What we have called the failure of liberalism in the seventies helped undermine the Democratic Party and contributed to its overwhelming political defeats in the early eighties. Traditionally, the Democrats represent the lower income sector of the population, while the Republican Party is generally assumed to be the party of the rich and the economically powerful. The Democrats were defeated in the eighties because a large portion of their white male working class constituency shifted to the Republicans. Throughout the seventies, the old New Deal Democratic Party coalition of blacks, women, labor, and poor people had been put in disarray primarily by economic pressures that heavily affected workers and the poor. Inflation, unemployment, deindustrialization, a severe drop in productivity growth, and steadily rising net tax rates reduced the income of lower- and middle-class people, provoked increased tensions between Democratic constituencies, especially white workers and blacks, and undermined the basis of organized labor. The Democrats came to be viewed increasingly as the cause of the trouble; their tax policies, conservatives claimed, not only cut income, but also curtailed investment and jobs, while supporting unnecessary social programs funded by government borrowing (deficit spending) that increased inflation. Moreover, the Democrats were seen as incapable of handling the growing economic crisis. The party had been disunified since the 1972 candidacy of George McGovern, a left liberal who divided the party’s fragile coalition of civil rights, labor, environmental, and feminist groups. The divisiveness was most evident in 1980 when Ted Kennedy ran against an incumbent Democratic president. Democrats themselves no longer seemed to have confidence in their leaders. While the Democrats represented a large coalition no one of whose members was large or powerful enough to define a single organizing agenda for the party, the Republicans, on the other hand, represented the exclusive interests of one powerful constituency—the rich. They therefore could offer a single-minded and firm program of economic renewal to increase income through tax reductions and cuts in social spending. That these programs would ultimately benefit the rich exclusively at the expense of the poor and the middle class meant little at the time. In 1980, many white working-class Democrats switched to Reagan and bought the line.
What most harmed the Democrats was the economic crisis of the period. It cut into the income of their traditional constituencies, and it made the traditional Democratic economic policy orientation toward equity and redistribution seem unreasonable. The economic crisis consisted of a persistent rise in the rate of inflation (meaning higher prices for goods) and in the rate of unemployment. Inflation went from 1.34% in the period from 1961 to 1965, to 9.68% in the late seventies, to 15% in 1980, while unemployment reached 11% by 1983. At the same time, the rate of earnings growth went from +1.8 to—1.4. People were earning less while having to pay more. Thus, between 1970 and 1980 the cost of basics rose 110%; between 1973 and 1980 there was an 18% decline in discretionary income; and between 1968 and 1981 there was a 20% decline in real standard of living among factory worker families. Moreover, the poverty rate rose above 15% for the first time in twenty years. If in 1973 most people thought things were not that bad in the United States, by 1976, after the major mid-seventies recession, polls recorded a sharp increase in fear of economic instability, and domestic concerns replaced international ones as a primary source of worry. By 1978, right in the middle of Jimmy Carter’s term in office, one out of three people said things seemed to be getting worse. These developments eroded the base of the party and created hostility between its tax-paying constituents and its poor or non-tax-paying members, “hostility guaranteed to become directed against the party itself. . . . The economy was tightening like a noose around the neck of the Democratic Party.”1 Democratic “Big Government” thus became an easy target for Republican ideologues.
The Republicans’ solution was a dismantling of the New Deal federal welfare state and an unleashing of a deregulated “free” market. Businesses by this time were already launched on their own solutions—destroying unions and imposing wage cuts to reduce costs and maintain profits. Those profits were going increasingly not into the maintenance of industry but into its demolition, as businesses packed up and moved either overseas or to the union-free South. U.S. economic power shifted significantly southward during the mid and late seventies as a result of the oil price boom after the OPEC agreements and the flight of northern capital to the Sunbelt. In general, business used the excuse of the recessions to impose new discipline on workers, reduce income, build opposition to government regulation enforcing racial equality, and make Americans pay for the cost of reconstructing the U.S. economy, away from the old smokestack industries of the North and Midwest and toward a service technology orientation increasingly located in the suburbs and the Sunbelt. While these changes increased the power of the wealthy by increasing their wealth (the number of millionaires rose significantly at the same time as more people entered poverty), they also eroded the support base of the Democrats in the North. And the previously Democratic South came to embrace the Republicans.
In this chapter we will look at films that deal with two major Democratic Party constituencies—workers and blacks—as well as at the development of “good old boy” New South films in the late seventies and early eighties. While none of these films directly or explicitly represents the economic and political changes we have just described, many of them register the feelings of anger, fear, hope, and frustration that accompanied these developments. Others play to the audiences as political constituencies, offering metaphoric representations of escape that contain embedded political values. The “bad” IRS man in Blue Collar, the bad welfare regulators in a black film like Claudine, and the bad sheriff in Smokey and the Bandit all share one thing; they all belong to Big Government. And even if the filmmakers in each case did not intend it, those representations became part of a general cultural case that was being made by conservatives against government taxation, federal welfare, and state regulation of business.
Working-class films are contradictory in character.2 Most, like Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, and Flashdance, evidence a desire for transcendence of working-class life that potentially threatens the class system. But that desire to overcome the limited life possibilities which capitalism bestows on its bottom rung is generally limited to individualist forms, which tend to reinforce the founding values and the legitimating ideology of the class system. Nevertheless, the desire to improve one’s lot, even in ways which reinforce the ideal of class mobility, is also indicative of more radical possibilities, for it suggests dissatisfaction with working-class life, with the limitations that capitalism imposes, and it points to the power of the need to overcome those limitations. Thus, it is the bearer of multiple, even contradictory meanings. It cannot help but reinforce the legitimacy of structural inequality, for it suggests that those who get out of the working class are better, more endowed individually, than their fellows. But it also signals the inevitability that a structurally unequal class system will generate an implacable material dissatisfaction that must be assuaged in some way if the capitalist system is to sustain itself.
Conservative films about the working class depict individual triumph, or they portray the working class world as a pigsty from which one should escape to a middle-class Utopia, or they make arguments aginst unions. More liberal films question the myth of the ladder of success or show women and groups of workers rather than individuals struggling against oppression.
During this period, conservatives succeeded in convincing many white working-class people that blame for the miseries inflicted by inflation (corporate price gouging) and unemployment (forcing workers to pay for the inherent inefficiencies of capitalism) should be placed on the federal government, and in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), the negative protagonists are the unions and the government tax collector. While these representations seem to play to the sorts of prejudices that would conduct working-class votes away from the big government Democrats and toward the revivalist Republicans in the 1980s, the film also contains powerful images of interracial cooperation as well as of the use of racial strife to keep workers down. If the FBI did not have to be called in at the end to save a white worker from the union and from a black who sells out for a promotion, it might have been a more politically progressive film. But one thing that a sociocultural system cannot do in a sustained way is to question its operative premises. Not surprisingly, then, not a single film during this period suggests to the predominantly working audiences that there may be something wrong with a system that imposes wage labor for others’ profit and one’s own survival. The other conservative film about working-class struggle, F.I.S.T. (1978), does portray the great worker uprisings of the thirties and the brutal force used to suppress them. But it also suggests that organized labor is inherently corrupt, and in the credit sequence subliminally advertises “the right to work,” a right-wing slogan of the period that referred to the destruction of unions.
