The American working class has dominated public consciousness for the last year. It was the Sanders campaign’s dying utterance and the scarlet letter, branded — like Richard Nixon on Roger Stone’s back — on the corpse of Clinton’s campaign, robbed of victory by a “Rust Belt Brexit.”
Pundits explained the powder keg of working-class resentment with a number of now well-documented reasons: deindustrialization, free-trade, and automation; the declining power of unions; opiate addiction; a political class that abandoned them. This is to say nothing of the emotional and economic blow workers experienced when they transitioned from socially esteemed craftwork, supported by good benefits and strong wages, to the grind of part-time labor in the service sector, with unpredictable hours and no health benefits. The effort of putting together a decent life from these jobs is often like reassembling a pane of glass after it’s been dropped from a skyscraper.
A fault line along racial boundaries — with Trump gaining the largest margin among whites without a college degree of any candidate since 1980 — only belies the additional suppression of working-class minorities. In 2015, blacks experienced double the unemployment rates of whites. According to the National Poverty Center at University of Michigan, in 2014 blacks and Hispanics experienced more than twice the rate of poverty as whites (26.2 percent and 23.6 percent, respectively, to non-Hispanic whites’ 10.1 percent, and Asians’ 12 percent). Wealth inequality has also widened for black and Hispanic households since the Great Recession in 2008. This does not include the ambient, saturating discrimination that hovers above any statistic.
Yet while working-class backlash blared from newspapers’ front pages, a photo negative appeared just as prominently in an unlikely place: 2016 prestige films. Award-winning features Paterson, Manchester by the Sea, and Fences focused on the stoic, working-class figure just as previous award years had fixated on astronauts or spies.
These protagonists aren’t portrayed with the gritty naturalism of Dorothea Lange images run at twenty-four frames-per-second. Instead, they exhibit the broody and inward-looking demeanor of romantic poets — James Deans in Carhartts. Work — physically demanding, numbing work — provides these men with an insulating cocoon of regularity within which they can examine an inexpressible inner turmoil. The larger system of economic, or racial, domination becomes a distant, alien force that neither the heroes nor the audience can discern.
In these films, the lead characters are too fraught to properly see themselves sliding down the ladder of security. Some, like Troy Maxson in Fences, have been so besieged by all-pervading racial discrimination that superficial progress within the limited track allotted to them becomes blurry; the progress of freer white coworkers similarly fades from view.
An examination of how these films obscure working-class conditions — racial and economic — paradoxically helps us understand the marquee issue of working-class life. All three turn class and identity into personal experiences of agony or self-exploration. Labor appears anachronistically, as a stabilizing force in the lives of characters about to spin out of control for other reasons. This pointed anachronism gives viewers access to a world in which historic pain has become wholly personal — the very world that created the conditions for Trump’s victory last November.
Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson takes an implausible figure — a millennial bus driver who moonlights as a poet — as its protagonist. It takes a moment to resituate Adam Driver outside his iconic role on HBO’s Girls, where he screams like a caged animal and takes pleasure in pissing on people. He now plays a sweet-tempered New Jersey bus driver, a sanguine Ralph Kramden. Attuned to the rhythms of his nine-to-five, he uses his quotidian life’s pleasant thrum to feed his poetry, which he composes in secret.
Driver, playing Paterson, the man, living in Paterson, the town — he’s a fan of William Carlos Williams, who wrote the epic poem Paterson, which also features a man named Paterson — enjoys a stable, middle-class life. He lives in a two-story house with his wife, Laura, a baker and aspiring country musician, who believes the world would gratefully receive her husband’s secret work. The presence of uncanny mirrors and doubles — including pairs of twins that crop up intermittently in the film — reiterates this theme of a “double life” as writer and worker.
Paterson takes fetishistic pleasure in the small routines of his daily life. The movie emphasizes this, marking the passing days of a regular — but by Paterson’s definition, still exemplary — week. While eating the same breakfast he enjoys every day, he finds inspiration in a box of Ohio Blue Point matches, which provide the symbol for a love poem he sketches later. He describes the match as “So sober and furious and stubbornly ready / To burst into flame / Lighting, perhaps the cigarette of the woman you love / For the first time.”
Like William Carlos Williams, Paterson is drawn to the power of mundane objects, and his job as a bus driver fills this. The camera’s lilting glance sweeps around the bus route, vacuuming up the glistening details of everyday life, hoarding them to be later distributed across stanzas.
Paterson does most of his writing while seated in front of Jersey’s mini-Niagara, Passaic Falls, a key symbol in Williams’s long poem. Dreamy, Ennio Morricone–inspired music (actually Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL) plays over a double exposure of the waterfall and the poet’s leisurely composition process. His wife’s face occasionally appears as imagistic lines drift over the screen.
The film gives the overall impression that Paterson’s job provides a steady and reliable foundation on which he can build his creative ambitions. The nagging and continual anxiety of today’s “precariat” — the class that, given Driver’s age, he would most likely belong to — balanced on shifting forces of contract work, student loan debt, and instability, is quelled by his stable government gig. One assumes he would not want to wait around for ride requests or be subject to fluctuating rates. Instead, his job provides an ideal vantage point for certain — often frenzied — writers: to clear the chaff of everyday distraction and annoyance in a systematic, predictable way while collecting pointed observations for later artistic distribution. Even when his notebook is destroyed in a mishap, he is ready, with his Zen-like disposition, to resume his output.
Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck portrays Lee Chandler as a totem of inexpressible suffering. After losing his family in an accidental catastrophe of his own making, Chandler entirely retracts within himself, choosing menial janitorial work as a means to structure and move through his day.
