When The Paperboy (2012) first came out it felt like everyone, from the people I knew to the critics I read, hated the picture. I was alone among my cinephile friends as a defender of Lee Daniels’ follow-up to the critically acclaimed Precious (2009). The Paperboy is a masterpiece that I don’t believe the movie-going public was ready for. Perhaps Daniels took too many liberties in adapting Pete Dexter’s novel or maybe it was an issue of seeing so many movie stars cast against type that revolted audiences. Personally I suspect that very few people were prepared to see a film by a gay Black man that reframed the true crime genre as a series of racist and classist social paradigms.
The entire film is pitched from the perspective of Anita (Macy Gray), a Black house servant, and thusly reveals the many iterations of white privilege as they vary according to class. Anita, in terms of economic and political power, is a rung below the murderous swamp dweller Hillary (John Cusack) who himself is a notch below Charlotte (Nicole Kidman). As the mystery plays out and the heroes navigate their investigation, Daniels reveals the inherent elitism and exclusivity of the political and social institutions in place in the South during the late sixties. The white, educated reporter Ward (Matthew McConaughey) is granted all the access in the world while his Black writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) must suffer a myriad of micro-aggressions and open hostility.
And yet Yardley and Ward are linked by social performances designed to mask the truth of their characters so that they are able to access professional spaces dominated by white straight men. Ward, a homosexual, keeps his orientation a secret just as Yardley adopts a British accent in order to separate himself from the Black people that his Southern bosses look down upon. Anita, as a Black woman, has none of these luxuries. She observes the narrative at as distance from the invisible corners of professional servitude. She is not a part of Ward and his brother Jack’s (Zac Efron) family, no matter what they say.
Even as he is busy identifying the discriminatory social constructs of the South, Daniels still has time to create a detailed portrait of human emotional wreckage in the love triangle between Jack, Charlotte, and Hillary. Oedipal complexes abound in spectacle after spectacle of “crazy white people shit” from the prison masturbation scene to the infamous jellyfish sequence. Above all else The Paperboy is a portrait of absurdities that are all linked by a societal corruption that has been born out of systemic oppression of one kind or another. Jack, the only character above these discriminations, is too naive to see his own privilege, let alone use it to his or others’ advantage.
Visually The Paperboy is a kind of sensuous fever dream of repeated overlays, cross-fades, momentary flashbacks, and prolonged close-ups of sweaty human bodies. Flesh, muscle, and bone are the frail fetish objects that haunt Daniels’ images as he spins his Southern Gothic/True Crime yarn. The Paperboy is as immensely beautiful as it is intensely revolting as Daniels pulls the spectator into uncomfortably intimate spaces inhabited by a plethora of severely damaged and perverse characters.
Few big league Hollywood productions over the last two decades have been as bold as The Paperboy. The film excels as a hideous portrait of white America that feels ahead of its time even ten years after its original release. One day soon there will be a critical revaluation of The Paperboy and it will be elevated to its rightful status as one of the great cinematic masterpieces of the 2010s. I often say, rather glibly, to people who have dismissed The Paperboy without seeing the film first that it is True Detective for intelligent people. I stand by that. See this movie.