While conservatives argued against unions and succeeded in bashing them into submission (union membership declined from 26% to 16% of the workforce during this period), liberals and leftists promoted unionization in such films as Norma Rae (1979) and 9 to 5 (1980). Norma Rae is significant because it depicts a union campaign then in progress against southern cotton mills; the issue was settled in favor of the unions shortly thereafter. It also gave a woman a lead role in a social melodrama, reflecting both the influence of feminism and the increase in women workers’ activism during this period. Even more striking in this regard is 9 to 5, since the three leads are women who use guile and deception to win reforms in their office. Yet this narrative ploy entails a certain political capitulation. The women’s tricks would have failed if it were not for the intervention of the corporate boss, a benevolent, paternalist sort who straightens everything out in the end. “You have to keep the crew happy,” he says, and the reforms the women have won have certainly made his crew happy for him. But they will also ultimately make him richer and keep the workers in their place. This collaborationist argument can be understood as an attempt to make progressive reform more palatable by suggesting that it also benefits business (as indeed it probably does). But power is left undisturbed by such tactics, tactics that characterize the labor movement as a whole during the early eighties, when givebacks and concessions were forced on labor and capital.
Even liberal working-class films thus take the world of class oppression as a given. They reinforce the assumption that it is natural and right for one small group of white men to own and control an immense portion of the wealth of a nation and to make the majority work for them. This implicit liberal capitulation to the values of capitalism and the prevalence of the individualist ethic helps account for the absence of a significant socialist alternative in the United States. The individualist ethic also accounts for the transmutation of resentment against class oppression into a desire for class mobility that ignores the structural causes of that oppression. The most common motif of conservative working-class films during this period consequently is the desire for class transcendence.
Liberal films question the template of success through individual effort, although their alternative seems to be a romanticizing of working-class life that fails to view it critically as a condition to be abolished structurally. Two films scripted by Steve Tesich—Breaking Away (1979) and Four Friends (1982)—both display the template and question it. Breaking seems an unabashed celebration of escape from the post-high school dead end of manual labor and meaningless marriage into the cosmopolitan world opened by higher education. But the camera lingers at the end for a moment on one of those who won’t be lucky enough to “break in.” Friends is a more overt critique of the attempt to rise on the class ladder. Those who do, disappointed by what they find at the top, return to their working-class world and their true friends. But that world is endowed with a sentimental aura that could take the conservative form of promoting contentment with oppression. The most striking example of this is The Flamingo Kid (1984), in which a young man charms his way into a private club, wins the heart of a rich young woman, and earns the patronage of a wealthy man. The young man almost rejects his working-class roots, but he ultimately discovers how corrupt the upper-class world is and returns to his home. Yet the film falls short of an indictment of the class system as such. It dramatizes one available instrument of those outside power who do not organize collectively—the refusal of the logic of individual mobility. The shortcoming of this necessarily limited alternative is that it must compensate for what is refused by idealizing working-class family life. The celebration of family and community has a strong appeal, but in its social context it is tantamount to putting daisies on the chains.
Conservative or populist films about individual mobility were much more popular during this period, a testament, perhaps, to strong desires to transcend an increasingly dull mid-seventies reality. The Rocky series offers a fantasy of transcending working-class life through individual initiative. Rocky (1976) depicts Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as a palooka, a bum boxer, who gets a lucky shot at a title match against the black champion. Through faith, effort, and love from his girlfriend, he gets in shape and succeeds against tremendous odds. But the film is something more than a gratifying success story. Made during the second major recession of the decade, it transcodes white male working-class fears and desires, offering a vision of hope at a distressing time. Yet the edifying story of accomplishment just barely hides the spirit of resentful white working-class racism that motivates it. Rocky’s attack against black power in the ring metaphorically mobilizes white working-class resentment of the sort that was prevalent throughout the seventies. One scene in which Rocky is obliged to give up his locker to a black contender suggests the literal, metonymic origin of that racism, at least as it appeared in the seventies, in fears of losing scarce jobs to blacks.
The subsequent Rocky films are indicative of changing cultural political configurations. Rocky II (1979) is a particularly good indicator of the pressures and growing resentments that would turn white working-class voters toward the Republicans in 1980. In it, Rocky is shown back in his old life, beset by money worries and unemployment. A black supervisor tells him that he must be laid off because of seniority rules (it was, of course, at this point in time that capitalist retrenchment for the sake of preserving profits was pressuring white workers to turn against affirmative action programs that gave blacks advantages over whites, despite seniority). Yet Rocky strives to succeed and does indeed triumph over the black champion in a rematch. As in all the films, he must overcome personal doubts, and he derives special reinforcement from family ties. The film displays the social psychological configuration which makes melodrama a favorite representational mode for many people. In melodrama, self-empowerment against strong odds seems easily available through simple faith. In a society that denies popular democracy and access to public debate, private problems assume exaggerated proportions. Thus, the sentimental tug of the melodramatic portion of the film is attached to the near-death of Rocky’s wife in childbirth. The melodrama holds a magnifying glass up to the private sphere, and a similar hyperbole characterizes the fight sequence—rendered, as usual, as a mythic spectacle. Yet metonymic links tie the metaphor back to fallen reality. The material connection between the allegorized fight and the workaday world of lower-class people is signaled by the fact that Rocky goes off to the fight as if he were off to a day’s work, kissing his wife goodbye. And on the way he drops in for a prayer from the neighborhood priest. Localism, a sense of territory and familiarity, is a characteristic of working-class life which the film accurately transcodes. And the fight consequently takes on the more metonymic meaning of being a defense against material threats that whites at the time were blaming on blacks, instead of on wage-lowering, price-raising capitalists.
The popularity of the Rocky movies (number 2 in box-office gross in 1977, number 3 in 1979, and all among the top fifty money-makers of all time) suggests that they appeal to widespread desires for class transcendence. Yet the films also indicate that such desires tend to get channeled toward the ideal of the accumulation of wealth, which merely reinforces the system of class oppression.
The desire for class transcendence frequently takes the form of physical activity like sports or dance. Working-class people in general are tracked away from intellectual power by the American educational system; consequently, physical activities like sports or dance are often their only way of breaking out of the cultural circle of class oppression. A version of the manual labor to which they are condemned is appropriately their one means of cultural escape. But the discipline required for such activities is also an internalization of guilt for one’s class position, a way of telling oneself it is one’s own fault and that one should work hard to overcome one’s own failure and succeed. In a liberal individualist culture which denies the class character of oppression, class guilt is thus individualized, and the effort to overcome structural inequality is conceived in individual rather than collective terms.
Two major conservative films about the working class during this period—Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Flashdance (1983)—use dance as a correlate for the dream of class transcendence. Dancing, in film musicals, has traditionally served as a metaphor for the transcendence of everyday routine; it breaks through the constraints of realism, both aesthetic and social, that limit possible actions to a logic of propriety, and it inserts fantasy into the narrative of everyday actions. In contrast to everyday life, it is expressive rather than conventional. It puts in question the rule of necessity that regulates everyday life in the form of social codes of dress, work, movement, etc. For this reason perhaps, dance musicals have been traditional conduits for dreams of hope and the rise from rags to riches. Dance signals the possibility of the emergence of the altogether other within the everyday, the possibility of redemption from having to live with a reality of limited expectations.
In Saturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham, Tony (John Travolta) attains surrogate professional and personal gratification through dance. He is the king of the 2001 disco in Brooklyn. Content to work in a hardware store, he lives at home and passes his time with his small gang of buddies, dancing and chasing girls. Then he meets Stefanie, someone who can dance as well as he but who also has made the move across the class bridge to Manhattan, where she works in a talent agency. She makes him aware of just what a dead end his life is: “You got no class. . . . You’re nowhere on your way to no place.” He symbolically rejects his old world by refusing a dance contest prize he thinks was rightfully won by a Hispanic couple and travels over to Manhattan to seek her help in starting a new, class-mobile life.
For a Hollywood film, Fever is unusually rich in a sense of enthnographic detail. Its grainy, even seedy, urban texture and its use of high angle and long shots that bring the urban architecture into the frame, making it integral to the events, produce a sense of documentary accuracy that few other working-class films attain. Moreover, Fever allows one to read subcultural working-class practices like dancing both as cooptational diversions that merely support a commercial system which creates the need for such diversions in the first place and as strategies of resistance to the domination of life by that commercial system. In the film, dance is a subcultural communal activity that constitutes a temporary rejection of the imposition of the capitalist ethic of deferred gratification on the working class as well as a means of attaining a sense of self-worth denied working-class people under capitalism.
Yet Fever portrays working-class life negatively from the point of view of a critical cosmopolitanism. The word “shit” echoes in the working-class world of tawdry sex, violence, drunkenness, unemployment, dead-end jobs, family squabbling, disillusionment, and resentment. The film exaggeratedly portrays that world as something excremental, a waste without meaning. It is the lowest rung on a success ladder that leads through individual effort to middle-class life over the river. Color texture and cinematography elaborate this thematic. Stefanie wears white; soft light falls on her face when she and Tony first meet. She is an ideal, who even corrects her working-class English in order to make it. Tony in contrast wears the “fallen world” colors black and red, connoting sex and violence. When he finally joins her side and rejects his world, he too dons white and merits being bathed in the same soft light. When Stefanie and Tony walk in the street in the segment in which she accuses him of living a dead-end life, the symbolic bridge which connotes upward mobility looms in the background. Later, they will contemplate it together, in a scene in which he demonstrates his mental abilities for the first time, his potential for rising out of the excrement.
An ideological film of this sort works by establishing a set of oppositions between the fallen world and the redeemed world. The hero’s movement from the former to the latter defines the trajectory of the narrative. If the fallen world is characterized by group loyalty, dead-end jobs, play with no external goal, family, neighborhood, incorrect English, animalistic sex, and meaninglessness, the redeemed world across the river consists of individualism, career jobs, work toward goals, deracination from neighborhood, alliances rather than family ties, corrected English, deferred sexual gratification, and meaning.
Working-class life is an end in itself; it doesn’t point beyond to anything else that gives it significance. It remains bound to literality and materiality; it is unidealized. Tony’s remark, “One day you look at a crucifix and all you see is a man on a cross,” is important, therefore, because it suggests the evacuation of meaning from traditional working-class metaphors as well as from working-class life itself; all that’s, left is a literal, material thing that doesn’t rise to a meaning beyond it. The problem of meaning parallels Tony’s life problem. He doesn’t rise to career goals; there’s no ideal beyond toward which he moves and which gives his life meaning. His life is a series of episodes connected contiguously or metonymically, not a narrative moving toward a goal, a beyond that orients life into a meaningful line of development. Non-narrative life is like literality; it has no ideal or metaphoric meaning.
Class-mobile life, on the other hand, has meaning in that, unlike the boys’ life of play, it is not an end in itself. It is directed beyond its own activity toward a goal. The decision to go for a career is thus associated with metaphor, the elevation of literality and materiality to a meaning that substitutes for it and lifts it up to ideality. Tony’s passage to Manhattan at the end is rendered cinematically in a highly metaphoric manner as a crucifixion and resurrection. He “dies” to his dance life, descends into the subway hell, and is resurrected into a Manhattan sunrise. An equation is established between the acquisition of career goals and the acquisition of meaning, the elevation of fallen, literal, end-in-itself materiality into an ideational substitute. A train ride is now a resurrection, but in a very real sense too, Tony must now see his life as being different, as having more meaning, as not being a dead end of play. It points beyond itself, and leaves that past literal, material, deadend world behind entirely. The Saturday Night Fever must be doused and give way to Sunday morning brunch.
The film thus offers a lesson in the workings of ideology. Bourgeois idealization, which is associated with such metaphors as “freedom,” “success,” “career,” and so on, operates by erasing the material underpinning of those metaphors; their literal meaning as venality, greed, exploitation, and outright murder is obliterated. The metaphoric substitution must be total, just as the cross cannot also mean something literal, like how brutal the Romans were to Jewish dissidents. So Tony’s ascension to heaven cannot be allowed to be read as an exercise in crass materialist opportunism of the sort being imposed as a general attitude on youth in the late seventies as the economy got worse and future prospects dimmed.
The film also displays why ideological systems are essential to social power. Metaphor is not merely an ancillary addition to a power structure that would remain intact without the metaphors. Power is inseparable from metaphor, the pervasive substitution in the culture of an ideal meaning for a literal thing. The exercise of greed and exploitation thus comes to be called “freedom” by an act of metaphoric substitution. Tony’s ascension to careerism is inseparable from the elevation of literality to metaphoric meaning because buying into the system also involves believing in it, accepting its dominant metaphors and meanings, internalizing its ideological representations—that, for example, working-class life is excremental while upscale life is something higher, of a different order altogether. It is essential that the literal, material reality of the social system be substituted for metaphorically by meanings that are ideological in that they idealize the system and elicit belief in its justness. This is so because if exploited people believed the literal rather than the metaphoric version—that the upper class, rather than being better, higher beings who deserve more, are merely scavengers with an unjustifiable monopoly on wealth; that wealth is contingent, not a necessary endowment; that the working class is not a cause or ground beneath and below capital, but instead an effect of the operations of capital; that the ideological meanings of the system are opportunistic rhetorical manipulations as much anchored in materiality and literality as the provincial working-class world whose transcendence they advertise, not higher metaphoric truths emanating from the nature of things—the whole system would fall apart (or have to resort to overt force to maintain itself). Rulers can’t afford to tell the ruled that they are a bunch of dumb shmucks for letting themselves be ruled so easily. The whole economic and political system depends on everyone pretending that things are otherwise.
Saturday Night Fever is interesting because it shows how this ideological process both does and does not work. It presents the ideological metaphor as if it were absolute, but it also shows the indeterminacy within the apparently uncontestable revelation of absolute truth. The bridge is the dominant metaphor of the film. Figuratively, it represents the transcendence of working-class life, the act of crossing over to the world of upward mobility. The film wants the audience to think of the bridge in that sense exclusively, as a means of getting from the lower to the higher, the material to the ideal, the static to the dynamic, literal meaninglessness to metaphoric meaning. But the bridge, in its literality, also indicates a problem in this metaphoric ideological system of thought and belief. For literally the bridge is a means of conducting working people to the drudgery of another day on the job. This literality must be sublated, excluded and replaced by an idealized substitute. That the bridge has both meanings at once, undecidably, is precisely the trouble and precisely the problem that the film overcomes by presenting the ideal or figurative meaning as the privileged one. The problem is exacerbated, however, by the boys when they play on the bridge. For in essence, they refuse both meanings; for them, the bridge is neither a literal conduit to work nor a metaphor of class mobility. As a site of play, the bridge can mean anything; it comes to represent a potential for self-valorization, a refusal to go along with either the literal reality of work or the figurative ideal of mobility. For this reason the boy who most represents working-class “decadence” is killed while playing there. This very kind of play is most threatening to the work system and to its ideology, and it, especially, must be purged. For it troubles all systems of meaning, in particular the ideological system of meaning that endows the bridge with the higher truth of class universalism. The boys’ play suggests that the meaning of the bridge is indeterminate, that one might use it for a number of different ends. But the discipline of work, like the discipline of ideological meaning, is at stake here, and in consequence, this undecidable possibility will be closed off by the main character’s assumption of “responsibility” and by the imposition of the privileged metaphoric meaning. His choice of the career world confirms the ideal and ideological sense that the bridge does not lead just anywhere; it leads up.