His entire demeanor resembles a resigned Atlas, allowing only minor flickers of feeling to cross the static canvas of his face. Though occasionally shocked by an almost instinctual empathy, he cannot fully address or move beyond his buried devastation. This, indeed, is central to the film’s novelty: writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s nihilistic grit of reality, refusing a miraculous, rainbow-colored resolution at the film’s end. Chandler’s resignation is finalized when intones, “I can’t beat it.”
As Lonergan noted in an NPR interview, Chandler chose a specific kind of blue-collar work, which, in a more extreme version of Paterson in Paterson, allots him carefully structured but ultimately restricted contact with others. In the film’s first scenes, Chandler soullessly recites the potential options for a faulty toilet, unclogs a different toilet (while ignoring a tenant’s flirtations), and finally lays out the potential issues behind a woman’s broken shower. When she responds harshly after he recommends she run the shower, he explodes: “I don’t really give a fuck what you do.”
He regards his job factually, bound by clear contractual obligations — what will manifest in Fences as duty. When his supervisor reprimands him and instructs him to apologize to a client, he lays out his worth sterilely, reminding his boss that he works four buildings, shows up on time, and even does illegal electrical work, and that his employer should “do whatever [he’s] gonna do.” Expecting him to apologize is too much.
His job’s social logic bleeds into his regard for all others. He claims to be constitutionally incapable of assuming guardianship over his dead brother’s son, Patrick, yet he obediently shuttles the teenager to his various appointments. He sits at the bar until someone’s mild action, or imagined action, provokes him. Then he erupts, and he assaults the strangers with pent-up rage.
Chandler appears as someone so emotionally tortured that he can’t be bothered by the quality of his surroundings or living conditions. He sees no difference between a master bedroom in a comfortable house in Manchester and the penal dorm room he holds in Quincy. When a flashback shows him accepting the janitor job, he mumbles that he makes “minimum wage plus the room.” Like the downsized Rust Belt factory workers now accepting multiple part-time and seasonal shifts, buffeted by the stress of uncertainty and possible family disintegration, he takes what he can get and asks for little more.
The film sums up the devaluation of Chandler’s job and his abstract, phantom-limb-like devotion to it when Patrick asks him, “You’re a janitor in Quincy. What the hell do you care where you live?” His inability to answer the question suggests that he holds onto it because it is all that remains.
Lee’s obfuscated measurings and siftings of tragedy have become an all-consuming occupation; he is simply too shell-shocked and damaged to objectively consider alternate outcomes for his life.
Fences, adapted from the play by August Wilson, tells the story of a dream deferred — a dream that ends up festering “like a sore.” It tracks the family of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who also directed), a baseball player turned sanitation worker who carries a long-held trauma from his inability to play in the major leagues due to racial prohibitions. Stymied by discrimination in his current occupation as well, he holds the integrity of his occupation like an oath. Yet, like Manchester’s Lee Chandler, he fumes beneath the societally imposed restrictions placed on him, intensified by the additional weight of racial oppression.
While Troy is ultimately promoted to sanitation truck driver, becoming the first African American with that position, he worries about living outside of his means or pursuing the ghosts of idealism. He regularly rebuffs his musician son Lyons, who drops by on Troy’s payday to collect a loan, and clamps down on his other son, Cory, by refusing to sign the paperwork that would allow him to be drafted for college football, exposing him to the same prejudicial obstacles his father faced.
Troy does not believe that one should risk rising above one’s station and grab the next rung. The crushing and deadly weight of Jim Crow makes this risk incredibly real. A society predicated on oppressing and making Troy invisible colors every aspect of his life.
His current employment — specifically its regularity — gives him a reason to go on. He says to his wife, Rose: “I give you my sweat and my blood. . . . I get up Monday morning . . . find my lunch on the table. I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday.” This sense of obligation and duty gestures to some kind of social compact and empirical, baseline agreement, however tempered. He tells Cory that his “like” for his son doesn’t matter — “Don’t you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you.”
Yet the film’s major reveal shows that the mutual responsibility and social compact Troy alludes to is fatally compromised. The life that’s allotted to him, founded on the Pittsburgh house where the near entirety of the film takes place and around which the marveling camera pivots as if it were a dollhouse, has actually been granted through chance and misfortune; his brother’s World War II injury resulted in a payout that secured the home. His only way of supporting himself and his family comes through trauma, tragedy, and chance. He remarks, “That’s the only way I got a roof over my head . . . ‘cause of that metal plate [in his].”
Troy swallows up the crushing economic realities that surround him, which develop into an inner torment. He takes on a mistress, who ends up pregnant and dies in childbirth. He nearly kills his rebellious younger son with a baseball bat. He drinks and stews and at one point faces the camera to ask death to come for him, cocking back with the same benighted bat.
Troy has created a smaller, more practical world within the one he should be allowed to participate in. When he fled his father’s house, the “world suddenly got big” — made even bigger by his past: the horrific poverty he found African-Americans subjected to in Mobile, Alabama, the two hundred miles he walked to find work, and the imprisonment he endured after desperation to provide for Lyons and Rose led him to a botched robbery. His current job apparently helped him cut the world down to a size where he could “handle it.” The intolerant system has forced his back so against the wall that labor’s regularity offers him a mild, restive space.
When he goes to the commissioner’s office to hear the news about his promotion, the camera lingers on ceiling frescoes portraying what the screenplay notes are “WPA-era heroic worker figures laying sewers.” That they recall an era of prosperity and pride stands in painful contrast to Troy’s current position in a compromised system, promotion or no promotion.
The fuse Troy ultimate blows — falling over after swinging a bat, with a “grin on his face” — is the one of sublimated desire, of a rage bowed inward, a gun, almost wrested from an opponent, but now turned back on oneself. The opponent, which Paterson, Chandler, and Troy cannot see, is the invisible hand of turning history, slowing unraveling the security that work grants them.