Culture

What If Tonya Harding Were Black?

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya (Photo: NEON)
Liberal critics wouldn’t be so quick to snicker at the appalling I, Tonya, then.

There’s this movie about an impoverished girl who gets beaten and otherwise abused by her mother, then beaten and otherwise abused by her husband. Naturally, it’s a comedy.

I, Tonya, which plays the travails of Tonya Harding for kitschy laughs, was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, and it isn’t a musical. Taffy Brodesser-Akner even noted in her superb New York Times profile of the disgraced ex-Olympic figure skater now known as Tonya Price that there were people in press screenings of the film who laughed during a beating scene.

Query for all the rich white people in New York and Los Angeles who are finding this movie hilarious: Would you be chuckling if Tonya Harding were black? Would the scene in which Margot Robbie’s Harding speaks while the director makes sure we see the pile of dirty dishes piled up behind her leave you in stitches? Would you go out for drinks afterward and share your favorite “black trash” jokes?

Lest I be accused of putting an “alt-right” or “white supremacist” spin on the film, don’t take my word for it. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times is not ordinarily spotted wearing a MAGA cap, or unduly fixated on the plight of the white working class. In a review headlined, “‘I, Tonya.’ I Punching Bag. I Punch Line,” Dargis notes that among the hijinks, Harding’s head gets smashed into a piece of glass so hard that shards scatter. And yet, “despite all the beatings and blood, ‘I, Tonya’ insists it’s a comedy” in the form of “a mock, mocking documentary.” As the film casts actual physical pain suffered by an actual person as part of the fun, “it becomes increasingly baffling why the filmmakers decided to put a comic spin on this pathetic, dispiriting story. No matter how hard the movie tries to coax out laughs, there’s little about Ms. Harding, her circumstances or her choices that skews as funny.” Poverty, a childhood spent in trailers, and knucklehead friends are all part of the campy atmosphere. Harding “might have played a role in the attack on [rival skater Nancy] Kerrigan, but in many ways Ms. Harding had already been found guilty for just being who she was. The same feels true here.”

Price was paid $1,500 upfront for the rights to her story. She’s been working in the hardware department at Sears, and doing other similar jobs, since she was kicked out of the figure-skating world following the notorious 1994 incident in which a man hired by her ex-husband attacked Kerrigan on the leg with a collapsible baton, intending to knock her out of the Olympics at which she figured to be Harding’s chief rival.

Harding/Price, the first American figure skater to land a triple-axel jump in competition, is also a felon, and that shouldn’t be downplayed. She pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution in the case, meaning she knew about who had carried out the assault after the fact and didn’t come clean about it. She may well have been more deeply involved than that; the FBI found a paper in her handwriting that passed along details of Kerrigan’s practice location and schedule to others involved in the crime.

The principal crime of which Harding was convicted in the court of public opinion was not her involvement in the attack on Kerrigan. It was being white trash.

But the principal crime of which Harding was convicted in the court of public opinion was not her involvement in the attack on Kerrigan. It was being white trash. Note that you won’t hear the phrase “black trash” among the sorts of people who find Harding’s life story amusing. Yet “black trash” exists as surely as “white trash” does. In every racial and ethnic group there are trashy people. It’s the implication that being black is tantamount to being rubbish that would choke off the phrase before any hipster cinephile would allow it to cross his lips. Educated white people who go to arthouse movies have been trained to think twice before they start “othering” black people. When it comes to othering whites who might be as socioeconomically distant from them as the poorest blacks, though, they chortle.

If I, Tonya were about black people, the same swells who love it as it is would not only hate it, they’d call it racist. They’d say, rightly, that it wallows in stereotypes. They’d call it out for being a broad, smarmy, condescending, and mean-spirited case of glamorous Hollywood folk punching down. There are movies about black youths getting systematically abused by relatives or simply being unable to overcome the burden of poverty and a toxic culture around them — Beasts of the Southern Wild, Precious, Moonlight. In all of these films, the young protagonists are, far from being figures of fun, so aglow with internal dignity that they’re the contemporary equivalent of medieval paintings of Christ.

Brodesser-Akner’s astute character study seeks to understand its subject, not to deplore her, forgive her, or ridicule her. Yet every film I’ve mentioned in this piece takes the opposite tack, and fails because of it. They all approach their subjects as emblems rather than individuals. Human complexity gets sacrificed; what matters is capitalizing on the audience’s instinctive reaction to one group or another.

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