Act Like You’re in a Movie

Reconsidering Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012)


Some things only get better with age: red wine, certain cheeses, the face of Idris Elba. But I don’t believe that a movie—which, discounting the manifold Apocalypse Nows and Blade Runners in circulation, is often a fixed creation—can necessarily improve over time. To my mind, time doesn’t so much improve a movie as reveal it. The surface of a movie rarely changes, but the cultural, sociopolitical, and personal forces roiling beneath our daily lives have a funny habit of infiltrating the things we watch, feeding and altering meaning so that the movie we once saw can never entirely be experienced the same way again.

When I first watched Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in the spring of 2013, I was so appalled by the film’s climax—specifically the sight of two white women mercilessly shooting up a Florida mansion full of Black men and women—that the pulsating, neon-washed movie that preceded this sequence soured. I subsequently refused to acknowledge any of the film’s triumphs—not the roving, fluid camerawork of virtuosic Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie that prioritizes ecstatic visual storytelling above all else; not the brilliantly re-contextualizing usage of two Disney starlets and a soundtrack of pop gems by the likes of Nicki Minaj and Britney Spears; and certainly not the self-admiring, persona-warping, RiFF RAFF-aping performance of James Franco as Alien, a would-be rapper and drug kingpin who takes four aimless coeds (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, and, briefly, Selena Gomez) under his wing after they run afoul of the law during a St. Petersburg spring break to remember. This gleefully perverse tone poem didn’t appear at all prepared to engage with the racial and ethical implications of showing the slaughter of Black characters who’d previously been used as little more than objects of lascivious and fetishistic fascination.

However, something strange occurred upon a recent rewatch of Spring Breakers. Since Korine’s film first polarized the Biennale upon its premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, where a jury led by Michael Mann awarded it zero prizes, plenty has transpired on the culture-wars battleground that feels in dialogue with the appropriation simultaneously satirized and indulged in Korine’s film. Five months after Spring Breakers opened in US theaters in March 2013, Gomez’s and Hudgens’s Disney Channel peer Miley Cyrus elicited objections and eye-rolls by grinding against Robin Thicke amid a posse of Black backup dancers, whose buttocks she groped and spanked, at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. The singer has since distanced herself from her days of arrhythmically twerking with a wagging tongue to watered-down trap beats, treating the uproar as something akin to a study-abroad excursion in and out of hip-hop. The years following would give us the unnerving rise and speedy fall of a white Australian rapper named Amethyst Kelly who christened herself Iggy Azalea, and whose blathering makes Alien’s own inept bars sound slightly more coherent by comparison.

More importantly, the decade that separates my first and last viewings of Spring Breakers has seen a surge in the ongoing epidemic of police brutality against too many Black men and women to name here; the ascendancy of an admitted sexual predator to the highest office in the land, in a victory reportedly aided by 47% of white women voters; and the stomach-turning sight of hundreds of barking white supremacists gathering together to “Unite the Right” with tiki torches that looked as though they could have been lifted from the same raucous beach revelry on which Spring Breakers opens. To watch Korine’s movie in a ten-year gap is to watch a different and arguably deeper creation. This day-glo Rorschach blot has been broken apart and reshaped by events in ways that its makers could not have possibly predicted.

Spring Breakers can still be enjoyed as a pure hallucinatory trip, devoid of any real-world relevance. But looks are deceiving, even limiting. To a certain extent, Spring Breakers enacts the same wish fulfillment that its primary characters euphorically, ruthlessly perform. The film’s central dramatic conflict—in which Alien embroils Brit, Candy, and Cotty in a turf war with his childhood friend-turned-rival, Big Arch (Gucci Mane)—is never less than laughable, played out in strip clubs and palatial mansions full of flowing liquor, well-oiled women, and chain-swinging men that serve as playgrounds for white dabbling in Black aesthetics. (Never mind that Korine would revisit this same milieu with a more forthrightly gendered vengeance in the Miami-set video for “Needed Me,” Rihanna’s definitive fuck-you statement.)

It is easy to watch all of this in a state of willful oblivion, allowing oneself to be seduced or enervated by the intoxicating visuals and sonic dreamscapes while refusing to acknowledge or engage with all that creeps through the flash and fluorescence of the film. Is there perhaps something craven, even unconscionable, in Korine’s refusal to play fast and loose with such loaded, inflammatory material? Maybe, but I do believe Korine has more on his mind in Spring Breakers than mere entertainment.

Take an early scene, in which three of the movie’s landlocked, cash-poor antiheroines—Hudgens’s Candy, Benson’s Brit, and Korine’s Cotty—rob a Chicken Shack near their sleepy Florida college with hammers and squirt guns in order to fund their getaway. The nighttime scene first plays out in a long take as Cotty circles the restaurant in a stolen pickup truck, the sounds of Minaj and Drake’s started-from-the-bottom come-up anthem “Moment 4 Life” playing on the radio. From the car, we only see brief, obstructed flashes of the mayhem occurring inside; not long after, Candy and Brit come rushing out, and, flush with cash, go berserk as Cotty speeds away.

