From the Wire: The Racial Subtext of 'Spring Breakers'

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by Matt Singer
March 21, 2013 6:06 PM
4 Comments
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"Spring Breakers."
I've heard a lot of people talking about "Spring Breakers" -- Harmony Korine's new celebration/satire of America's decadent/cancerous spring break culture -- but I haven't read a lot of great criticism about "Spring Breakers" yet. If you want a transcript of James Franco's mind-boggling monologue about his "shee-yit" -- including his machine guns and dark tanning oil and "nunchucks" -- Vulture's got you covered (sincere thanks for that, by the way). But if you want to go beyond the surface pleasures (and admittedly, there are lots of surface pleasures), substantive conversations are still kind of hard to find.

That's why I really enjoyed Richard Brody's article for The New Yorker about the "life lessons" of "Spring Breakers," and how the film's messages and meanings are inextricably tied to its depictions of race, a theory I had overlooked during my own viewing of the film at SXSW, but which now intrigues me greatly:

"Above all, Korine emphasizes the story’s racial aspect with a strange twist of visual invention that occurs at the story’s climax. When the two women -- wearing bikinis and pink ski masks -- arrive, armed and ready, with Alien for their raid... they cross a narrow bridge through a field of blacklight that turns their bathing suits fluorescent, makes their masks glow blue, and -- most remarkably -- greatly darkens their skin, in a cinematographic version of blackface, with light bulbs (or digital effects) taking the place of minstrels’ cork... The director’s ultimate spring-break fantasy is a vision of murder camp—and of “black camp” -- and he doesn’t make any effort to distinguish the two. The very mainspring of the movie is his stereotypical and reductive view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence."

I didn't love "Spring Breakers" at first blush (although I did love every moment with Franco) but the movie keeps lingering in my mind. It's a strange film, at once so superficial -- nudity, violence, flashy camera tricks -- and so complex -- unusual editing rhythms, poetic voiceovers, statements about gender, violence, and, yes, even race. It's going for this seduction of the innocent angle, playing up its formerly wholesome stars and their bikini-bearing mayhem (and why not? It's putting butts in the seats so far), but Korine's always proven himself a guy who's interested in more than simple provocation. There's something going on there, but what that something is (beyond, y'know, "Spring break, forevah!") proves mighty elusive.

So I guess I need to go see "Spring Breakers" again. Maybe I can tie the whole tanning oil run into Brody's theory somewhere.

Read more of "The Life Lessons of 'Spring Breakers.'"

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4 Comments

  • Alien | March 22, 2013 5:52 PMReply

    Also, there was a discussion in a recent interview with Korine about the buses in the movie and the idea that they evoked the Freedom Rides. Re: Brody's theory, I think the use of the masks in the final scene can be read to resemble hoods. There's a lot under the surface of this movie about race and I'm not sure I understand it at all.

  • Alien | March 22, 2013 5:49 PMReply

    One of the taglines the film is using is "A little sun can bring out your dark side." I think you can fit the tanning oil into the theory.

  • b | March 22, 2013 4:34 PMReply

    im willing to read into this movie to an embarrassing extent, but i don't buy a race angle crystallized by the finale.

  • Kriklewood | March 22, 2013 4:17 AMReply

    More thought for food:
    http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/spring-breakers-or-the-american-way-of-death

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