But does it? Our deconstructive arguments so far have suggested that ideological metaphors always display their ungroundedness, much as they strain to appear grounded or absolute. What interests us about this film is that Tony’s figurative class-mobile flight is hedged in by literal, material, metonymic connections, lines of dependency and reference that trouble the apparent unicity and absoluteness of its ideal meaning. His move is supposed to be purely individual, a confirmation of the individualist ideology of natural talent and entrepreneurial striving that sustains capitalism. Yet that move is a flight from something, and it is not entirely self-motivated. At one point, just before deciding to leave Brooklyn, Tony looks around the hardware store where he works. His boss has just promised him a long future with the store and given an account of how many years each one there has worked for him. They are all men in their late middle age, and Tony, confronted with the reality of his working-class future, looks appropriately horrified. His liftoff for Manhattan begins at that moment. What is striking is that it is motivated by a comparative connection to the communal fate of his fellows. This literal motive is in fact more important than the metaphoric meaning of mobility that the film privileges. It suggests metonymic connections that anchor that ideal meaning in a material reality which it pretends to transcend, but which cannot be transcended. Tony’s rise to careerism supposedly leaves his working-class world behind, extracts him from the common mass and endows him with singular talents and a singular meaning, just as Christ’s elevation from literal to spiritual meaning was supposedly in no way contaminated by contingent, literal historical references. Yet Tony cannot ride alone; like all escapees, the velocity of his flight is only calculable in terms of the world left behind. His escape is determined by its difference from the entrapment of his fellows. His ascent is as much a literal documentary of group oppression as a figurative elevation to ideal meaning. This duality or undecidability cannot be entirely reduced or removed. It suggests that the ideology of independence is constituted by hidden dependencies, connections to material reality that prevent the ideology from being what it claims to be. Those connections are metonymic because, rather than isolate Tony from his environment as in metaphor, they anchor him in that environment and see him as part of it.
Thus, a lateral or contiguous movement of metonymic reference operates against the vertical and elevating metaphoric idealization that the ideology of the film privileges. The attempt to negate class difference through the ideology of individualism merely affirms the recalcitrant structural character of class difference. Because escape has no meaning without a prison, the film cannot help but also point to the fact that for people like Tony to “rise,” many must remain on the bottom, providing a measuring stick for tracking his ascent.
If the film displays the literality of the ideological figures of upper-class life, it also points to the figurality of what the film’s ideology would like to be taken as literal or fallen—the working-class world. By representing the Manhattan world through metaphors of universal truth (death and rebirth, nature, the realization of self), it also by that very token points to the figural character of both worlds. We have seen how the trope of individual success is revealed to be a figure, not a revelation of truth, by virtue of being connected with the materiality and literality of class. It posits or creates the reality it supposedly depicts; it cannot claim to be a representation of a reality that preexists representation, that is not somehow shaped by the representations that supposedly derive from it. If the upper-class world is figurally constructed in this way, the same has to be said for the supposedly literal working-class world, which is only literal in relation to the supposedly higher ideal meaning of the upper-class world. If that meaning is nothing more than literality posing as metaphoric meaning, a construct made from rhetoric instead of an inherent natural reality, then the working-class world can no longer be conceived as a lower literal rung on that metaphoric ladder. Indeed, its presentation as a lower literal form of life must itself be seen as a rhetorical figure, a necessary construct or strategy which constituted the difference that defined the sanctity of upper-class ideals.
What we are left with is two material worlds which are undecidably figural and literal, shaped by a dominant ideological rhetoric while yet anchored in recalcitrant structured inequalities that belie the metaphoric ideals of that rhetoric. What is important is that the depiction of the working-class world in this film must be seen as a figure promoted by the upper class to justify itself. And the upper-class world, despite its metaphoric self-idealizations, is as much tied to a literality of material interests and desires as the working-class world that the rhetorical figures of upper-class ideology construct as debased for being tied to such materialities. The film, therefore, while it is an extremely successful exercise in ideological metaphorics, is also a lesson in the ultimate inability of such metaphors to transcend the metonymic literality they shape.
This is not to say that audiences, fresh from readings of Derrida, were able to call the movie’s bluff. Most people responded to the film in precisely the way that the film responded to social reality—by personalizing it. When asked to select a statement that came closest to their own sense of the film, most participants in our survey chose highly personal meanings. For example, 44% (the highest percentage) chose “it’s good to explore new arenas and to have a sense of direction in life.” What is interesting about our sample is that it also confirms the very reality the film attempts to metaphorize into figural oblivion. Sixty-five percent thought the movie’s depiction of a working-class boy’s real chances was unrealistic, and this may be because of the class makeup of the audience. A larger percentage of those who had seen the film made less than $30,000, while of those who did not see it, most made over $30,000. People not only went or did not go to the movie along class lines, they also responded to it along such lines. Most of those who thought the film represented a real possibility of advancement for a working-class boy did not inhabit the working class, while almost half of those who thought it painted a false picture of class advancement made less than $30,000. Three quarters of the working-class viewers were also of this opinion, while only 24% of the upper middle class participants chose it. As one might expect, working-class people seem to have a better sense of the real limitations of working-class life than middle- or upper-class people. And the further away from that world one goes along class or income lines, the more likely is one to encounter personalized responses to films like Saturday Night Fever. The same can be said for political preference; 77% of the conservative participants felt the movie depicted a real possibility of advancement compared to 50% of the liberals.
