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The Color of Money: Depicting Poverty from a New Perspective

Recent American indie films have re-claimed the use of vibrant color not to highlight stories of the rich, but those about the fringes.
Think pink. What comes to mind? Perhaps Molly Ringwald’s polka-dot number designed to seduce the rich boy at her preppy school. Or the candy floss colored facade of Wes Anderson’s dollhouse-esque Grand Budapest Hotel. Or the French fondant fancy aesthetic of Marie Antoinette. Or the excessively stylised nursery in The Wolf of Wall Street and that hot pink bodycon dress that put Margot Robbie on the map. Or the tremendously tailored two-piece worn by Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy, before it’s ruined by her dead husband’s splattered blood.  
Although the implications of the color pink run the gamut from delicate and pristine to trashy provocation (see the ribbed vest top in Erin Brockovich), it features considerably in cinema in coloring the world of the rich or royal and in a wider sense, the use of color favors evocations of abundance and opulence.
However, there have been several recent American independent films that have staked a claim in this co-opting of color to illustrate capitalism, distinctly where it has failed fringe communities in America. Vibrancy doesn’t belong to the rich. While fluorescence and saturation could arguably still be positioned in contrast to the refinement of color palettes used to communicate privilege, the reclaiming of color and injection of radiance into a world so often toned down or disregarded entirely reframes how we consider the aesthetic of class.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), the Safdie brothers’ Good Time (2017) and Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (2017) have upturned expectations for what indie cinema can achieve with their searing and sublime depictions of blue-collar, burnt-out America. Ranging from a real-life figure struggling to ice skate free from poverty row to street hustlers trying to make ends meet with scams and grand plans, to a ternary odyssey that sees a queer black man attempt to transcend the ties of his ghetto neighborhood and its drug-addled surrounds, this spate of filmmaking has taken class struggle and painted it with a broader (and thus more encompassing, more empathetic) brush than has perhaps ever been allowed.  
In Jenkins’ award-winning, experiential drama, pink lighting is used to coruscating effect. The neon backdrop to Paula’s (Naomie Harris) addiction-driven outburst could’ve been directed sordidly, wherein the abuse unfolds before our eyes, but the intensity is ramped up by playing it as a slowed down and drawn out Spaghetti Western showdown. Combined with Nicholas Britell’s reverberating score, this moment becomes a full frontal assault on the senses, at once surreal and scorching. Little (Alex Hibbert) is completely isolated in the frame, whilst Paula is ensnared by the instability of her addiction. The pink works exactly because it seems so out of place; it throws everything off balance, as Paula’s presence does in Little’s life, particularly as he stands in doleful opposition in a white t-shirt and dimly lit room.
Color can menace as well as mesmerize, and the ferocious pink of this altercation is burned into our retinas as much as it is Moonlight’s hero, Chiron (Ashton Sanders). As a teenager, his response to persistent bullying manifests as a spasm of vengeful rage, and as that scene segues into the final adult segment, Paula’s explosive violence is seen to haunt Chiron’s dreams. Speaking to TIME magazine, cinematographer James Laxton explains “[the pink lighting] somehow seems appropriate in a way that again doesn’t speak to the realism of the movie but it speaks to the emotional value we were trying to present to our audience.”
In a similar vein, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya uses pink to jarring effect. Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) frilly, carnation-pink costume is a direct and frowned-upon contrast to the cool blues of the ice-skating rink and the funereal seriousness of the judges. Here color is used to signal a tastelessness and inelegance believed of the ‘white trash’ community from which Harding originates. However, it also allows Tonya a uniqueness rarely afforded the economically disadvantaged, whose clothes and personalities frequently blend into their surroundings, as if consumed by the severity of their environment. Pink might not denote privilege, but it focuses our attention exclusively on Tonya and she will not be muted.
