Blanket statements. They’re the poor man’s trademark of “millennials.” Akin to the over-usage of “like” in Valley Girl accents of the 80’s and 90’s, blanket statements are the cross we bear and our calling card. The polarity they signify in conversations big and small encapsulate a lot of ground-level criticism (and hoighty-toighty shit too). From “anyone/thing versus Beyoncé” to the outfit you decide to post on the ‘Gram while minding your own damn business, everything is up for grabs as a topic to be deemed “dope” or “trash.”
Ironically, at a time when social justice language has squarely dominated the communal dialect, we may be at a point where we’re more fiercely enforcing binaries in all realms of understanding than ever before. Blame it on the nature of the platforms we use or the severity of the darkest timeline we’re living in. Either way, the liminal space for nuance is lost in the contextual value of each argument, wherein things as serious as real lives and things as trivial as one’s pride, are at stake.
As someone who finds nuance in yelling at clouds, I can’t help but stop myself from participating when it comes to talking about the summer’s indie darling, Good Time. It’s not all good, or all bad. In fact, on paper, Good Time is a damn good time.
A heisty criminal thriller, Good Time follows Connie (Robert Pattinson) and his mentally disabled brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), and their petty criminal shenanigans in New York. Tightly edited and supported by a pounding, sinister, synth-heavy soundtrack, Good Time is a gritty, pulpy story that’ll keep you on edge from start to finish. It’s the type of exceptionally-thought-out flick that’ll have critics trying hard not to climax all over themselves with adulations. For both Pattinson’s rightful re-emergence from Twilightdom as a serious, gritty dramatic actor and the Safdie’s special attention to the realities of a street-level New York that’s neither middle-class nor uber-rich.
And that’s a problem.
To fully illustrate why, I’ll need to spoil some plot points. If you don’t wanna go there, you can stop reading here.
Having been caught by police in the aftermath of a failed bank robbery, Nick is sent to Rikers and beaten to bits. So, after he’s unable to post bail, Connie just sneaks him out of the hospital. Subsequently, with no place to go, Connie takes the outpatient shuttle and is dropped off down the street from an older black couple. Instead of dilly-dallying in the snow, he approaches the black couple’s house and talks his way into staying there for the night. The matriarch gives Connie some space and goes to bed, leaving her 16 year old granddaughter, Crystal (Taliah Webster), in charge.
Connie and Crystal spark a small, conversational accord. He learns she likes to vape and won’t snitch on her drug-dealing ex, and she learns next to nothing about him. This situation is shifted radically when they’re both watching late-night TV. As the news comes on, Connie and Nick’s faces and names are presented in connection with the robbery they did the day before. In order to prevent Crystal from seeing this, Connie aggressively makes out with her at the drop of a dime. From there, he picks her up and takes her to her room, for more making out. This is only interrupted by the waking of Nick, who isn’t actually Nick, but another man (Buddy Duress) who had similar wounds. What follows is an escape of errors: Nick and this other man basically kidnap Crystal, take her grandmother’s car and hightail it outta there.
Crystal’s fate is later sealed in a contentious scene later on in the film. After beating a black security guard (Barkhad Abdi) at an amusement park into submission, drugging him and assuming his identity, Nick uses the police to clean up his mess. Arriving on the scene to respond to the break-in alarm, they pick Crystal up outside. Instead of directly ratting her out, Nick – playing as the security guard who called the police – feigns unfamiliarity. She’s then packed into a cruiser, most likely headed to a precinct.
Now, that’s a lot. But let’s pick apart why this shit made me spiral to the point where I couldn’t stick around for the full Q & A.
When Connie reached over to block Crystal’s attention and make out with her, the audience I sat with giggled. They giggled at a 16 year old girl being taken advantage of by a grown ass man. They giggled. Be it from discomfort or general comedic tickling at Connie’s desperation and quick thinking, I don’t know nor care. The scene itself felt wrong and it felt even more wrong to see folks react that way, in any capacity.
Granted, I’m no stranger to discomfort. In fact, as a horror buff, I’m something of an aficionado. But in watching Good Time, something other than discomfort – something much more visceral – hit me. Maybe it was a deep trigger. With everything going on in the world, I hold the depictions and understandings of black humanity closer than I normally would. And, in the darkness, that giggling just recalled the casual lineage of habitual-line-stepping bullshit going on in films like Good Time for me.
