How do we find reprieve within today’s predictable, cyclical nature of outrage, however warranted, and the battle of the wokest? The other day, I encountered a social justice warrior tweet that wondered in all seriousness, “You ever think about how if robots ever rise up the word ‘robot’ itself will be a slur”…and lost it. Comic relief often comes as a welcome refuge from the reductive, ultra-dogmatic realities of both the left and the right. That’s how I came to kick back and look back at Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy on Netflix: a deliciously looney, zany portrayal of white culture run terribly (and hilariously) amok. Released in 2012, the film is based upon a novel that follows Miss Charlotte Bless (peak white woman Nicole Kidman) and her mission to acquit convicted murderer Hillary Van Wetter (the pervy John Cusack), whom she fell in love with entirely through letter-writing. She hopes to do so through a team of amateur investigators: Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acherman (David Oyelowo), who are reporting on the case for the Miami Times, and Ward’s younger brother Jack Jansen (Zac Efron). But who can really follow the plot — and does it even matter?
The film is bookended by narration from the incredulous, weary voice of Anita. Played by the magnetic Macy Gray, Anita is the no-nonsense, done-with-your-bullshit Jansen family maid. Although she might in many ways appear to conform to the “mammy” trope as a Black domestic worker given no sexuality of her own, this is complicated by the fact that we enter the story through Anita’s perspective and that its entirety is colored by her position outside the petty drama of whites. The Paperboy opens with a male interviewer asking Anita, amidst stretching out her tired neck and dressed in leopard print à la summer 1969, “Can you tell us how much…was based on fact?” What unravels thereafter as one long flashback is Anita’s personal reality. If scenes seem illogical, jumpy, and impossibly outrageous, it is because they are told through Anita’s memory, which, on one hand, refracts logic through her criticality of whiteness and, on the other hand, provides the baseline of truth. Perhaps it is not until the end that we realize Anita’s critical eye lends a strength that completely buttresses the film, its theatrical thrills, and its continued relevance to today by bringing into focus is its central unspoken rhetoric: What are these crazy white people doing?
Anita turns out to be relatively fair storyteller considering her constant, subtle abuse by the Jansen family. She plays along with the young Jack Jansen’s games, empathizes with his naïveté, and forgives his outward displays of racism. Her perspective (perhaps most reflective of Director Lee Daniels’s own) comes to light through various characters’ dialogue, beginning with such scenes as Acherman uttering upon arriving in Moat County, Florida, “it’s a shithole.” (Who’s the shithole country now?) Each character, though designed in continuity with the film’s overall pulpy aesthetic, is also not wholly glamorized. Deep down in America’s post-antebellum south, melanin-lacking whiteness is no match for the heat, which is a palpable character in itself: ravaging Ward with no-see-um bites, causing gaudy makeup to drip and crack with sweat, matting hair together in disheveled clumps.
From the beginning, it is apparent that Hillary van Wetter is most likely not the innocent, falsely accused victim that Charlotte surmises him to be. Anita tells us, “Everybody was confused why she was engaged to Hillary Van Wetter. Nasty, white trash swamp.” Jack’s infatuation with Charlotte is also portrayed critically. Although Charlotte is beautiful, that conventional feminine beauty which Jack is so drawn to is fragile, rehearsed, and painfully overt. She fidgets constantly with her over-processed hair and brightly hued dresses, which are exaggeratedly too short and too tight. It is not Charlotte who makes the men stop and stare, but the idea of a woman she occupies and strives to be. The powdered veil that cloaks her grotesqueness slowly unravels over time, perhaps most startlingly so in the scene that made the film the subject of whispered myth: the pee scene. After a freak accident in which Jack gets stung by a swarm of small jellyfish in the sea, he struggles to shore and startles a group of young women nearby. Charlotte insists on medicating Jack by urinating on his wounds herself, cursing at the concerned strangers to leave. In this respect, white womanhood is characterized as abject and primitive; Charlotte uses her own urine as a territorial marker of sexual conquest.
The glaring red flags continue when Van Wetter sends the Jansen brothers to his cousin Tyree, who can confirm his alibi. The journey is treacherous and uncivilized. The two men struggle through muddy waters and mosquito-ridden reeds, the unkempt Southern wilderness dramatized by their comparatively cosmopolitan clothing: Ward in suit pants and tie, and Jack in a fresh tee that he gradually sheds for a white tank. All the stereotypes about the deep South collide in a rushed caricature of backwoods redneck trailer trash. While Ward reasons with a balding Tyree, a confederate flag waves visibly in the background. Tyree guts an alligator, eats ice-cream messily from a tin pail, and then hands it to his topless pregnant housemate within a span of five minutes. It sounds like sensory and visual overload, and yet these are exactly the kind of details that Anita would consider important in order to fully capture the nastiness of the “white trash swamp” she describes earlier.
It comes as no surprise, then, when the majority of characters meet violent ends. Drunk, unarmed, and without any backup, Ward and Jack go back to the Van Wetter swamp to save Charlotte from a murderer’s hands as the sun descends into darkness. As DJ Khaled would offer: You played yourself. The Paperboy, though superficially a murder mystery or crime drama, is more an excuse to examine whiteness, its delusions, and how its wretched problems are completely avoidable and man-made.
In his article “Beyond the Pale” for New York Magazine, James Hannaham writes that whiteface minstrelsy has a history of serving as comic payback. From White Chicks (2004) to Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 “reverse minstrel show,” Hannaham argues “[I]f these performances can be cheap (and misogynist) shots, they also have an odd potency: imitation as revenge. Audiences get the thrill of seeing whiteness portrayed as nothing more than a performance.” When whiteness refuses to comply with Black criticism, whiteface minstrelsy perhaps serves as a constellation prize. Other examples today might include Martin Freeman’s character of a white CIA agent (“colonizer!”) in Black Panther (2018) or even the celebrity persona of Taylor Swift. Bossip recently reported, “Caucasity Audacity: Soft-Boiled Ostrich Egg Taylor Swift Gets Buried, Burned And Blown Away For Earth, Wind And Fire Cover.” The headline transforms pale-fleshed Swift into a cartoon of white objecthood, finished by the fantasy of destruction and ridicule despite her complete safety and complacency in reality. Like in The Paperboy, these white characters exist purely for our fantastical bemusement, reversing the roles in which people of color have often played for white people throughout time and history. When our agency is restricted and policed in the physical, we resort to our imaginations with perilous delight.