Part 3 of America, The Facade: On American Honey
Given that the film was released in the same year as Moonlight, American Honey stands alongside Jenkins’ sophomore magnum opus as one of two stories chronicling Black people finding self control in America, Arnold’s in particular being a rarefied portrait that explores race and the mystery of iniquity.
Although Star’s race isn’t explicitly stated nor mentioned, the film clearly approaches race not by making race the center of the character’s identity, but central to her experience. The iniquity with which her race is treated and mystified, along with how she reacts to that, is really made clear. Star is a Black biracial woman by appearance, but she remains a Black woman who has a sense of control over her desires and identity, despite remaining susceptible to the variety of prejudice around her.
As a matter of fact, it’s something that’s so poignantly reflected through the band of derelicts whose identities are as misplaced as their moral and cultural compasses, things that people can easily render as nonexistent. Their fashion sense is dictated by music videos, their drawl unironically sprinkled with the vernacular of marginalized African-Americans.
These white kids glamorize the whole of popular culture, and are only somewhat aware that they’re being exploited by a similar branch of the same system that dictates their social class — which is no class at all, in terms of their attitude, living conditions, and overall appearance.
As demeaning as this sounds, you can’t even attach a particular class position to these people by those conditions. They aren’t even considerably of a lower class.
Certain people want to acclimate themselves to a culture and lifestyle that doesn’t really care about them, let alone an entire culture created by a race they’ve never truly cared for in return. Whenever we are treated to these kids’ needle dropped chants, they appear indulgent, but never end this way. Rather, we identify with the paradox of white America through Star’s eyes; the oxymoron that is this inclusively unwelcoming band of kids.
Some of us become no stranger to Star’s resistance towards suspending visible discomfort around the culture that’s appropriated around her. And of course, she can’t help but falter at that. Moreover, this bizarre world she has been whisked away by is one that she doesn’t quite fit into, let alone visibly see herself in or resonate with. Then again, neither do most of the people who have seen the film at Cannes, or packed into arthouse theaters upon its limited release.
While the film’s exploration into race tends to falter as a result of its own circumstantial subjects, Sasha Lane manages to portray the fullness of Black womanhood with an incredible amount of nuance that goes above and beyond her already magnetic screen presence.
Our introduction to Star and her state of living does not end in her being completely burdened by personal trauma, even if aspects of it become unavoidable. Mentions of her mother’s meth-related death are never stigmatized, nor is she inherently defined by her father’s sexual abuse.
Much like the celestial beings of her namesake, Star’s strength may be fragile, but they are intristic to a body of complication (and a body that faces complications) that keeps people in her orbit. She is more than aware of the effect she has on this claustrophobically shot moshpit of carnal juventude, and how much of its collective intonation suffocates spectators on the periphery of hers and Arnold’s sprawling lens.
Star may have chosen to immerse herself into the lifestyles of these people, but not once she does not relinquish her values and identity in exchange for compromising towards the uncompromising conformity of a capitalist mindset.
Really and truly, she could care less about the lifestyle she is exposed to, and moreso about feeling like fucking America; the image of the country that she recognizes in all of its vastness and does not have to sell. She is present to escape within a country where the possibility of an escape for people like her is anything but boundless.
Most of all, Star’s intelligence allows her to persevere in spite of all the possibly bad scenarios she puts herself into. Yes, including this one with a band of seemingly harmless cowboys who end up luring her into a paper shower as their lower-class plaything.
While one’s judgement towards the situations Star puts herself in may direct them to a conclusion that renders her as careless, but it is only because she has had to persevere that she lets herself take control of these interactions through and through. At the end of the day, it is a disruption of her attraction towards Jake that conflicts her and transforms into a significant obstacle in her path towards stability.
Additionally, the film’s dog-eat-dog nature comes as a threat, trampling on every possibility that Star has while she tries to retain her self-worth. For instance, Jake hands her a leather book to keep track of her sales, as well as a set of stickers for personal decoration. However, Star always has to earn these tokens of affection, be it physically or verbally.