By 1980, Hollywood, at least in its representation of union struggle, had clearly come a long way since 1953, when Whistle at Eaton Falls depicted unions as enemies of workers and advocated breaking picket lines. Hollywood does follow social trends; in the late seventies it turned a sympathetic eye on workers’ problems in part because the economic recessions of the era made such problems a daily national concern. But the solutions adopted promoted a shift in the distribution of wealth in the country. As the number of poor people increased and as the country’s wealth drifted upward, it was probably fitting that Hollywood should turn its attention away from working-class struggle to the upper class (Arthur, Class, Risky Business, Trading Places, The Big Chill). As cities became increasingly defined as black realms, whites predictably took up roost in pastel gentrified heavens, in reality and in Hollywood film. Urban realism gave way to suburban suprarealism. The self-advertisements of the rich relate very directly to the depictions of desires for class transcendence in working-class films, for they portray the goal of such desires. It is a curious conundrum of capitalist culture that the cause of middle- and working-class frustration (the shifting of wealth upward) comes to be presented both as the goal that justifies continued acceptance of the capitalist system of individualist aspiration and as the norm that evokes feelings of guilt at not having made it, of having failed as an individual. Moreover, the available political parameters limit the alternatives of action in such a way that the system manages to reproduce itself by advertising the fact that it is inegalitarian. But it must insist that the inequalities are individual rather than structural or class-based. This strategy is actually aided by films like The Flamingo Kid, which reject individualism in favor not of class action but of family. Thus, a romanticized and sentimental idealization of an institution whose overemphasis in the working class is a defense against market predation substitutes for a perception of the structured character of class oppression. Similarly, in the very popular Karate Kid films, which portray the overcoming of an upper-class Goliath by a working-class David and play to populist resentment against Reagan’s favored social group, tender and very liberal personal relations, as well as a fantasy romantic mediation of class differences, resolve the structural backdrop against which the film’s drama plays itself out. Yet within the dominant, rather limited ways of addressing the issue of class inequality in popular film culture, one can see the elements of an alternative discourse. For the desire for class transcendence, even in its individualist forms, does indicate dissatisfaction with the class system, and films romanticizing family loyalty present images of community that are strikingly at odds with the social ideals of competitive capitalism. These two ingredients, we suggest, are the makings of a socialist discourse.
The subliminal presence (and potential popularity) of such a discourse is evident in a number of youth working-class films of the eighties, when the ideal of class mobility (the “yuppie” phenomenon) became the excuse the Reagan era offered as a cover for a systematic demobilization of a large number of especially young working-class and underclass people into low-wage service sector and “temporary” employment. The obvious unfairness of the skewing of wealth upward and the turning of expectations for lower-class young people downward seemed to call forth films that made the conflict between class sectors an overt theme. John Hughes’s films (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful) make class differences the basis of their romantic plots, and they seemed to mobilize persistent populist anger against unjustifiable differentials in the distribution of wealth. In addition, small “marginal” films (Out of the Blue, Over the Edge) continued to be an important way of keeping alive in the popular cultural arena certain insights regarding the problems and dissatisfactions that the cultural defenders of a class society usually try to keep out of view or else render neutral. None of these films overtly advocates a levelling of class differences, though one could say that in the Hughes films particularly the metaphor of romance is undecidable to the extent that while it promotes the persistence of class differences by suggesting that they ultimately make no difference (upper-class boy and lower-class girl can after all overcome them as in Pretty in Pink), it signals a desire for such levelling. While an effect of class oppression (the hyperbolizing of personal/emotional over structural/rational perspectives) comes quite effectively to legitimate class distinctions, the youth working-class films made evident that during this time the injuries of class would not succumb entirely to conservative palliatives. If anything, their insistent presence was drawn out even more by those very palliatives. Thus, if these films appealed to romantic yearnings whose overwhelmingly conservative inflection in American culture was clear during the era, they also addressed real perceptions of the unjustifiability of class inequality.
During this period, the black struggle for equality is marked by a turn away from the rhetoric of black power and toward a rhetoric of moderation. If early seventies films like Sweetback and Spook record the voice of black radicalism, mid to late seventies films about blacks come increasingly to espouse less militant, more moderate positions.3 Some argue against radicalism and for an acceptance of the logic of capitalism as a way of improving the lot of blacks. Manning Marable has argued that the moderation of the black movement relates to the increased power of the black bourgeoisie during the seventies. Absorbed into the system as professionals, businessmen, and government officials, they turned against the more radical demands of an earlier era.4
The increase in moderation is accompanied by a new discourse of black pride which rejects white welfare patronage and instead calls for a push (as in Jesse Jackson’s pro-black business Operation PUSH) to make blacks more self-reliant. Admirable as the ideal of self-determination might be, in the absence of communitarian values and institutions in U.S. society, and in a competitive capitalist context, the ideal easily becomes equated with “enterprise” and getting ahead on an individual basis through the acquisition of a “piece of the action.” And the ideal of self-advancement in a white-dominated capitalist system must ignore the reality of structural inequality, which is unamenable to individual solutions. Self-advancement will necessarily be the privilege of the few. Black films of the seventies and eighties thus display a trajectory from Bread to Circuses, from the struggle for rights and equality to palliative comedies from which all rhetoric of struggle is absent.
The civil rights movement helped force Hollywood to address black issues in film, and the new liberalism opened up many possibilities for black directors like Ossie Davis and Gordon Parks. Along with the radical films of the era, the late sixties and early seventies witnessed the appearance of films about black life in America, some of them about the black family (The Learning Tree), others depicting the lives of strong black figures such as boxer Jack Johnson (The Great White Hope). Blacks also made their way into traditional genres like the detective film (Cotton Comes to Harlem) and the western (Buck and the Preacher). Many of these films are sardonically bitter statements against the systemic racism of American society. Some, like Across 110th Street, follow the rhetorical format of In the Heat of the Night by posing a competent black against a bigoted white superior who must learn to respect the black. Other films seek to affirm black dignity in the face of the enforced immiseration of blacks in the United States by positively portraying the everyday life of black ghetto communities (Gordon’s War).
Eventually black films come to be dominated by the quest for dignity, and the attacks against racism disappear. This quest takes a number of forms, from the depiction of black cultural history, to urban social dramas concerning the struggle to survive, to “blaxploitation” films. In many of these films, structural racism is no longer blamed for the condition of blacks. Some even lay the blame at the feet of blacks themselves. These films are generally tales of heroic endeavor, yet some of them seem to be symptomatic of an internalization of guilt, of an assumption that in an individualist society only individuals can be blamed for not “making it.” Cleaning up the effects of racism—drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc.—frequently becomes equated with eliminating racism itself.
The quest for dignity occasionally takes the form of hyperbolic or exaggerated representations of black power. Perhaps the most striking early seventies examples of this phenomenon are the blaxploitation films. They were clearly targeted for a black audience, and just as clearly they were attempts by Hollywood producers to cash in on the black movement. The films were nonetheless characterized by positive depictions of strong blacks—both male and female. For example, Pam Grier in the Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Friday Foster films is strong, efficient, and professionally competent. In Shaft (1971), directed by Gordon Parks, and Super Fly (1972), directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., blacks triumph over corrupt whites. In many of these films, however, success is achieved through extreme forms of violence. Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a tough detective who is respected by white cops. He is hired by a Harlem crime boss to get back his daughter, who has been kidnapped by the New Jersey mafia. Shaft enlists the help of the Lumumbas, a black radical group, and carries out the assignment. The film is crucial for understanding the changes under way in the dominant cinematic discourses concerning blacks. A small businessman, Shaft argues against the radicals for a more moderate position. One could say he transcodes the emerging discourse of the black bourgeoisie for more cooperation with white capitalism. If Shaft points forward to the later assimilationist films that argue for an acceptance of the premises of capitalism as the basis for black dignity, Super Fly prefigures later films—from Gordon’s War to A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich— that depict blacks cleaning up their own house, getting rid of the drugs that frequently accompany poverty. Nevertheless, it and other blaxploitation films evoked protest in the black community, and the phenomenon quickly faded.
In the mid-seventies, the quest for black dignity was shaped by attempts to depict the everyday struggles of ordinary (as opposed to mythic) blacks and to portray black cultural history. Both of these strains evidence a desire to establish a separate black identity. While this desire results in the construction of historical narratives that connect the present with the black radical heritage and that advertise black cultural achievements, it also leads to arguments against white liberal patronage through the federal welfare system that resemble later white conservative positions. Yet the films are also generally more communal in character than films about whites. Banding together takes precedence over striking out alone. In these films one sees why blacks were more given to espousing radical positions during this era in general and why, in the U.S. Congress, the Black Caucus became in the seventies the locus of strongest resistance to conservatism and of support for socialist ideals.
