Exposing Sixties race relations in the sultry heat of a Florida summer, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy is a hothouse of lust and violence.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s a clever sleight of hand to turn Pete Dexter’s semi-autobiograhic novel on the ethics of journalism and a stellar cast of Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack into a film about race relations. But Precious director Lee Daniels has brought a sweaty, sticky racism to the Sunshine State. And not only is The Paperboy, with its tale of two journalists investigating the evidence against a redneck sentenced to death for the murder of a Florida sheriff, framed with am interview narration from black housekeeper Anita, but one of the journalists, Yardley Acheman, changes colour, from white to black, too. It’s a stroke of genius that lends a dark undertone to the otherwise pastel surface of Sixties’ Florida, and gives Lee Daniels’ film a gritty edge beyond the glitz of its Hollywood A-listers.
Opening with an amateurish and grainy video recording of Anita Chester (Gray) describing the book that Jack Jansen (Efron) has dedicated to her, the events of which Lee Daniels’ film recounts in flashback, The Paperboy takes pains to appear neither sleek nor glossy. Soul singer Macy Gray is made-under to become the dowdy, put-upon maid to the Jansen family and conduit into the events that took place during the hot summer of 1969. There’s the dank, gator-infested swamps of the Everglades, Moat County which “extends a warm welcome to Yankees and niggers” and its black-lynching sheriff, presumed murdered by local alligator-hunter and redneck Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack). And there’s Charlotte Bless (Kidman), lipsticked and stilettoed trailer trash, who for no apparent reason other than finding death row inmates unfathomably sexy, believes in Van Wetter’s innocence and calls in the big boys from The Miami Times, local lad Ward Jansen and his writing partner, Englishman Yardley Acheman (Oyelowo) to plead his cause.
Yardley is an educated black man from London, particular about his two-piece threads, and who does a good job in persuading those around him he’s a cut above and cut from a different cloth. His outsider status allows him to “seem mighty sure of himself for a colored” but it’s an act, reliant on a put-on accent and sexual favours to get up the career ladder. Civil rights campaigner Angela Davis appears on TV condemning the callousness and indifference with which the authorities deal with violence against blacks, a thread The Paperboy takes up, also exposing the politics behind the journalists’ investigation into the trial of Van Wetter and the murder of Moat County’s sheriff, leaving plenty of stones unturned and leads unfollowed in their desperation to make a name and get out of the stinking heat. Ward may liltingly intone “Better to be last but be right, than be first and be wrong” but while careers are made on their overturning of the conviction against Van Wetter, they are wrong. And there’s a price to pay.
Along with Ward, Yardley and Jack (roped in to drive), Charlotte Bless attends the jailbird in prison, simulating sex for him much to the others’ aroused discomfort, and urges the boys on with her scanty evidence. The “momma, high school sweetheart and oversexed Barbie doll all rolled into one” becomes all things to Jack, who observes her longingly and even fantasises about Charlotte descending onto his passenger seat in a wedding veil. As the coulda-been professional swimmer and college reject paperboy, Zac Efron spends almost half the film in Y-fronts, wallowing in horny frustration and manhandling his steering wheel into submission. And he’s fetishised by Daniels’ camera as much as Kidman’s character is ridiculed, with her baby pink lipstick and empty-headed romance.
Jack though is the one who drives the plot forward, as well as providing The Paperboy with its moral touchstone. It’s he who gets stung by jellyfish and suffers the humiliation of being urinated on by Charlotte. It’s he who uncovers Ward’s dark (homosexual) secret and recovers Charlotte’s bloody-nosed corpse. And it’s he that cannot stifle a jealous, frustrated and irretractable “Nigger!” at Yardley, a spat-out utterance that irreparably dents his relationship with Anita. Jack though is also the only one to challenge race relations, suggesting he and Anita switch roles – he can tidy up while she lies on his bedroom floor pretending to masturbate. But the impossible fantasy of it is all too clear.
With its predominantly white A-list cast and its storyline of redneck murder and suburban crushes, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy is an essentially white narrative, with Anita and Yardley relegated to observing, investigating and exposing side roles. But with his Southern patina of taped-down kiss curls and finger-lickin’ chicken drumsticks, the meat and bones of Lee Daniels’ murder investigation and the mismatched romance between Jack and Charlotte barely get a look-in. Deep down The Paperboy is black and queer. Just dressed up as Zac Efron.
The Paperboy is released on 15th March 2013 in the UK