Less than ten minutes after she is gifted with these, Star learns that Pagan (Arielle Holmes) had gotten her own stickers when she joined the crew. It’s a form of cruelty that the world of the film indulges in, deceiving Star more than once and emboldening an already underlined trick on her race, her identity, her womanhood, and her value. Every time she is seemingly considered as special is a mere lie to extract her loyalty, perseverance, sex, and determination.
For Star, her aspirations aren’t too far from “the” American dream, but it being centrally similar to Jake’s strengthens her relationship with him, and brings her closer to a blunt whole of America that is constructed with every roadside encounter. Every individual’s field of work, regardless of class, reflects the massive gaps in wealth inequality. As far as an oil worker’s annual $100,000 salary goes, they are all still working under the same boss who profits off their labour on various scales.
It’s also quite difficult to classify Star’s relationship with Jake as romance, as it shares the same lust that affirms the material exchange preceding emotional validation. Most notably, the former is present in the rest of these kids. It accelerates a drive that misses out on all the hugeness we get from Star’s end. By barely memorizing a set of lies, Star’s journey offers an alternative rareified by America itself: As a Black woman of dual heritage, she discovers and learns about the unadulterated kindness of strangers.
However, it is also important to note that most of this kindness comes directly from those on the same margin of poverty that has struck her from the very beginning. And to the greatest extent, the presence of her racial identity still remains.
This is all the more potent when further examining the moments in which this film’s lens on prejudice is so sharply focused. In a sea of white kids, there is Star; herself amongst significant others, and yet she carries, in the world of this film, the face of the other.
The concept of othering has roots that date back decades and centuries throughout the colonialism that dominates world history. However, the term was both coined and popularized by Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism.
At its most basic (and self-explanatory) level, othering can be defined as the way in which an individual or members of a social (often cultural) group are mentally classified by someone as “not one of us”. This further authors the subordination of certain peoples, constructing superior identities and societal hierarchies that are reflected amongst the typical posturing and condescension of the crew’s ringleader and its teenaged members.
In the world of the film, these distinctions hardly involve gender, sexuality, and religion (there’s a bit of queerness that occurs to begin with). Although it hardly seems to delve into race, American Honey may be nearly physically void of Black people, but Star’s singular existence is what makes its exploration of race intimate by design.
Star’s race as a Black biracial woman amongst a predominantly white cast contributes to the othering she experiences throughout the film. Much like the microaggressions and profiling that exist in the world of racially preconceived notions, the othering of this film comes as a series of implications on Star’s exclusion and alienation. They are not explicitly transmitted, but subtly communicated through a series of recurring motifs that hint at the exact sentiment of not belonging.
Above all, it refamiliarizes us with a reframing of the “us vs. them” mentality that is associated with capitalism, directly branching out into its racially charged implications.
Having made a constant return to the film’s soundtrack, I can only conclude that its tasteful mix of contemporary American music makes it both palpable and transformative in shaping the ethnographic intellect of this film’s raucous horde of adolescent salespeople.
As if the film’s appropriation of Black culture hasn’t already occassioned much comment (specifically regarding the white characters’ frivolous use of the n word), a seemingly minor detail is worth noting as one of many critical fragments that power American Honey’s vehicle of cultural curation. White artists such as Mazzy Star and The Raveonettes are reserved for moments of affection, every other song is subjectively palatable trap; every momentary mantra plastered by Black hip-hop.
The whole is the epitome of music as a form of solace and physical emancipation, a revindication of these kids’ identities (once vindicated as disenfranchised youth) by escaping into personas that are practically universal to the Black American community, yet remain unidentifiably adjacent to whiteness. Although created by the former, they resonate with the latter in a way that does not align with a common image of whiteness (one seemingly void of affiliation with Black culture by appearance).
Then again, what is this common image of whiteness without its timeless (and countless) slew of attempts at improperly assimilating into Black culture? At this point, such cannot be imagined without these needless (varied and troublesome, need I say more?) tendencies that it is more than historical tradition, but near-lineage.
As a matter of fact, this teetering between two races makes the film’s penultimate needle drop an amalgamated — albeit temporary — destruction of cultural polarity, as Raury’s “God’s Whisper” blends tribal chants, adopts Baroque and folk chords that dominated 1960s New York, and delivers it all in a Cudi-esque intonation of melodic rap.
