2016’s White Girl, the first feature-length film by Elizabeth Wood, is a likely lightning rod of a film in a social environment of a far less-than-harmonious country when it comes to issues of race. Set in modern-day Ridgewood, Queens, the film centers upon Leah (Morgan Saylor), a carefree university student from Oklahoma City. Foolish, naïve and willfully oblivious, she functions as a kind of drugged out, over-sexed flower who only needs the slightest drop of liquid to bloom. Whether she’s aimlessly wandering the downtrodden streets of New York City for drugs or giving herself over to her leaching, lout of a boss (Justin Bartha), Leah seems destined for trouble. In the precarious environment that she has chosen to inhabit, the obviousness of her easy-to-take-advantage-of nature is apparent to any predator or experienced city-goer.
In clear glimpse of the impending fallout of Leah’s recklessness is Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc), a salty-but-sweet drug dealer. Very much a young man of the drug game, Blue is exactly what he needs to be when he needs to be it. Yet, his youthful prettiness seems to predispose him to a kind of charm giving momentary gaze to a sense of decency often buried underneath an uncaring, masculine veneer. The sight of Leah naturally lifts that gaze to light despite Leah’s unworthy nature. Love at first sight, Blue turns Leah away when she solicits him for hard drugs (cocaine, which is not-so-coincidentally called the “white lady” or “white girl” for slang). However, they cross paths again leading to a rooftop encounter captured far more serendipitously on the film’s promotional poster.
With an unconventional relationship building, non-standard relationship perks develop most notably in the form of Leah providing Blue a new, mostly white and upscale clientele that’s far removed from the begging nickel-and-dime crackheads, street-walkers and curb-crawlers. With easier dollar signs in eye, Blue pitches a $7,000 coke-selling scheme to his mentally unstable boss. Before the financially beneficial situation can take off, Blue is arrested by an undercover cop but luckily has left the cocaine with Leah. Now sucked into the criminal justice system for the third time, all with minimum mandatory sentencing, Blue’s misfortune has reached a damning stage that comes guaranteed with the prospect of real, hard time.
Leah, uncharacteristically enough, decides to help by finding an attorney (Chris North) who for $2,500 can buy “fair justice.” Meanwhile, Blue’s boss isn’t about to forget the $7,000 of unsold cocaine he’s waiting for a good return on. Leah resolves to fix both situations, but sinks under the weight of her own irresponsible, out-of-control lifestyle that cannot balance work with play resigning her to continuous foul-ups and poor decision-making. In the balance is Blue, who naively believes in Leah’s love, which is more along the lines of a youthful experiment with an exciting yet dangerous situation, with a touch of a savior complex filtered through the prism of her privilege.
In the course of the film, the unrelenting sexual excess is depicted with detail and the levels of depravity refuse to know an end. While this is not in the pursuit of “shock-jockery,” it does present the reality of a recurring superficial culture of excess, selfishness, greed and pure self-gratification. In the 1980s, it was personified by yuppies and Wall Street brokers. Now it’s anybody you see in that dance circle when Rihanna’s “We Found Love” starts playing at some festival where 50,000 people have gathered to watch a guy spin a record. Breaking upon another layer, the film explores inner-city poverty and the servile desperation masked in domineering masculinity. In even greater purview is the corrupt nature of the criminal justice system that in its moral bankruptcy reinforces oppressive distinctions dictated by race and economics.
White Girl’s triumph is its nature to present minutia of social superficiality, injustice and poverty, and cut through it with a disappointing reality that while this is a game for some, it’s a reality for others. For those playing games, one only need to shape up and be on time for the next semester. For those living reality, the rules are set in opposition and the penalties for transgression are for life. Like Blue sitting bloody in the back of a police car with an angry yet despondent blank stare on his face, I imagine that this is where the rage and resentment comes from. Like the response to White Girl from some circles, it is dismissed. However, only a fool dismisses the rage of a person with nothing to lose. Next try, take a second and greater look.