The contentious presidential campaign was filled with accusations of elitism and bias by the media -- from the news to entertainment. Many supporters of Donald J. Trump saw his victory as a repudiation of the so-called liberal elite.
So as 2017 begins, we ask: Is Hollywood representing all Americans? Are Hollywood values out of sync with American values?
It's the start of a conversation we'll have all year with Hollywood's creators, consumers and observers. Most of all, we want to hear from you. Is Hollywood out of touch with your America? Here's what our critics and writers have to say:
- Blame the movies? KENNETH TURAN on potent Hollywood visions that helped elect Trump
- TV's affluent bubble: MARY McNAMARA on Hollywood's reluctance to deal with class issues
- Fear of the powerful woman: JUSTIN CHANG on working women and men still behaving badly
- Realistic or cliche?: JEFFREY FLEISHMAN on film's working-class men and women
- Building distrust: LORRAINE ALI on destructive TV portrayals of Muslims and how TV can help fix things
- Video games to politics: TODD MARTENS on how Gamergate trolls helped set Trump's political attack playbook
- No 'Middle' ground: MEREDITH BLAKE on TV's working-class hero, 'The Middle'
- Bracing for backlash: TRE'VELL ANDERSON on LGBT Hollywood's vow to keep fighting
- Still angry: MARC BERNARDIN on 'This Is Us,' a rare TV view of simmering rage in a black professional
- Arts fighter: MARK SWED says maybe Sylvester Stallone wasn't such a bad idea for the NEA after all
- Rap pirates: Run the Jewels' Killer Mike and El-P get political with RANDALL ROBERTS
- Standing Rock legacy: CAROLINA A. MIRANDA on the pipeline protest that could be the future of dissent
- Cuba unplugged: RANDY LEWIS on a music scene that grew up in isolation
- Voice of protest: Conor Oberst talks with AUGUST BROWN about music's power
- The provocateur: CAROLYN KELLOGG on Milo Yiannopoulos' $250,000 book advance
- Survival kit: JOHN SCALZI's 10-point plan for making art in the Trump era
THE WORKING MAN IS BATTERED and bruised, celebrated and misunderstood. He is stoic and brash. He counts his hours and logs his years. He is the best and worst of us, as willing to walk into a coal mine as onto a battlefield. He endures until he breaks or accepts that the promises of manhood glimmered brighter when he was a boy.
The question now is how will Hollywood depict this working man — and working woman — in a culturally divisive era? What are the new narratives in a changing economy and racial strains driven by identity politics? Donald Trump’s election has refocused attention, much like the fall of the U.S. steel industry in the 1970s, on disillusioned and bitter parts of the country shaken by financial decline, foreign competition and addiction.
The Democratic Party, once the bastion of labor, has been accused of paying less attention to the white working class and focusing more on minorities and youth. Film and television creators are said to be too liberal and out of touch with the values and concerns of the heartland.
Yet as far removed as Hollywood seems from blue-collar realities, movies have for generations played on all manner of working men and women, taking us from steel mills to fishing trawlers, from textile plants to grocery check-out lines, and from one hard-pressed town to the next. Such portrayals cast the working class — from “The Grapes of Wrath” to “Harlan County, USA” — as indivisible from the success and failure of the American dream.
I grew up in a blue collar sentiment, but so often these people are stereotyped and mythologized in film. They come across as cliché.
A number of movies have rendered insightful glimpses of working class and rural America that have risen above region and economic status to encompass the universal. These films have realized that stories — mainly about white, non-college-educated men and women — can veer as easily into stereotype and generalization as movies featuring minorities, transgenders and rock n’ roll bands. Even the best intentioned blue-collar tales can slip from sparse realism into stock masculinity and false redemption.
One of this year’s most evocative movies, “Hell or High Water,” follows two brothers, Toby and Tanner, across a West Texas landscape of foreclosures and ruin after the 2008 recession. The film has the style of an old western. But it is very much about how today’s capitalism is indifferent to families — at least 60% of Americans don’t have college educations — whose shrinking paychecks and diminished options leave them desperate amid fallow fields, pump jacks and frontier justice.
“I think the western is about people in harsh places trying to tame an unfriendly wilderness,” Chris Pine, who played Toby, told The Times. “Because life is defined by struggle, it’s kind of a perfect microcosmic experience to explore that. ‘Here we are, struggling.’ It’s about people persevering and persevering and persevering.”
Director David Mackenzie said the movie “felt to me like a snapshot of a nation.”