That is, until the film’s final song, “I Hate Hate”, throws us back into the overall indifference that its world accurately portrays. Funnily enough, its artist (Razzy Bailey) is a landmark figure in blue-eyed soul, a term for R&B performed by white artists.
The irony of this little known track (in an otherwise familiar genre that derives its sound from the Black community, who has also embraced blue-eyed soul) playing through the credits is that it’s a song that rallies liberals and democrats of all ages to unite under a banner of love.
Given this film’s presence hovering over the Trump era like a cultural obelisk, Bailey’s message still feels (and is) all too fitting — and completely out of reach. It’s no coincidence that the love Bailey speaks of is the same form of indifference that James Baldwin refers to as causal to blindness in Beale Street. In the case of the film, it is practiced towards race as frequently as social class.
Therefore, to truly see the face of the other has been unattainable for as long as any less privileged individual can remember. This is exactly where othering extends into Krystal’s relationship with Star, along with the titular song that binds this together.
Written and performed by country group Lady A (whose original name continues to go uncredited to Black American namesake), “American Honey” makes two significant appearances in Arnold’s film of the same name.
Its first introduction occurs when Star meets Krystal, who notably reduces Star’s ethnicity before her accent causes her to conclude that she is somewhat equal. Because Star too is a Southern girl, and a real American honey like her. Despite its subtlety, Star’s ignorance towards the song in this scene is crucial in her establishment as an other in Krystal’s mind, and shows that she is truly and literally not one of them.
Towards the end of the film, the song makes its biggest appearance. While virtually all of the white characters are able to sing along, Star is clearly left out of this moment of resilience, and strength. Her not knowing the words leaves her unbound from a chain of homogenous unity. Not only does this scene work as a bookend to Star’s initial encounter with Krystal, but it cements the unending rift between Star’s resilience and Krystal’s deep-seated hatred for her.
In this moment, some audiences will resonate with Star as she begins to realize that maybe, in spite of the plight she shares with the crew, she does not belong now.
A second motif that also contributes to the othering of Star’s experiences is the presence of the Confederate Flag. Anyone who has at least the faintest knowledge of American politics knows the flag’s historical associations with racism, slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. In contemporary American society, many white Southerners have resurrected it as a symbol of Southern pride. In fact, the 2015 poll (famously conducted by CNN) continues to cement the Confederacy’s ability to prompt broad racial divides.
Given its brief appearances in the film, the Confederate flag is present on two instances that share its general purpose. In both, Star is placed in a degrading or dehumanizing situation.
The first instance comes in one of American Honey’s pair of grossly filmed scenes, in what is perhaps the most devastating use of Sam Hunt’s greatest hit. Before Star even hits the road, she prepares the dinner she had to scavenge for at the very beginning of the film. She is then approached a man who calls himself Daddy. Whether he has a biological relation to Star is made unclear, but it’s very likely that he is the father of her half-siblings who share the same mother (most definitely his current flame, who might have entered Star’s life after her mother’s death).
While the hopelessness of Star’s home life is made clear by the discomfort of sexual abuse (as well as us witnessing it), it is further accentuated when Arnold makes certain that this man has the Confederate flag hanging behind his TV set.
This is by no means a coincidence, especially given the flag’s second appearance in the film, in what is undoubtedly its most skin-crawling scene.
Star’s heated altercation with Krystal in her motel room emphasizes Star’s race as a factor of her outsider status among the crew. All facets of her thinking are specifically confronted in this scene, in which Krystal’s attire (and nearly a lack thereof) also symbolizes the bareness of the exclusionary idea that is tied with the Confederacy. It overtly crystalizes itself (pun intended) as an explicit statement of her ideals, externalizing her previous sentiments that are seemingly tame in comparison.
If anything, it’s an act of violence to have the human embodiment of the patriarchy’s worship of capitalism (especially when women submit to an equally exploitative brand) unfold in front of the eyes of a visible minority.