Later, in the diner scene where Tonya and her mother Lavonna Harding (Alison Janney) share a salty exchange, Lavonna is wearing a pink and maroon uniform and at one point surrounded by the harsh neon glow of the diner’s lights. Lavonna is abrasive, expletive and confrontational and so color becomes a reflection of personality, as much as the realism of the scene. While this garishness might align with a stereotype that hardens around people from less privileged backgrounds, color is being bent and refracted to suit them, as opposed to their fitting into a restrictive or silencing world.
Poverty in cinema and its portrayal is precarious and risk-intensive. Authenticity and judiciousness are crucial, whilst romantic or gratuitous depictions are a big no-no. And perhaps in this erring on the side of caution and striving to expose the truth of economic austerity filmmakers have tended towards a realist aesthetic which wallows in a muted murkiness. 
In Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) the colors on-screen are as severe as the drama. A veritable wasteland of abandoned cars, farm equipment, and skeletal trees make up a large part of the scenery and although it would be unfair to label it monochromatic or desaturated, the palette used is primarily made up of cool blues, or the grungy, earthy tones of wooden interiors. It captures the stark wilderness of the landscape spectacularly and completely in-line with the pared-back aesthetics of rural American cinema.  
Left to right: Winter’s Bone (2010), Bluebird (2013), Little Accidents (2014), Frozen River (2008), Time Out of Mind (2014).
Another example can be observed in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008). In the wake of its release, Sight & Sound magazine identified a “trend towards unsweetened depictions of hardship” and coined the term ‘neo-neo-realism.’ The New York Times was quick to follow in asserting the arrival of a cinema of austerity, characterized by their lineage to Italian Neo-Realism and its quotidian rhythms. 
Frozen River’s cinematographer Reed Morano (of The Handmaid’s Tale fame) films much of Massena, a barren tundra on the US/Canadian border, in its junk-strewn trailer yards, bingo halls and winter-bald landscapes, with arid trees swaying sullenly over flat and empty highways. This type of filmmaking caught the attention of The New Republic, who published an article valorizing Hunt for her “honest and accurate depiction of the grim realities and dim hopes of the poor…[and refusal] to pretend that squalor is anything to celebrate or that the people who live in it are especially attractive and colorful.” In direct contrast, they cite Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) as depicting feral poverty through a lens of fantasy, accusing it of romanticization and “turning it into a kind of sentimental, specious poetry,” ultimately arguing that artfulness and radiance have no place in a film concerned with depicting squalor. But there’s something equally pernicious about suggesting cinema set in America’s blue-collar backwaters, or its disaster-ravaged cities, should be dim, grim and devoid of hope and that color, used in a dynamic or electrifying way, can’t equally function as a way of communicating hardship or the chaos of economic instability.
The Safdie brothers prove that it can. In their latest feature, Good Time (2017), low-income living has never looked so luminescent on film. After a high-wire bank heist gone wrong, keyed-up criminal Connie (Robert Pattinson) enlists his older, monied girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to bail out his brother (Benny Safdie). In the taxi on the way to the bank, Connie’s facial features are baked in a pinkish, reddish light, whilst the caesious speckles of the city night blur in the background. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams achieved this viscerality by “shooting on 35mm to which he lends a granular, punky edge by ‘torturing it, exposure wise’,” as explained in Mark Kermode’s Guardian review. The frames seethe with desperation and the light augments Connie’s hot-headedness, as well as his daring. As his situation spirals, so the neon tinge of the film because more twisted and tormented. The exposure of the film seems to emulate the boundaries Connie continues to push, and the lighting: a kaleidoscope of expressionistic, nihilistic purples, blues, greens and pinks, suggests an inescapability and urgency. Such is our protagonist’s financial and existential situation.
Interestingly, the DNA of Neo-Realism exists in the Safdie Brothers’ blood: they generally cast non-professional actors (Pattinson approached them) and often base their scripts on real-life experiences and encounters and yet in their embracing of a heightened aesthetic that eschews the preference for natural lighting advocated by that very movement, they address social injustices in way that feel potent and new. To defamiliarize our configuration of the poor is to endow it with a new exigency and this move toward hyperrealism might offer a wider spectrum of color, as well as understanding. Connie might be a criminal in the habit of making bad decisions, but one has to wonder what lack of opportunity lead him down this destructive, iridescent path.
