown that comes with Loach's name. A few pay-as-you-feel screenings when films such as Patti Cake$ or Bande de filles are released to broaden access to relatable stories and to reclaim access to cinema-going as a working-class activity would be fantastic. I've set myself another challenge. Please help by asking your local cinemas to offer more pay-as-you-can screenings.


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