It also cements the intense dislike and distrust that Krystal holds against Star. In fact, Keough’s character in general seems like Star’s foil in the sense that she has what Star aspires to have — multiple male servants occupied with fulfilling her happiness, the autonomy to control who is in and out of her life — while still being in the same financial class as her. Krystal remains an unachievable entity in the moment more than a human whose social status is the opposite side to the same coin. This is further emphasized by her thinly veiled and overly vulgar distaste for Star.
It also isn’t one bit coincidental that Riley Keough was cast as the film’s most visibly pronounced antagonist. After all, she comes from a lineage that includes one of the most revered figures in American culture; a symbol of Americana that is simultaneously attached to racism and racial unity, going beyond heralded Pop Art renderings and images of his ever-widening audience that reflect a divided America. Of course, that also includes anyone clad in a Confederate flag two-piece bikini.
Despite being nowhere near who Krystal is as a person, Keough’s familial background continues to work as a testament to the world of this character, along with what she contributes to the film’s thematic mosaic, which does not limit itself to its depictions of race, class, and appropriation — the latter to which Keough’s acting career is no stranger to either.
Even then, this turn with Arnold’s film might have foreseen this particular direction, but that is beside the point of Krystal being a critical character by design.
Krystal’s lecturing of Star puts the latter in her place underscores Confederate values, but in both cases, the flag’s presence symbolizes its true meaning: an abuse of power. Whether she is being molested by a father figure or patronized by her boss, both scenes show Star on the receiving end of toxic power relations.
Consequently, while othering can result in the cultural and sociopolitical idealization of superior identities, dichotomies of otherness can also work as a manifestation of power relations. This can be applied to two concepts of othering, the first being from French philosopher Michel Foucault.
According to Foucault, othering is strongly connected with power and knowledge. When one others another group, one points out their perceived differences to make this individual appear superior to their predetermined qualities. This implies a hierarchy, serving to keep power where it already lies.
Given the Confederate flag’s continual association with white supremacy, its presence rings true to its values in which the film’s Black protagonist is confronted with a pair of oppressive scenarios exerted by white characters.
A second concept that can be briefly connected to othering can be argued in this film’s portrayal of gender dynamics, courtesy of revered theorist Simone de Beauvoir:
Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.
de Beauvoir argues that women have always been set up (and conditioned to set themselves up) as the other of men. While masculinity is therefore socially constructed as the universal norm by which all facets of humanity are defined, discussed, and legislated against, any form of femininity remains regarded as the Other. This can be attested to through the overtly patriarchal attitudes rooted in Jake’s mentality as a salesman, as well as Krystal’s encompassing ideology over the entire group.
Any attempts at staking claims to independent work (as we see with Star) — a legislation of the Other against the Absolute male — are immediately broken. This is clear in the social constructs of gender in Western societies, or how society shapes our ideas of masculinity and femininity. Even given recent conversations on gender fluidity, there continues to be an inherently unequal relationship between these binaries, which continue to be a pair of identities set up as opposites.
Nonetheless, this is especially true in the world of this film’s business model, outside of its culturally appropriated alternatives to gender expression.
The various ways in which this film explores and exemplifies concepts of the other all come to a head in its euphoric finale. While Star initially joins the crew, she briefly snuffs out the youthful fire she has rekindled from within. Jake hands her a turtle, and it signals a deeply personal revelation whose subtleties have now fallen away.
For the entirety of the film, Star senses displacement, but it is when she reemerges from the still waters of a nearby lake that this reality is momentarily dispelled. It is her liberation from her past, and the possibility of leaving this group, having left every town marked by memory.
It is a culmination marked by expedition and molded into the epitome — an ultimatum calling to a beacon of possibilities that have yet to be exhausted, the key to this being a renewal of her identity. Her girlhood, her adrenaline, the novelty, her story. These are things Star keeps alive amongst a body of others, born on the verge of death from a million miles away.
For what was once a mere twinkle in the sky now shines brighter than the moonshine and yellow diamonds that the K-Mart loudspeaker could provide. It is not daily or routine, but transient and everlasting. This is the savior, who has answered to the whisper in the wind.
And there is a star within this sun; a light that never goes out.