2016 has been a year to debate and deflect identity like few in contemporary history. Who has it too good in America? Who still has to fight for their dignity? And who can transgress these boundaries while naively thinking they are transcending them?
The point of reference for that last question, which was not rhetorical, is Morgan Saylor’s Leah, the subject of Elizabeth Wood’s scalding social commentary in “White Girl.” This well-off Oklahoma import begins the film moving into an apartment straddling Brooklyn and Queens. It’s clearly not a problem for her to pay rent as she works as unpaid intern at a magazine, and she does not seem particularly concerned with professional development. No, Leah’s main interest is written on her necklace: “Cocaine.” (No, that is not a joke.)
She continues to flaunt her privilege around the neighborhood by crossing the traditional class barrier between drug dealer and consumer. Leah invites the street corner hustles up to her place, risking the exposure of their thin cover, to get high off their own supply. She befriends them, beguiles them … even seduces the good-hearted Blue (Brian ‘Sene’ Marc). Her pleasure is their economic livelihood; her recreation, their income. Leah can turn around one day and write off her involvement with drugs as an immature phase. If discovered, it would mark the lives of Blue and his associates forever.
Leah ultimately comes face to face with this brutal reality after a bust lands Blue behind bars – a fate that she manages to escape largely because of her own race leading the officers to presume her lack of involvement. Struck by a mixture of guilt and puppy love, she works to remedy the situation by achieving justice through the legal system. The experience sobers her up and forces her to acknowledge the presence of hierarchies of class, race and wealth that she could safely ignore while ensconced in a sheltered enclave.
Whether tragically or deservedly, Leah’s work to balance society’s scales awakens her to the standing she occupies. As a young woman, no matter how rich or white, she must still contend with the unchecked rapacity of entitled men who feel they can claim ownership of her body simply by virtue of desiring it. Just as Blue gets reduced to a puzzle piece in Leah’s journey of self-awakening, her body and dignity become collateral damage in the stories of paternalistic men who think they are doing her some kind of favor.
Wood’s story is a veritable sociological treatise, like the killer anecdote to open a dry chapter of academic literature. “White Girl” might not always work when translated to the screen, especially given the film’s penchant to dabble in the debauchery and disaffection over the commentary. Still, the film puts forth enough provocative ideas to chew on during the less exciting periods of watching Saylor look exasperated and desperate. We should all engage with the hardscrabble analysis of the world we inhabit. B /