It makes sense for Moonlight and The Florida Project to underscore the tropical climates of their setting, where it wouldn’t for those set in Oregon, the Ozarks or anywhere in the States with stemperatures and bleak prospects to match. However it’s important to note that neither of these films compromise authenticity in their use of warmer tones and brighter hues. In Sean Baker’s The Florida Project the two sit alongside one another. The first line of its script reads:
MOONEE (6) and SCOOTY (7) are outside The Magic Castle Motel, purple and run-down. 
The scene ends with...
We hold on the purple wall.
“Celebration” by Kool & the Gang blasts over the OPENING TITLES that play out as we continue to hold on the wall. 
Purple and run-down seems to encapsulate the parallel agendas of Baker’s film and his exploration of a world rich with wonder, possibility and mischief, a world worth celebrating, particularly as seen through the eyes of livewire tearaway Moonee, but structurally, and outwardly poor. The colors of the motel and its surroundings where Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live are heraldic, hectic, and exuberant and yet the camera never papers over the cracks in the ceilings, with Baker’s descriptions in the script consistently referencing the “scuffed-up, weather-damaged, spit-covered, boarded-up” nature of the interiors and exteriors. Cinematographer Alexis Zabé’s luxurious palette never distracts from the decrepit buildings and dilapidated playgrounds and for all the candyland enchantments, a sense of collapse is never far away. As noted in Variety, “the kingdom of fantasy never looked so desperately real.”
This duality also exists in Moonlight, and can be ascribed to the photographic influences of its imagery. According to TIME magazine, James Laxton looked to Earlie Hudnall, Jr. and his soulful street photography for its compositions of the African-American community, as well as Viviane Sassen, an experimental artist whose work exhibits a theatrical and infectious use of color. Her influence can particularly be observed in the stunning swimming lesson scene, where Little is almost baptized by father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali). Jenkins and Laxton create a world of high contrast color, emphasizing the verdant green of the palm trees, the crystalline waters and the azure sky. Moonlight thus offers Chiron a space in which depravity and brutality can co-exist alongside spirituality, sexuality and nourishment. Just as his identity is fluid and transitional, so too are colors. Blues are shown to haunt (as in the final segment when Chiron’s bathroom is bathed in a neon blue light as he ices his face after yet another nightmare) as well as heal. 
In both scenarios, color offers transcendence without aestheticizing or lionizing what is an equally callous world. It becomes a caesura in what could be a sullied existence, and a way for these characters to exist beyond their economic and geographic realities, if just for a moment.  
Moonlight
Color, when used in film, acts as both compass and context for our navigation of a scene, its orchestration and deployment, as much a storytelling tactic as script or setting. Therefore to consistently bathe low-income families in a coldness indicative of hopelessness, or a muted and muddier palette that screams low-budget seriousness, rebuffing an audience for whom the genre ‘indie’ means just that, is to deny these stories the attention and artistry they deserve. The application of an aesthetic that we have come to associate with high art or higher budget films to stories dealing in poverty has been the pedestal that enabled them to emerge above the fray and even, in Moonlight’s case, land an Oscar.
In opposition to indie cinema’s impulse toward grainy film and grey skies and Hollywood’s love affair with the colorful lives of the rich and famous, the rise of a new aesthetic in relation to downbeat Americana suggests there are always new ways of seeing and relating to characters and communities in economic turmoil. This is not rose-tinted cinema, nor a celebration of destitution in which filmmakers prettify the appalling circumstances their characters muddle through; amid the rainbows and ice-creams, there is a crepe-paper fragility to the pastel-colored abandoned houses The Florida Project kids play in. From pulsating pinks to spiritual blues, exuberant triumph to crushing lows, instead, they seek to capture life in all its strains and hues.

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