The black cultural history films often recount the lives of famous black arts figures—Leadbelly (1976) and Lady Sings the Blues (1972)—or depict black sports legends, such as the black baseball leagues of the thirties—The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars (1976). The absence of black radical figures from the past like W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X is significant, although Bingo Long is distinguished by its use of an explicit, though playful, Marxist rhetoric to characterize the oppression of the black baseball players, and it refers positively to DuBois. One film—Brothers (1977)—breaks with the tendency by depicting the life of George Jackson, a black radical thinker who was murdered by prison guards in 1971. Nevertheless, the film assimilates Jackson’s radicalism to a cultural historical format that places him in a mythic past. The film’s refrain strikes a note of hopeless caution—“Any time a black leader appears on the horizon with any kind of charisma, he’s cut down.”
Films about everyday black life during this period espouse values of ethnic pride and self-sufficiency (i.e., Black Girl). The shift away from the earlier discourse of black power is highlighted in several of these films by the motif of the black radical figure who is either discredited or ridiculed. While these films did not receive the critical attention lavished on blaxploitation films, they are the fare most often shown on the Black Entertainment Network, and thus are more likely to have an impact on black consciousness. Urban realism films like Claudine (1974) show blacks struggling to survive in a hostile environment. Claudine (Diahann Carroll) is a single mother who works as a housecleaner. She falls in love with a garbage man, but they cannot live together because the welfare laws won’t permit it. The film argues for black dignity by demanding jobs instead of welfare. This moderate line is contrasted with the more radical position of Claudine’s son, Charles, which is portrayed as self-defeating. While the film ends with a vision of black community, a happy wedding that heals all wounds, it also points forward disturbingly to what will happen to blacks later in the decade, as the heel of conservative social policy is brought to bear. For the film’s argument is one that will be taken up by reactionary black economists like Thomas Sowell: welfare is bad for blacks, and racism will end only when blacks learn to accept the spur of poverty and play the game of capitalism.
The argument against black power is even more central to Car Wash (1975), a film scripted by a white—Joel Schumacher—which makes a moderate argument that black and minority workers should cooperate with white bosses and try to blend in with the system. The story focuses on Abdul, a black nationalist revolutionary, and Lonnie, an ex-con with kids who is trying to make good by proposing ideas to the white boss. The movie privileges his conservative approach and discredits Abdul’s alternative. In addition, the film depicts how moderation is also induced by diluting politically radical resentment through cultural activities. One character (“TC”) dresses nattily and adopts the persona of a comic-book hero. He demonstrates how cultural activities can become obsessive, focusing all of the person’s energy on fantasy identities or on hedonistic pursuits that provide immediate satisfaction within a context of oppression. But TC also indicates how the conservative argument that blacks do not succeed because they seek immediate satisfaction instead of deferring gratification confuses a symptom with a cause. He pursues cultural gratification in response to oppression; hedonism is the result, not the source.
The film thus underscores the dual, contradictory character of cultural oppression. The vehicles of diversion that compensate for the absence of greater material wealth are not merely means of control; they can be appropriated for the sake of gaining a sense of self-worth denied by the larger society. It is a sign of the compensatory character of these activities that they are so exaggerated and fetishistic. But they are nonetheless indicative of an implicit revolt against oppressive circumstances, the laying claim to the right to an identity. TC’s persona is extremely sexist, but such male self-exaggeration should be read as being symptomatic of the contradictory position of males in situations of oppression. The larger sexist society associates success with manhood, and in consequence the structural denial of success to black men particularly takes a heavy toll on their sense of self-worth. The only realm available for attaining it is culture or sexuality.
Car Wash shows mass culture to be a soporific drug, but it also points to ways in which such drugs can be catalysts—two quite contradictory things at once, both a cure for discontent and a poison that furthers it. Even as it provides an artificial self-identity and sense of self-esteem, it creates a sense of a right, a claim on such things. Yet increasingly in black film culture that claim was taking conservative forms. The principle of separate identity, bolstered by a narrative of a unique cultural history and allied to the principles of self-reliance that shunted aside radical positions blaming white racism, comes more and more to blend with the capitalist principle of individual self-advancement. This is particularly the case in the films of Sidney Poitier.
In his urban comedies—Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Let’s Do It Again (1975)—Poitier and Bill Cosby play working-class men who outsmart criminals to gain wealth. In Piece of the Action (1977) they play crooks who are obliged to help teach an unruly class of black teens and eventually aid them to become successful operators in the world of white capitalism. Undisciplined and unmotivated at first, the kids learn how to act politely, dress neatly, and get jobs. “That’s what winning is,” the Poitier character lectures them, “getting your piece of the action.”
Thus, by 1977, a turning-point year in other sectors of American culture, the black radical rejection of capitalism seems to have given way entirely in film to an acceptance of the principles of the black bourgeoisie. Blacks should work within the system, accepting the logic of individual initiative and ignoring the structural inequalities of capitalism. One has only oneself to blame for not making it. This more positive and affirmative vision of black enterprise was probably motivated in part by the fact that during this recessionary period black youth unemployment sometimes exceeded 50%.5 Yet the recalcitrant reality of such figures should also indicate that they depend little on individual initiative.
A further indication of this change in black cinematic culture is the work of Richard Pryor. Pryor’s three concert films of the late seventies and early eighties touched on taboo topics whose repression is part and parcel with the apparent normality of racism. His comedy cut through the façade of politeness that helps cover over the realities of social oppression. Indeed, our survey found that 22% thought his concerts offensive rather than funny, and this included one-third of the white respondents and only two of the eighteen blacks who saw the films. He seemed at the time to be at the cutting edge of black cultural radicalism. Yet his later fictional films—Stir Crazy (1980), Bustin’ Loose (1981), The Toy (1983), and Brewster’s Millions (1985)—portray him as a reconciler of racial differences on personal terms. While these films provide positive representations of racial cooperation, they also ignore the increasingly brutal reality of life for blacks in a situation of recession and conservative economic retrenchment. Black liberalism, like all liberalism, displays its most severe limitation in that, incapable of conceiving of the world in structural terms, it resorts to personalist or individualist categories, and such liberalism is perfectly suited to the Hollywood narrative form, which privileges the personal outlook over structural representations. That Pryor has amassed so much power for making films is a positive development. Yet it seems unfortunate that the only role for blacks in white culture is as comedians—by now, one would think, a somewhat jaded stereotype.
In the eighties, Eddie Murphy’s comedies replace Pryor’s as the top money-makers. The homophobic, apolitical, hucksterish persona he projects was well suited to the active forgetfulness of significant social issues under way at the time. In a sense, there was too much suffering on the streets for anyone to want it on the screen. Consequently, Murphy’s films are not altogether ideological. Trading Places (1983) does assume as natural a distinction between black poverty and white wealth, and it seems to promote the values of capitalism. But it also enacts the illogical scenario of a black having economic power, and it thus offers both an enabling image and an implicit critique of the fact that blacks do not have such power. 48 Hours (1982) takes for granted the legitimacy of the sort of police violence that during this time was resulting in an increased number of black deaths at the hands of police. Yet it also places a black in a position of power in relation to whites. And if classical narrative realism runs the risk of making worlds of oppression seem natural, then the comedy of Beverly Hills Cop, one of the most popular films of 1984-85, seems to make such worlds enjoyable. But like all ideological texts, the idealized image of racial harmony contains a counter ideological potential, since it projects a desire for a better world than the one blacks were being forced to accept by conservatives at the time.
