Let Them Eat Logan Lucky

Image result for logan lucky
Adam Driver and Channing Tatum plan to rob the Charlotte Speedway in Logan Lucky (2017).

The 2017 film Logan Lucky opened with some relatively good reviews, but I’m surprised at the degree to which the film has been ignored in critical circles. I found the film refreshing, fun, and warm, and I recommend everyone watch it—it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s tightly scripted, and has some great performances by Adam Driver, Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, and even Dwight Yoakam shows up.

But more than all this, I think the film offers a kind of counter-script to a trend in popular culture that is exemplified by the overrated, misanthropic, and lazily written Three Billboards. Logan Lucky is what literary scholars call a carnivalesque—a genre in which hierarchy is overturned as the bottom of society gets to subvert traditional order, often in bawdy and revelrous tones. And the characters of the film do the subverting in the pursuit of a vision of justice that is wholly positive, in contrast with the negative, retributive vision of justice at the heart of Three Billboards.

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I should begin by noting that the reason that I seem to want to compare these two films so readily is likely because of their relative degrees of whiteness, as compared to other “of the moment films.” Token characters aside, both films feature predominantly white casts. While Three Billboards tries clumsily to make its film explicitly about race—or more accurately, we might say it tries to nod to matters of race—Logan Lucky is about whiteness in a different, implicit sense.

That is, wherever identity is shaped by the history of race in America—and that is everywhere—whiteness will exist among white populations. We might argue that the way the lead characters swagger, or the cultural values that they hold, those of autonomy and self-reliance, are the products of whiteness. That Logan Lucky is not a critique of white supremacy or white liberals a la Get Out does not mean that the film isn’t aware of the centrality of white identity. Instead, the film seeks to shift the parameters of whiteness in some subtle ways.

First, it questions the “pride” that poor whites are stereotypically presented as carrying. In the scene where Logan meets cute with a old high school classmate, who is driving an RV that provides mobile heath services to mountain communities, she tells him that their people don’t take kindly to the idea of “charity.” This is counterposed throughout the film with its numerous instances of people helping each other out. Logan, his brother, and the character played by Daniel Craig, to name a few, are all down on their luck, and they are rewarded in the end of the film because of their fraternal ties and communal efforts, not because of any kind of individualistic luck and pluck.

Less successfully, the film finds in white Appalachian identity a kind of rooted authenticity. Last night, by coincidence I ended up listening to two separate interviews with Elizabeth Catte, who argues for a narrative of Appalachia that finds its identity in the history of its struggles on behalf of community and equity. And I thought a lot about Logan Lucky as she was speaking. The film does succeed to a great degree in centering solidarity. But the flip-side is a kind of tribalism, and I think this is most exemplified in the daughter’s decision to abandon, at the last moment, a performance of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in favor of her father’s favorite song, John Denver’s “Country Roads.” The suggestion is that the latter is a more authentic song, and we can presume this to be the case for all sorts of reasons. The film is not racist, but I do think this is the unavoidable pitfall of whiteness as it exists, the peril of invoking a history of community, or even solidarity, when that history is so intertwined with the history of race.

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Logan Lucky begins with its protagonist being laid off from his job for no fault of his own. In doing so, it roots itself in the narrative of the failing white middle and working class. But whereas other Hollywood films might find the protagonist embarking on a new entrepreneurial adventure—say, starting a cleaning service or a food truck—in this one, he becomes a thief. The morality of such a move is set up early in the film, when in the planning of a different crime, two characters debate the morality of theft, and find extralegal justification for committing the crime in question. The suggestion is that they are only willing to subvert the law in the service of a greater good. [1]

In this, the movie alludes to Augustine’s famous dictum, referenced by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his letter from a Birmingham jail, that an unjust law is no law at all. Logan Lucky doesn’t take for granted the existing, hegemonic norms of neoliberalism, but in its insistently Rabelaisian tone, demands that we see the pursuit of a greater justice. This kind of justice is generous and philanthropic in the literal sense of the word. Happiness is found amongst its characters when they have the means and the time to be good to one another.

Contrast this with the misanthropy of Three Billboards. Its series of events are set off by a brutal crime. And as the film proceeds, its only questions are those of retributive justice. In this framing, the law is a means for punishment. And far from Rabelaisian, the characters that seek to subvert the law only do so a means to exact the retribution that the law fails at providing.

This philosophy of justice seeps down into the roots of Martin McDonagh’s film, into the micro-moments that are unrelated to the film’s main plot. So when someone does something ill-advised or shortsighted, the movie asks you to laugh at them. When someone gets hurt, it asks you to cheer. This spirit so pervades the movie, and the way that it treats all of its characters, any of its potential as a black comedy is neutralized. Surely, the best black comedies make fun of their characters—think Birdman, Burn After Reading, or The Bling Ring, for example. By contrast to these films, Three Billboards punches in all directions, such that its only consistent perspective appears to be hatred for humanity.

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Ultimately it’s Logan Lucky’s brand of humanism, and its capacious sense of positive justice, that I think allows it to transcend its potential issues with whiteness. Much has been made of the problem of white identity with respect to the election of Donald Trump, and I don’t want to rehash all of the arguments related to what is frequently conjured in strawman-form on Twitter as “economic anxiety.” What I think is clear, and I would argue is best and most consistently articulated by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, is that a positive vision of justice is both the most effective means for combatting white supremacy and economic inequality, and the means most in line with a positive sense of justice.

I remember a couple of years ago, when the discussion about taking down the Confederate flag in the South was at its height, I heard a commentator raise a question on a podcast: what do you hold up as a people’s culture when the one that they currently cling to, the one that brings them comfort and meaning, is to be taken away? I think it’s a fair question. In a way, it is to say that as important as Black Panther is to a community that rightly sees the black superhero as the gaining of a kind of cultural legitimacy and media power, a corollary to this is the fear of losing something similar that manifests at the weird intersections of privilege and precarity, manifestations like the uproar about an all-female Ghostbusters. And we can certainly critique those detestable campaigns in which white men seek to suppress the efforts of those below them to make their own claims for representation and redistribution. But we can also see in things like Logan Lucky the promise of a means towards surmounting the present divisions, a dynamic that sees “workers of all shades,” as President Obama put it, “fighting for scraps.” Let them eat Logan Lucky, I say.

And I think what Elizabeth Catte was likely getting at—and I should say I have not yet read her book—is that tribalism in certain contexts, among white Appalachians fighting for workers’ rights, for example, or among Black Americans excited about Black Panther, is not necessarily a bad thing, and is most likely a necessary way to combat the universalist hegemonic impositions of liberalism, by invoking a useful narrative of history. Just as Logan Lucky exhibits a generous, even perhaps socialist-tinged humanism via a specific sense of place, Black Panther wrestles with the problems of cosmopolitanism and diasporic identity among tribal and national affiliations in order to raise questions of global justice. Neither are clarion calls for a worker’s revolution. But they’re both hugely entertaining anyways.

Notes:

[1] I’ve run out of space to discuss it here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that in this way Logan Lucky can be very much thought of as this year’s Hell or High Water (2016).