Tarantino in particular came to mind. While Good Time’s direct genealogy is much more a mix of Michael Mann thrillers, Taxi Driver and street-level cinematic salads like Belly, the notion of “problematic for the sake of great cinema” is Tarantino’s brand. Throughout his career, he’s filled his neo-grindhouse numbers with alitany of perversions, peculiarities and putridity, including: bashing in Nazi heads for the sake of a good shot in Inglorious Basterds, rapey advances from diseased soldiers in Planet Terror, and Sam Jackson’s vengeful oral assault of a Confederate’s young son in The Hateful Eight.
To be fair, these depictions aren’t wrong in totality, on a grand moral sense. We are talking fantastical sex and violence movies after all. But context is everything. For Tarantino, he wraps his problematic cinematicals in intense social contexts and genre. By allowing Jewish uber-men to torture and kill Nazis, he can justify cartoonish violence (Author’s Note: admittedly this is a bad example. Nazis have a fair reason to be killed when necessary as a fault of their ideology, especially when there are folks out there who think we should be having logical conversations with them.); by giving his own character (literally named Rapist #1) in Planet Terror a vengeful death at the hands of a woman, he can justify his lechery; by making the young boy the son of a pro-slavery white man, Tarantino can justify a sexual assault, even if its verity is in question.
Tarantino also forges an overarching justification for sensibility-pushing scenes by housing them in genre. In this case it’s grindhouse, a stylistic wheelhouse built on the exploitation of sexuality, violence and an almost gonzo approach to social topics. By tapping directly into the cultural zeitgeist of our basest fears, desires and more, Tarantino gets to throw his hands up and say “Hey! It’s a mirror at our worst selves. Don’t be mad at me, be mad at yourself!” It’s a somewhat logical means that allows him to justify the orgasmic ends he depicts for himself, let alone for the audience. (Author’s Note: truly, how many times does he have to find a way to get his characters to say “nigger” in his scripts? We get it Tarantino, you think it’s cool. You want to be black. Go away.)
This sentiment – of creating a means to justify an end – is at the heart of Good Time‘s wonderland of vice. By creating a pulpy thriller that’s not-so-subtly commenting on race and class, the Safdies have given themselves license to write whatever, so that it’s true to the dangerous world they want to illustrate. For example: in what little I heard from the Q & A before leaving, the Safdies admitted to writing an extensive biography for Connie. With Robert Pattinson’s help, they painstakingly built this character so that there would be as little exposition in the film as possible. This concerns me, again, because it shows that for so much thought put into this white man (and the film’s world at large,) there was no context or thought put into Crystal or the impact of seeing a young black girl essentially being coerced by a grown man on screen, in her own fucking home.
To understand this, we have to push back on the context of genre that the film (and those like it) assume as justification and context, with some of our own.
Young black women, and black girls especially, are consistently robbed of their innocence, their sexuality, sexual agency and their childhoods. Be it by the media, society or their own families, there is an insidious rhetoric that establishes that all black girls and women are hypersexual and always ready at the behest of the right (see: any) suitor. It’s a monstrous idea constructed by the very people/systems that have enslaved black folks for generations. And it’s used by predators, academics and everyday people alike (note these aren’t mutually exclusive) to rob black girls and women of agency and identity.
For the ignorant: this rhetorical cancer is often colloquially known as young black women and girls being ‘fast,’ a term known to the black community since forever. And in the time since, black folk – women in particular – have documented its existence and sought to combat it. Trudy of Gradient Lair – a womanist blog for black women – specifically defines it as black girls being
“stereotyped as “hypersexual” beings and seeking sex whether or not they are sexually active… This stereotype sits in a binary opposed to “respectable” Black girls while both “types” of Black girls are regularly abused. It is the hatred of Blackness, womanhood and childhood (or rejection of a period of childhood actually existing for Black girls) intersecting in this dangerous stereotype.” [source]
In her 2013 essay, “The Myth of Fast Black Girls,” writer Michonne Micheaux illustrates how it has infiltrated the hearts and minds of too many in the black community, and society in general:
“Sexuality has been projected onto, used as a weapon against, and been a site of contempt for Black women at least since colonization. Inherently animalistic & hypersexual, impossible to rape, the antithesis of constructed virtuous White womanhood. While no identities of children or adults makes anyone impervious to predators, the intersection of gender & race has unique implications for Black & brown girls like Cherice Moralez.
She was deemed “older than her chronological age” of 14 by the judge in the trial against her rapist & 49-year-old teacher, Stacey Rambold. Judge Baugh qualified his sentence of 30 days by saying “it wasn’t this forcible beat-up rape”. Essentially, upholding the legal precedent of being inherently sexual & complicit because… “little brown girl.” Even after Baugh apologized for what is unequivocally rape culture-enabling fuckery, he even admits he could not explain what he was trying to say.