Even though Murphy was stealing the comedy show from such whites as Dudley Moore, Hollywood was producing fewer and fewer black films by black directors. There seems to be at least a parallel between the return of conservatism to a position of dominance in American culture and the disappearance of the radical black position from the screen. At the same time, in films like Breakin’ (1984) and a number of other break-dancing films, young blacks learn to do what so many of their ancestors did—dance for whites in order to make a living. One of the few significant films dealing with the issue of race—A Soldier’s Story (1984)—was distinguished by being the only film with a predominantly black cast, but made racism seem a historical problem in the process of being overcome by setting the story in the 1940s, while Spielberg’s Color Purple made poor rural black life seem positively suburban. The under- or nonrepresentation of blacks and other minorities, like Hispanics and Asian-Americans, points to the way the “free market” of entertainment, like that of employment, tends to favor those with power. “Equal opportunity” simply means unequal reality, if “freedom” is the structuring rule of the social system.6
There are a few exceptions, like The Killing Floor (1984), a television film about black workers attempting to organize unions in Chicago at the turn of the century. Harry Belafonte’s production Beat Street (1984), a subcultural urban hiphop musical, concerns a group of young ghetto blacks who have no future outside of music and dance. They are depicted as people with great artistic ability who are prevented by circumstances, especially lack of access to higher education, from realizing their potential. The film portrays cross-race friendships and suggests that blacks from different classes should help each other. The film is daring in that it is set in a New York City ghetto, an urban reality generally ignored in mid-eighties white cinematic fare.
Even if the earlier radicalism of the black movement seemed to have become submerged in American culture, the black movement as a whole contributed to a major shift in U.S. society at this time. It put pressure on the federal and state governments to provide welfare for poor people, including whites. That increased taxation demands on business, which was also confronted, especially in the North, by strong unions with their demands for regular wage raises for workers. The black and workers’ movements combined provoked a reaction on the part of business, which pulled out of the North and fled either overseas or to the South. Thus, one could say that there is a certain deep structural relation between the working-class and black films we have examined in the last two sections and the New South films we will study in the next.
A major event in the post-World War II era in the United States is the “rise of the Sunbelt.”7 It has been an important factor in the rise to political power of a new, more right-wing, populist breed of Republican conservative in the eighties. When the old guard of Democratic liberals was swept aside in 1980 and 1984, bringing an end to the New Deal era of federal welfare, Keynesian intervention in the economy, and government regulation, it was executed by Sunbelt conservatives (Reagan from southern California, Bush from Houston) with the blessing of the New Right, which originated in the South (Virginia, particularly). This period also witnessed a transformation in Hollywood’s representation of the South. The malevolent rednecks that populate the hills in Deliverance (1972) give way to happy-go-lucky good old boys like Burt Reynolds’s “Bandit.” We shall argue that these cinematic and socioeconomic developments are not unrelated.
The rise of the Sunbelt, which extends from southern California to Georgia, was a result of the flight of capital from the North to a southern climate with less taxation for social programs, fewer unions, and less government regulation. The rallying cry for this shift was “freedom.” And what businessmen sought freedom from, frequently, was northern workers and blacks whose wage and welfare needs were a drain on profits strapped, especially in the seventies, by recession and international competition. The New South films, which often portray white individualists bucking the power of the state in the form of a sheriff, in some respects articulate the ideology of the region, the resistance to any state authority that interferes with the freedom of movement of white male businessmen in particular. But the films also clearly appealed to a nonregional population. Eastwood’s redneck and Reynolds’s Bandit films were some of the most popular of the late seventies. One possible explanation is that the shift to the Sunbelt itself placed such economic pressure on people elsewhere that films advertising either resentful aggression or limitless freedom had a certain therapeutic appeal. It is one of the paradoxes of American film culture that the site most responsible for that hardship should become a locus of idealization for those beset by it.
Burt Reynolds’s Bandit is the product of a long line of development extending back to moonshine movies like Thunder Road whose most significant change is marked out by the “Gator” films of the mid-seventies. In White Lightning (1973) and Gator (1976), it is clear that the Old South will not be able to resist the spirit of cosmopolitanism and modernization that accompanies the economic growth of the era and the shift in population from a liberal North to the Sunbelt. Indeed, they point to an emerging contradiction in American culture as a whole between a residual ideology of individualist freedom, which permits conservatism to triumph in an economic sphere run on competitive principles, and an emerging set of more liberal values regarding such social issues as sexuality. This contradiction will mean that even though southern-based capitalist politicians can take control of the economy, they will be incapable of turning back the process of social liberalization initiated by the sixties. That contradiction is already evident in the Gator films.
White Lightning and Gator both feature Burt Reynolds as Gator McKluskey, a local good old boy who runs moonshine for a living but who ultimately sides with the forces of the “progressive” New South against representatives of the corrupt and parochial Old South. In White Lightning Gator agrees to help the feds get evidence against a corrupt county sheriff by insinuating himself into the local moonshine business. The film’s narrative enacts the struggle between the Old and the New Souths. The sheriff is a conservative throwback who was responsible for the death of Gator’s brother, a leader in the antiwar movement. The sheriff permits crime and profits from it. One of his cronies insists “it can’t be the way it was” any longer, but the sheriff tries to make sure that isn’t so. Gator represents an aspect of the Old South emerging into the New. He rids himself of his localist loyalties and takes sides with the federal government against states’ rights, the principle used in the southern states to justify continued policies of racism. He is also a friend of blacks and is linked positively to the antiwar protestors.
The social liberalism of the film stands in contradiction to the implicit male individualist ideology of the car-chase adventure format. That conflation of a residual ideology and emergent liberalism on social issues is evident also in the sequel, Gator. Like Lightning, the film is an argument against the Old South, this time represented by a redneck crime boss who exploits blacks and young girls. Gator is once again a transitional figure who is able to enter the old world but who ultimately sides with the northern liberals. The transition from old to new is signaled by the two songs that open and close the film. The opening song is a country and western anthem to Gator that glorifies him as “the meanest man that ever hit the swamp”; none of the macho imagery applies to the funny, sweet character Reynolds plays. The closing song, a pop tune lacking the country flavor of the first, is about the fleetingness of modern love relationships—“I won’t cry because you were mine for a little while.” Because his girlfriend wants a career, Gator and she split up in the end.
By 1980 Reynolds had left behind all the moonshine, swamp-boating trappings of the Old South which still were part of his persona in the mid-seventies and become the more modern good old boy Bandit, a driver of fast cars, a chaser of faster women, in some respects the prototypical New South figure: though somewhat cosmopolitan, he is nonetheless a defender of the country against urban elitism. He is also a populist individualist whose revolt against the state probably appealed to conservatives and whose disrespect for wealth probably struck a chord with “new collar” people. His tremendous popularity (both in the film and with audiences) seems due to his apparently limitless freedom. His folkloric reputation consists of being able to do what is forbidden others, most notably breaking the law and making fools of law enforcers. His life seems unrestrained by economic factors, and his sexuality is free from repression or domestic constraints. The Bandit is a narcissist who disregards social convention. Like so many folk outlaw heroes of the past, he can be interpreted either as a projection of desire that vents frustration or as a focus of popular resentment against public authority.
