Brow Beat

In Spring Breakers, Black Lives Matter Less Than White Ones

James Franco as Alien in Spring Breakers


Nearly everything in Harmony Korine’s exploitation romp Spring Breakers is something familiar turned up to 11. “This film is hyper-reality,” director Harmony Korine told Salon when discussing his depictions of gun violence. “It’s an aggressive reinterpretation of that culture. It’s a pop poem or a fever dream—like the real world but hyper-poetic and hyper-extreme.”

One of the “extreme” aspects of the Spring Breakers world is the racial divide: On one side you have the hard-partying, white college students, and on the other, violent black gangsters—and one white guy, played by James Franco, who adopts the style of a particular section of black culture (including cornrows and a metal grill). While our bikini-clad protagonists—Faith, Cotty, Candy, and Brit—enjoy some drug-induced wildness with their overwhelmingly white peers, their penchant for violence separates them from the others, who just want to have fun. To fund their trip to Florida, Cotty, Candy, and Brit commit armed robbery with water pistols, aping the mannerisms and vernacular seen in films like Menace II Society and Paid in Full.

When they meet James Franco’s wannabe gangsta Alien later on, it appears to be a match made in heaven: They are drawn in by the way he’s “made it” as a white baller, with a lavish lifestyle and access to an ultra-violent world, populated seemingly entirely by black people. Alien and the girls, by virtue of their skin tone, are able to swiftly modulate between white mainstream culture and aspirations of the black gangsta lifestyle. (A giant poster of Lil Wayne hangs in the background of one of their dorm rooms; later they belt out Britney Spears in a parking lot.) Meanwhile, the black characters in Spring Breakers aren’t merely acting out the gangsta life—that’s just the way they are.

So should we understand this aspect of the movie as a “hyper-poetic” version of “the real world”? What, if anything, is Korine trying to say by showing dangerous white girls as anomalies among their peers but natural allies to a black “gangsta” lifestyle?

My sense? Not much. Korine may intend the obviousness of the racial divide to be provocative, but he fails to comment in any interesting way on this so-called  “hyper-reality,” instead merely reproducing a racist vision of the world in which black lives matter less than white ones. This is most egregious in the final scene, in which, as Richard Brody points out, Brit and Candy don quasi-blackface thanks to a blacklight. Korine shoots the scene as if it were a video game with zero consequence: As Brit and Candy dodge in slow motion around the compound of Alien’s nemesis Archie (played by rapper Gucci Mane), toting guns to seek revenge for an earlier incident, the black characters fall instantly and with little fanfare. The bikini-wearing duo emerges unscathed.

Yet the moment that inspires this retaliation is presented much more realistically. One night, Archie and a gun-wielding female companion pull up next to Alien and the girls at a stop light. After a brief threatening exchange with Alien, who is uncharacteristically scared—proving he’s still not as “hard” as his black former ally—Archie drives off as the woman shoots at their car and hits Cotty in the arm. If only for a moment, the violence is utterly palpable and unfiltered by fantastical camera tricks. Later we watch Alien remove the bullet from her arm as she cries.

In this way, Spring Breakers is a mirror image of Django Unchained, in which the deaths of white slave holders in the Old South are treated with frivolity, while the deaths of their slaves are brutal and difficult to watch. Of course, the whole point of that movie is that slave owners deserved to die. What is the point of Spring Breakers?

I’m still not sure.