If Korine was only interested in entertaining us, he might have allowed this to be all we see of the robbery. But later in the film, after plenty of partying, snorting, and beer-guzzling in St. Petersburg, the women act out the crime for their friend Faith (Gomez), the greenest of the bunch, in a proud show of their assumed thuggery. Between this reenactment, Korine and editor Douglas Crise—who make time bend, buckle, and break across the film—cut back to the actual robbery, now seen from inside the restaurant. Any thrill we might have felt during the initial scene is replaced by a sense of disquiet as we watch Candy and Brit wield their realistic-looking guns and inspire genuine fear in the patrons. At one point, the girls hassle a Black man, who hands over his wallet, stoic in his defeat; in the original long take, Candy can be seen pointing her gun at the nape of the same man’s neck.

By including such a moment, Korine indicates a keen understanding of the immoral nature and mortal toll of his characters’ actions, while also granting them a sense of agency that will endure throughout the film. To my eye, Spring Breakers has morphed into a chilling examination of how the pleasure-seeking exploits of American youth, whether it’s head-banging to Skrillex by the beach or engaging in mass murder, exert their own form of white supremacy. It should be noted here that Gomez and Hudgens are of Mexican and Filipino descent, respectively, although the two have been cast throughout their careers in ethnically ambiguous variations on whiteness that amount to blithe acts of passing. In Spring Breakers’ debauched grotesquery of whiteness, such distinctions in ethnic background are all but verboten, though Gomez, unlike Hudgens, is at least permitted to keep her natural brown hair, separating her Faith from the rest of her blond comrades. 

That the foregrounded supremacists of Spring Breakers are mostly women asks us to rethink what this subset of our population—so often portrayed as vulnerable and virtuous in American cinema—is actually capable of. White feminism in Korine’s film is knowingly treated as a burlesque of equality, a funhouse mirror reflecting back a life of male-waged crime to the woman who gazes. As they gradually claim the film’s focus, Brit and Candy increasingly evince the deranged, hard-eyed conviction of Manson girls without any need for a leader.

The most compelling scenes in Spring Breakers reinforce this gendered commentary through violent passages that cleverly invert the mentor-mentee, male-female dynamic—from Candy and Brit forcing Alien to perform oral sex on two of his loaded firearms, dominating and taunting him to his satisfaction; to the gonzo, winking romanticization of armed robbery in a montage of increasingly absurd heists, carried out largely by the women as Alien does little more than peacock. The latter is scored to a piano-led singalong of Spears’s “Everytime” before eventually segueing into the real thing, a haunting ballad that swells and subsides with codependent despair. 

There is an added, unexpected poignancy—lent to the film by time alone—to the women of Spring Breakers finding flawed liberation through the music of Spears, memorably deemed by Alien “an angel if there ever was one on this earth.” Spears’s horrendously confining conservatorship has led us to reexamine the ways in which this beautiful, beleaguered pop icon has been persecuted and exploited, not only by those within her inner circle, but by Diane Sawyer, Justin Timberlake, and the mainstream media at large. Like Spears, Hudgens—a terrifyingly game presence throughout Spring Breakers—was a Disney discovery forced to capitulate to the demands of a sick and hypocritical patriarchy: in 2007, Disney forced the actress to apologize for a “lapse in judgment” when her own private nude photos were stolen and posted online, effectively holding Hudgens responsible for being a victim of revenge porn.

Korine does his best to undo all of what is most persuasive as pertains to gender and sexuality in his film with the inclusion of an utterly needless ménage à trois between Alien, Candy, and Brit—consummated in a hopelessly unsexy sex scene captured from all angles in and around Alien’s pool, making one thankful for the existence of chlorine. (This sequence has only grown ickier in recent years as Franco’s star has irrevocably waned due to the ignominy of his own predatory behavior with women as young as those who roam Spring Breakers.) Like the director’s usage of his wife Rachel, whose Cotty comes across as little more than a blowsy dim bulb, this scene gives the greatest credence to the film’s detractors, who see little more than lechery in front of and behind the camera, who see two oft-naked, sexually voracious women obliging the come-ons of a slovenly, cornrowed white man and wonder if Laura Mulvey went far enough.

Korine is, similarly, uninterested in interiority. But if Big Arch, the film’s lone Black male character, at least possesses a personality, the same cannot be said for its endlessly effaced Black women, who function like mobile decor. There are the dancers of the strip club; the silent Carmela Soprano proxy in striking hoop earrings who sits at Gucci Mane’s right when Big Arch convenes a family meeting, complete with a delighted female toddler perched on his lap; and the butch assailant who shoots a slug into Cotty’s arm, cutting her vacation short. And if you shift your gaze during the film’s notorious opening, amid the keg-slurping and fellating of red, white, and blue popsicles, you might notice a single Black woman near the right edge of the frame, smiling while topless in a sea of white bodies. These figures, veritable nonentities in the world of Spring Breakers, bring to mind bell hooks’s “oppositional gaze,” a form of critical spectatorship that resists the easy, pleasurable attractions of straight white male-dominated narrative cinema, which has routinely excluded or else denigrated the presence of Black women, “construct[ing] [their] presence as absence” and “[denying] the ‘body’ of the black female so as to perpetuate white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is ‘white.’”

