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‘The Bling Ring,’ White Privilege, And The Appropriation Of Hip-Hop

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"‘The Bling Ring,’ White Privilege, And The Appropriation Of Hip-Hop"

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Credit: Coming Soon

Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, her look at a group of Los Angeles teenagers who robbed the homes of celebrities both for their wardrobes and for spare cash to party with, has attracted some criticism for excluding Diana Tamayo, the class president at Indian Hills High School who was part of the burglary ring, and who was also an undocumented immigrant. Her deletion from the story was, Jorge Rivas argued at Colorlines, an unfortunate whitewashing of the actual story that denied Latino viewers a complex character who wasn’t required to be a saint for the good of immigration reform. It’s true that The Bling Ring might have been a very different movie if it was about the class and racial tensions between the teenagers involved in the thefts, rather than about the ways that it’s possible to get hypnotized by surface, like mistaking your reflection in a piece of tinfoil for a separate human being. But it’s still a sharp, perceptive movie about race–just about whiteness instead of the immigrant experience in Los Angeles.

I’ve often argued that pop culture would be better on race generally if movies and television were willing to treat whiteness like the construct that it is, rather than skipping over it as a neutral default, free of bad patch jobs and devoid of any history whatsoever. And though Coppola is not directly a social issues filmmaker, The Bling Ring is, far more than I’ve seen anyone else credit it for, concerned with the cracks in that facade, and the bad plaster jobs that are meant to cover over racial appropriation.

The Bling Ring is a movie about anesthetizing yourself through repetition, much as the members of the ring built up their courage by going back to Paris Hilton’s over and over again, each successful “shopping” trip convincing them they wouldn’t be caught. And one of the most frequently repeated images in the movie is the characters, all of whom except Rebecca (Katie Chang) white, either rapping along to hip-hop, or living large with hip-hop in the background. When Rebecca and Marc (Israel Broussard) first steal credit cards from a wealthy friend’s house, they hit up the popular Los Angeles boutique Kitson to the sounds of Rye-Rye’s “Sunshine.” Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) bounce up and down in a club that lets them in even though they’re obviously underage to Azealia Banks’ “212.” In the car, the girls rap along to Rick Ross’s “9 Piece,” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls.” And when they and Marc stroll down the boulevard in their pilfered finery, it’s in slow motion, and to Kanye West’s “Power.”

Obviously, the music is the choice of Coppola and her music staff, including supervisor Brian Reitzell, who is her long-time collaborator, rather than a transcription of the Bling Ring’s actual car radios and internal soundtracks. But the consistency of the soundtrack is fascinating, as is the characters’ reactions to the songs themselves. When they rap along with the radio, despite their inability to capture the cadences of the rappers they’re imitating, it’s entirely without irony or self-awareness. Nicki and Sam, who sleep in the same bed at Nicki’s mother’s house, where Sam has lived since her own parents essentially abandoned her, seem unaware of the lyrics about sex between women in “212,” or if they are, haven’t assimilated beyond them recognizing that they’re a titillating soundtrack for the older men who observe them at the club. The shopping trip set to a M.I.A.-produced track, and the posing to another M.I.A. song show none of that singer’s obvious fashion-forward style–the characters just want to replicate middle-brow stars’ looks–or awareness of the power of bad taste, not to mention M.I.A.’s publicly-claimed radical politics. And the identification with men like West and Ross is yet another laughable exercise in thug appropriation.

It might have been plenty for Coppola to let us sit with that juxtaposition: The Bling Ring certainly offers up plenty of material that’s rich for viewers to process and to reach their own conclusions about the vapid celebrity worship, rotten, neglectful parenting, and utter lack of moral values exhibited by its main characters. But the movie actually goes further than that to examine the ways in which the members of the ring have absolutely no understanding of the larger social context of the music they’ve made the soundtrack to their own lives.

Sam, for example, after stealing a gun from Megan Fox’s home with Brian Austin Green, waves it at Marc with no sense that she could actually hurt him, much less that getting caught with a stolen gun could attract particularly heavy legal consequences. When it goes off by accident in her boyfriend’s home, she doesn’t even appear frightened, dropping it on the floor and moving into a clinch with him instead. There’s something narcotized about her reaction to actual danger.

“I’m a firm believer in Karma,” The Bling Ring shows Nicki saying on her way into court early in the movie, in a line that’s taken directly from Alexis Neiers, one of the suspects profiled in a Vanity Fair piece Coppola used as source material. “And I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being….I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country, for all I know.” It’s a line that’s funny on its own, and especially given Watson’s hilariously off-kilter delivery. But it gains its real bite from a scene later in the movie, when Nicki’s being arrested by the LAPD. She complains that the cuffs hurt. She whines about being lead towards the police car and guided into it by a cop. She insists that she be allowed to talk to her mother. And she seems to actually believe that, after helping steal millions of dollars in clothing and jewelry from celebrities’ homes, that what’s happening to her is a horrible affront to her dignity. It’s an astonishing display of privilege.

That point is made over and over again as the suspects are arrested. As Chloe (Claire Julien) eats breakfast in the hilariously overdecorated kitchen in her parents’ house, she becomes the first person to notice the sirens coming her way, followed by the family’s Latina maid, her mother, and her father, who is reading the paper at the table. Other than Chloe, who has actual reason to suspect the police would be looking for her, the people around her become alert to the sounds in ascending order of privilege. When Marc is arrested, the primary focus on his mother, who’s been essentially invisible in the movie until this point, and who’s shocked that her son is wanted by the police, in part because we haven’t seen her be involved in his life in any other way–how could she possibly know what he was up to? And when the LAPD, with help from local authorities, track down Rebecca at her father’s house in Las Vegas, it’s notable that she actually bothers to ask if they’ll just straight up let her go, and then when the authorities say no, assumes she’ll be able to cut a substantial deal. As an Asian woman, when it comes to the criminal justice system, she assumes she has access to the same privilege as her white co-conspirators.

What the characters in The Bling Ring don’t understand is that the edge in the music they’ve used to score their adventures comes not just from acts, but from consequences. Banks’ sexual swagger comes not just from the acts she’s describing, but from the environment of sexual competition and brinksmanship that are shot through “212.” West’s contemplation of his own power and wealth are specific to the way white observers react to black achievement and black financial success, a way they’d never respond to rich white kids strutting down Melrose with their Starbucks. And M.I.A. is engaged in provocations far more prickly than the social competition of kids at an alternative high school. None of this is to say that all of these wildly successful artists don’t have considerable privilege of their own. But unlike the spoiled children of The Bling Ring, who are shocked when the consequences come calling, the artists they’re identifying with have heard the sirens coming in some form or other long before their fans in Calabasas, and they have some sense of what happens when those sirens pull into your driveway.

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