The trials, chores, joys, challenges, demons and dangers of the working class have been viewed through many prisms: Marlon Brando standing up to dockworker corruption in “On the Waterfront,” Sally Field fighting for a textile union in “Norma Rae,” Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken leaving the steel plants of Pittsburgh to fight in Vietnam in “The Deer Hunter,” a labor leader demanding rights for migrant workers in “Cesar Chavez,” George Clooney and his doomed crew chasing fish in the North Atlantic in “The Perfect Storm,” coal miners rising against Pinkertons in bloody battles played out in John Sayles’ “Matewan” and this year’s “Paterson,” featuring Adam Driver as a poet-bus driver.
Such movies have an elegiac dignity at their core, respecting a man or woman’s honor and pride through the lens of their daily toil. A rigorous work ethic has long been one of the nation’s defining traits, deified not only in film but also in literature and music. Much of Bruce Springsteen’s playlist ruminates on accepting the working life with forbearance or escaping it with fuel-injected defiance. And on this plane, notably in movies, the working man is cast against the shadow of coal tipples, smokestacks, blast furnaces or other emblems of industry to suggest his ultimate fate is controlled by others.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the working class and the working man,” said director Kenneth Lonergan, whose “Manchester by the Sea” tells of the lives of a janitor and a fisherman. “But it’s all general. What are they talking about? A lot of people are out there fixing things. There’s a certain amount of sentimentalization when you get to movies.”
The film “Winter’s Bone,” which in large measure introduced Jennifer Lawrence to the world, slips into a sliver of the Ozarks in southwestern Missouri, where crime, clan and retribution trammel over a harsh, if beautiful, land that offers little prosperity. The working men and women here have turned into drug dealers and enforcers whose codes and moralities are challenged by Ree Dolly (Lawrence), a girl trying to save her home and family from the havoc caused by her methamphetamine-cooking father.
We’re a town of 14,000. Lost 1,200 jobs to Mexico in the last three years....That’s a brutal punch. The people I talked to just wanted to shake things up.
Based on the novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell, the film, directed by Debra Granik, is a dark glimpse at an often unnoticed part of the country. Like movies set in Appalachia or the Rust Belt, the story has a palpable sense of place and isolation. Woodrell, who lives in the Missouri region where his family has had roots since 1838, said in a recent interview that “the reason I stayed here so long is that I can walk two blocks and there’s the cemetery where my family is buried. A lot of resonance.”
He knows a number of people who voted for Trump. “We’re a town of 14,000. Lost 1,200 jobs to Mexico in the last three years that literally went to Mexico. That’s a brutal punch,” he said. “The people I talked to just wanted to shake things up. I’m a Democrat but I’m kind of nostalgic for the old Democrats who cared for the working class.”
Woodrell’s novels seek recesses both moral and geographical. They navigate sin, fallibility and the grays that make a life, adding force and richness to regional tales that echo far beyond their boundaries. “When any aspect of life gets focused on, it’d be really easy to make something grotesque if you focus on a narrow slice of it,” he said. “It’s not Mayberry and it’s not all ‘Winter’s Bone’... You try to make it human, respecting characters and taking them seriously. Show it from their point of view, not mine.”
The men in Scott Cooper’s evocatively photographed “Out of the Furnace” are forsaken and hard, living in Braddock, Pa., a steam-streaked steel town of crumbling houses, rail yards, dim taverns and the bones of an industry that once was. Two brothers — Russell (Christian Bale), a mill worker, and Rodney (Casey Affleck), a damaged Iraq war vet — live amid scoured ambitions that turn violent when Rodney takes up street fighting for money. These are men pushed to the brink by circumstance; a shrinking, battered family in a town of ghosts.
“You have to live there to know these people,” said Cooper, who was raised at the edge of the coal fields in Abingdon, Va. “I grew up in a blue collar sentiment but so often these people are stereotyped and mythologized in film. They come across as cliché.” He added that the suspicion and disillusionment in the Rust Belt, Appalachia and other regions “come from an ideological and cultural isolation from the rest of America. These are a group of people who see themselves as outsiders but they were really the backbone of America, especially in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. But lost jobs have led to lost pride and vices.”
Those vices have led to years of heroin and prescription drug addiction, early graves and a bitterness toward the government, which many blame for wage stagnation and jobs wiped out by foreign competition. It was this sense of desperation that drew many working class voters to Trump, a rich man who may not be one of them but who has vowed to rattle the establishment. For many, promises had been denied for too long in lands forgotten between New York and Los Angeles. As the working class continues to be redefined by automation and shifting demographics, it is this reality that Washington and Hollywood will be wrestling with for years to come.
“I wanted to treat it as honestly as I could,” Cooper said of his film. “The American dream is dead and it is not really coming back.”
On Twitter: @JeffreyLAT