The Smokey and the Bandit films (1977 and 1980) are probably most significant as testaments to the importance of the Sunbelt as a cultural metaphor in the late seventies. As a result of the economic crisis devastating the North, the New South had become a site of escape, where workers could travel and seek jobs with the oil companies that had absorbed much of the nation’s spare wealth after the early seventies Arab oil embargo (as in Urban Cowboy). And the illogical and senseless comic motifs of the films (racing across states to win a bet to deliver hundreds of cases of Coors on time) were an ideal entertainment mode for people burdened by the brutal logic and sense of necessity that were coming increasingly to dominate everyday life. They should be understood as twins to a film like Take This Job and Shove It (1981), about northern Rustbelt workers who take over and run their plant when it is threatened with shutdown.
Whereas the Bandit is a figure who combines a number of different ideological motifs spanning class differences, the sympathetic redneck played by Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose (1978) is a country proletarian who earns a living through bare-knuckled boxing matches in vacant lots. Yet he also is a figure of individualism, and whereas in Reynolds’s southern films that ideology is characterized by a celebration of freedom, in Every Which Way it is marked by a defensive, bellicose, and resentful spirit. In Philo’s world, loyalty and family are crucial as defenses against an aggressive and violent public realm. The little enclave of tenderness and compassion Philo shares with his family and his chimp is hemmed in by violence and betrayal.
This duality between public aggressiveness and private sentimentality is characteristic of the divided ethos of a culture riven by economic crisis. For this reason, the film is historically symptomatic. The resurgence of hyperbolically sentimental melodramatic and suburban fantasy films during this period is a cultural counter to the jungle survivalism of the emerging new conservative economic order. The sentimentalized private arena of family and romance is a balance to the public world where relations between people lose all emotional and trustful ties. The great popularity of Every Which Way (number 2 in 1979, right behind Superman) probably means that its dual vision appealed to over-pressured working people desirous both of a head to crack and of a lap to lean a world-weary head on. If the film did play accurately to the needs of the white male working class, then it is not surprising that it went for a Republican candidate in 1980, one offering both a bare-knuckled program for economic renewal and a set of sentimentalized ideals (family, faith, patria) that satisfied the sorts of emotional yearning that are central to this film.
Even within clearly ideological artifacts that seem to play directly into conservative politics, however, evidence of pro-socialist potentials can be found. Neurotic and skewed as the forms they assume may be, desires for community, trust, and cooperation still seem to be necessary counterweights to the brutality of the market. And the segregation of affection and aggression, the private and the public spheres, is shown to be tenuous in a film like Every Which Way. When Philo speaks of love, he uses the metaphors of the market (Royal gelatin). When he enters the market world, it is to find love, and he brings with him a surrogate companion in the form of the chimp. The high level of faceless aggression seems balanced equally by a high level of intimate interaction. And when Philo finally faces his ultimate challenge in the public market, he deliberately loses out of respect for and loyalty to his aging opponent. The firm boundary between two spheres (the emotive family and the aggressive market) that is crucial to a conservative social structure thus begins to seem more a tenuous construct than a reality. It testifies to the necessity of maintaining a non-affectionate, bare-knuckled attitude in a public world dominated by the conservative principle of survivalism; in such a world, communitarian altruism leaves one vulnerable to attack. Thus, the concentration of sentiment in the private sphere results from constructing the public world according to conservative principles; it is a defense against that world as well as a repository for all the emotions that must be purged from the public world in order not to be vulnerable in it. But the film also suggests that the public world attitude of bare-fisted aggression can be modified by the private sphere values of trust, loyalty, and affection. The film is less a celebration of the market than a depiction of the neutralization of its principles. It points to the fact that pro-socialist desires for community operate in a buried and unrealized form even in the most apparently conservative social and cultural forms. And it demonstrates how popular film often enacts a breaking down of the boundaries that maintain social order. Indeed, one suspects that without such therapeutic fantasy enactments of breakdown, social order could not be maintained consensually.
Every Which Way articulates the contradictory double politics of American populism, which evidences reactionary as well as progressive possibilities. It can breed fascism, but the fascism it breeds should be read as a symptom of desires for community and security that can also take socialist forms. In an economic system that celebrates aggression, the insecurities fostered by economic downturns are likely to take aggressive, fascist forms. There is a logic to the emergence of fascism out of capitalism in that the former is simply the latter carried to its logical extreme. But this also relates to the socialization of males to be the competitive aggressors in such a social system. If Philo is threatened by other males, he is also threatened by a woman who betrays him and makes him feel small. The insecurity of economic recession is also a sexual insecurity, especially since male sexual power is socialized to be equated with making it economically. Thus, the film puts on display the salient psychological, economic, and sexual factors that account for the enlistment of populist energies into right-wing politics. That the film appeared in 1978, at a time when American culture was beginning to evidence more strikingly conservative themes, is therefore important.
A study of New South films suggests why the Republicans triumphed and why the Democrats fell apart in the eighties. If films at all register cultural moods by appealing to audiences, then it is significant that on the eve of Reagan’s electoral victory (1979) the top three films were about strong white males (Superman, Every Which Way, Rocky II). All three espoused populist, ruralist, white male values and virtues; the latter two directly appealed to the constituency of traditionally Democratic working-class voters that would assure Reagan’s victory. The films record the cultural tendency that gave rise to the political inevitability. They suggest that white male workers were angry about something, frustrated in their world, seeking hope, deliverance, and redemption. They got it.
Yet it would be a mistake to blame workers for the rise of the Right. If they voted Republican in 1980, it was generally out of a desire for economic recovery; the Republicans had captured the dynamic image of Keynesian economic stimulation by inverting it in favor of capital, but they still promised prosperity and growth, an appeal likely to resonate with those suffering from the frustration of a Democrat-managed stagflation. Moreover, as inflation put money in the coffers of conservatives, which they used to fuel their political campaigns, it buckled and disabled the working class. As Mike Davis argues in Prisoners of the American Dream, a minority of 26% of the electorate was able to elect Reagan because of the “prior exclusion and disorganization of the majority,” not because of its “conversion to a new ideological agenda.”8 And the Democrats, who themselves from 1978 on turned increasingly to the right, forsaking their New Deal heritage and calling for “reindustrialization” in a new corporatist social order, were themselves responsible for ceding the political terrain to the Republicans. The victory of the Right in 1980 was really the result of a revolution on the part of the white middle class against the one accessible prong of the double squeeze on their incomes—the liberal federal government. Workers and blacks suffered most from the new hourglass income structure that resulted. Their wages were cut, their social power demolished, and their work menialized.
Yet what should be underscored is that this middle-class revolution was in part a response to gains made by the workers’ and black movements in the sixties and seventies. If upper-class capitalists and the white middle classes who had tied their security to faith in the capitalist system were running scared by the late seventies—to the point of mounting a conservative revolution against social welfare, unions, and racial equality—it was because black militancy had put a strain on welfare taxation at the same time that worker militancy forced wages higher. A similar point could be made regarding the violent reaction against feminism that occurred during this period.