Portrayals of working-class people in popular culture often depend on stereotypes, yet this year’s Oscar-nominated films are a pleasant exception. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Jack Metzgar describes the unusually nuanced and poignant representations of working-class men in Fences, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, and Hell or High Water.
Troy Maxson is a Pittsburgh garbage collector in the 1950s, and most of the movie takes place in his back yard and house, with brief context-setting scenes of him at work and walking through his neighborhood. Maxson is a take-charge kind of guy, one who has thought through his philosophy of life and who is not hesitant to (eloquently) share it with anyone who will listen. An uncompromising patriarch at home, he is a proud and commanding presence just walking through the neighborhood and even on his garbage truck. That’s why it’s a bit of a shock, though quietly played, to see him waiting hat in hand to see his boss to find out if he’s going to get a promotion to driving the truck instead of slinging the garbage. In this brief scene, Maxson’s body language and halting speech are deferential to a degree that makes him appear a broken man. In the next scene, his characteristic strut has an added lilt as he tells his family and friends about getting the promotion.
It’s a small moment with large consequences. Maxson will be the first black man to be a driver. But, as presented, that is almost incidental to what it means for a middle-aged blue-collar worker to get a much less physically taxing job. Why add that brief scene to Wilson’s classic play? To me it is a brilliant stroke, because it brings out a contrast between Maxson’s backyard braggadocio about standing up to the boss and the humiliating deference he has to display to suit the circumstance. Who is the real Troy Maxson – the at-home philosopher king or the shuffling Negro hiding his intelligence and strength of will to please the boss?
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-16 academic year, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon, who authored this post. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 44 posts that were read over 128,000 times by readers in 189 countries.