The looked-at and desired women of Spring Breakers are almost uniformly white, though what seems to arouse them is not solely Alien, but the accouterments to which he clings in order to establish a veneer of an identity: the white Camaro, the wall of weaponry, the bricks of coke, the endless loop of Scarface. This is the life they fantasized about back at school, where the only excitement came from taking bong-rips in front of a Lil Wayne poster at the nearby frat house, and it is Alien who provides it. It’s difficult not to occasionally wish for a version of Spring Breakers less enamored of Alien, more inclined to depict him as a puppet or punching bag for the women who sometimes use him but mostly do his bidding. A more prescient Spring Breakers might have foreseen the decay of RiFF RAFF’s stereotype-laden career and excoriated Alien accordingly. Yet the film’s most rewarding and recuperative gender commentary comes in a bit of ironic brilliance near its end, when Korine exposes Alien’s true incompetence by killing him off mere seconds into the film’s climactic showdown, which is also, undisguisedly, a race massacre, wherein Candy and Brit gun down Black man after Black man.

What is Blackness to Alien, Brit, and Candy; to Harmony Korine; to Spring Breakers? The inked, dreadlocked, silver grills-sporting Alien, “a gangster with a heart of gold,” identifies himself as “the only white boy in [his] whole neighborhood,” and, as though to reinforce this point, Crise immediately cuts to a shot of him drinking against a wall with Black men. He freely adopts African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and even screeches out the n-word twice while showing off “[his] shit.” Just as discomfiting is the blaccent that Brit and Candy sporadically use to act out their robbery for Faith, with Hudgens’s pronunciation of “motherfucking police” registering like nails on a chalkboard. But there is something more insidious and foundational than casual cultural appropriation at work here. “Africanism, deployed as rawness and savagery, […] provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity,” Toni Morrison writes in “Romancing the Shadow,” the second part of her essential 1992 treatise Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison continues:

Autonomy is freedom and translates into the much championed and revered “individualism”; newness translates into “innocence”; distinctiveness becomes difference and the erection of strategies maintaining it; authority and absolute power become a romantic, conquering “heroism,” virility, and the problematic of wielding absolute power over the lives of others. All the rest are made possible by this last, it would seem—absolute power called forth and played against and within a natural and mental landscape conceived of as a “raw, half-savage world.”

Spring Breakers speaks directly to a generation that has grown up consuming Blackness as one-half of a “raw, half-savage world” and effortfully channeling this same shallow concept of Blackness as one might play a role in a video game—inhabiting bodies without souls or history, adopting avatars who perform and pose. (Note the early scene in which Candy and Brit doodle penis drawings as their professor attempts to teach their disaffected class about Emmett Till.) Korine’s bloody finale still unsettles, but it seems, in retrospect, more closely aligned with the film’s knowing and overarching treatment of Blackness, synonymous here with gangsterism, as a lusted-after commodity, culminating in the appropriators annihilating those whom they appropriate on their very own turf and then driving away in their Lamborghini.

“God, it was so nice to get a break from reality for a little while,” Candy breathlessly tells her mom on the phone before running off with Brit into the muggy Florida night, fleeing their killing spree and its consequences. The two appear aware of their power and sure-footed in claiming an authority with deadly force. If they have acquired a sense of freedom by film’s end, it is a freedom that requires a predominantly Black body count: in the film’s final moments, Korine and Crise intersperse scenes from the film’s opening beachside revelry with shots of the bloody, mangled, and prone bodies of their victims, drawing an unmistakable corollary between white debauchery and white butchery of Black lives. In Spring Breakers, it is the bottle-blond, white-coded pleasure-seekers who are the savages—who rise in a rebellion that hinges on their proximity to Blackness yet upholds the status quo in which white predominates Black.

This ending echoes—and reads as the culmination of—an earlier, telling scene, in which Gomez’s Faith weeps with discomfort and something akin to terror after Alien brings the women to a pool hall crowded with Black and brown men, an encounter that resolves the character’s decision to cut her trip short. “This is too weird,” she sputters between sobs. “I don’t know these people.” These men, most of them shirtless, indeed ogle and flirt with the foursome, but their behavior is far calmer and more courteous than that witnessed during the jam-packed, drug-fueled motel room party at which the girls were arrested. Brit, Candy, and Cotty look intrigued, even magnetized, by the attention. But for Faith, Blackness is not merely destabilizing or unnerving, but perilous.

The past decade has exposed the horrific persistence of police brutality, in which the lives of so many individuals have been cut short for nothing more than the seeming crime of being Black in America. One story, however, lingers in my mind as I reconsider Spring Breakers: that of Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for invading the apartment of Botham Jean, a 27-year-old Black accountant, and shooting him dead in the home she mistook for her own in 2018. She believed her space had been invaded when she herself was the invader and proceeded to act, homicidally, out of a commingled sense of irrational fear and deadly empowerment—each as old as America itself.

I suppose we can’t help but bring our world and its attendant miseries to the movies. And sometimes a movie, with its unalterable images and slippery meanings, can’t help but evolve in response.