Well, I can. “Little Black girls and brown girls are so mature, wise beyond their years, sexy, asking for it, sluts in training” It’s all the same. People don’t jump to these deplorable excuses just on behalf of famous singers. Plenty of R. Kelly’s peers lurk at high school parking lots & after school hangouts, or follow/harass girls who are clearly too young for them.
And when these young women, in neighborhoods where street harassment is enabled and schools that don’t teach comprehensive & sex-positive sex ed, fall prey to manipulative adult men… “She’s so grown. She’s fast. She’s hot in the ass. She has no home training. She shouldn’t have been running the streets.”
Using R. Kelly and other child predators as prime examples, Micheaux gets to the destructive core of the issue: hypersexuality is heavily assumed when it comes to black girls, and thus, they are treated as less than – and even complicit – in their own abuse and assaults. As she shows, this thought process has affected our understandings of black girl’s innocence, even when they’re the victim.
These same lines of thought are what were on my mind during this offending set of scenes in Good Time. By positioning Crystal as a round-the-way, naughty girl who dates drug dealers, we’re setup to think she’s not worthy of our worry for her safety. She’s a bad “little brown girl” who’s complicit in whatever fate comes her way, including this sexual advance by Connie. She doesn’t fight back, we think, so she must want it or allow it. Pay no mind to the obvious power dynamics. Because why? This is a “gritty,” “dangerous” film. Bad things are going to happen (to black people.) We’ll deal. And, per the giggling in the audience, we’ll enjoy it even.
We’re All Guilty Here
The sinister nature of that giggling, and of the setup itself, bother me. We (as a society) devalue and care so little for black girls that, we think, there was no other way to write that scene. The Safdies wanted to create something dangerous, and they succeeded. By enabling this behavior in audiences and not writing a scene that doesn’t cross this very, very troubling line, they simply vindicate a “fast girls” narrative. Our suspicions about young black women are confirmed and we leave the theater, wondering about all the little black girls who are probably out there doing hoodrat shit with their friends, and how they deserve whatever comes to them.
I say “we” here in the larger rhetorical sense, because we’re all complicit, as a people and as audiences of Good Time (and movies like it). But I’ll also not forget that the audience I sat with was mostly white. And, that audiences for this film will most likely be even more white, indie-loving moviegoers who want to experience the grit and grime of New York poverty without actually being there.
And to an extent, who doesn’t? Movies are fantasy realms and we access them to broaden our personal realms of imagination and confirm (or less often, confront) our worldviews. Which, is a problem that’s too big to handle here. But, it’s a problem nonetheless that dovetails into this singular moment: if the Safdies are only confirming this myth that black girls are complicit in their own sexual, psychic and other traumas authoritatively in the form of a film, are we really going to think differently? It’s their film, we’ll tell ourselves. It’s a world they’re presenting to us that they labored over. Who are we to say otherwise? It’s just a movie, right?
While I don’t want to put too much stock in the hands of popular media to shape minds, I know better. Let’s not play fools here. The movie that literally founded classic film techniques and bred a new generation of cinema was The Birth of A Nation, a three hour lynching of black humanity and mastubatory session of Confederate pride.
So, even if this relatively small film has a relatively small set of sequences that are but a drop in the larger cesspool of anti-black, anti-black-girl media, it’s still in there. And to that I say: do fucking better. This didn’t need to happen. And it sure as hell could’ve been left out without indulging itself and compromising an otherwise compelling character study and narrative about people struggling to make due in a harsh metropolis. However, when the lens is white and the creators are white as well, it’s hard to expect much empathy for the blacker side of humanity.
Bu maybe there is something I’m missing. Maybe the entire point is to showcase how (poor, white) folks can and do use black visages (the black latex masks used for the robbery,) people (Crystal, her grandparents and the security guard) and bodies (Crystal herself) to their advantage. As much as I could write even more there, I feel like it doesn’t matter to a degree. Mostly because, impact will almost always supersede intent. And, unfortunately, the road to stardom is paved with racial myths that still affect our day-to-day realities.
So I won’t tell you Good Time is a terrible film, in the absolute sense. What I will tell you is much more complicated: it’s a well-made film. But it tarnishes its eponymous meta-premise with a predatory and fantastical understanding of real people, which still have all-too-real consequences in the real world.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter