It always comes back to the flag. Andrea Arnold’s American Honey features numerous mise-en-scènes in which the American flag is billowing in the wind. It’s never been more appropriate to use the flag in such a menacing way than in America’s current political climate. The rise of Donald Trump has coupled with a hypernationalism that’s pushed jingoism to the forefront and sunken political discourse into an “us versus them” mentality. When Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, it manifests as something else. It becomes disrespectful of America, and of what the flag represents. Because the flag represents “us” — working-class Americans who drive national elections, the ones politicians pander to, the ones who rule Nielsen boxes, the ones whose values are, we’re told again and again, the only ones that matter. Anyone else who doesn’t like America’s past or its troublesome present is an outsider.
Nonwhite Americans have always operated in this space. Whether it be African-Americans during the height of Jim Crow, Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or Mexican-Americans who face the ire of Trump’s immigration platform, you are never allowed to forget that you’re an outsider. As a black person entering a white space for the first time, I’ve often been confronted with cultural references foreign to me. In the moment in American Honey when Krystal (Riley Keough) asks Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) if she’s ever heard the Lady Antebellum song “American Honey,” I immediately related to Star’s confusion. I can’t tell you how many rock songs I’ve had to pretend I know the words to while singing along in an all-white setting (it’s usually something by fucking Sublime). This wasn’t her world — she was Alice, waking up after tumbling down a rabbit hole. Star’s ignorance of the song is Krystal’s first sign that she isn’t truly “one of them.”
At this point in the film, Star has joined a crew of kids selling magazines across America after running away from a sexually abusive home, where she had to care for two children who it seems aren’t even related to her. Lured in at first by a cute boy named Jake (Shia LaBeouf), she falls for him quickly and appropriately, as Rihanna’s “We Found Love” blares in a grocery store and he dances to it, enticing her, pulling her in with a song she surely knows the lyrics to as a black woman. Lane herself is half-black, born to a mother from New Zealand and an African-American dad, and she loves to wear her hair in locs. It was this look that drew Arnold to Lane when she found her on a park bench in Florida and cast her in her first acting project.
Lane is the perfect person to play Star, as described by her life as a mixed-race woman in America. Of her locs, Lane told The Daily Beast, “People would say, they’re dirty, or this or that. There were things like with Kendall Jenner and Marc Jacobs. It’s like, they get to be beautiful but mine have to be dirty? And then someone said I was appropriating this, as if this wasn’t my culture. I’ve gotten so much for being mixed — I’m never black enough, I’m never this enough — so it really just got me. One, you don’t know who I am. This is my culture, and I’m not appropriating anything; this is me and this is beautiful.” Lane is used to navigating different spheres. She’s used to how the “us versus them” mentality can manifest itself in American culture.
As Star, she’s on a never-ending road trip with a van full of white teenagers who listen to hip-hop, speak in black slang, and even throw around the n-word like it’s nothing. For them, it’s OK to adopt these behaviors because they’re just having fun, partaking in black culture for a brief moment — they don’t have to actually be black. Meanwhile, Star lives in the same world that Lane does, one where black women can be fired for wearing locs, but Marc Jacobs is praised for displaying them on white models at New York Fashion Week.
Star isn’t any more familiar with “American Honey” when her cohorts sing it near the conclusion of the film, but I wonder if she’s familiar with Mariah Carey’s “Honey.” Carey, a mixed-race woman just like Star, has her own sugary song that’s not about the “so innocent, pure, and sweet American honey” that Lady Antebellum sings of. Star is much more in line with Carey’s song, about being strung out by a lover’s “honey” like it’s a drug dependency. Star's own mother, we come to learn, is a meth addict, and Star, rather than fall into her mother’s habit, has taken up her sex drive as a narcotic.
American Honey allows Star to be frankly sexual in a way that women are rarely empowered to be in films, but her adversary Krystal always seeks to contain it, whether she’s keeping Star from having sex with Jake or flaunting the fact that, as the white woman in control of their money-making operation, she gets threesomes in motel rooms while Krystal is only there to work. Even Jake, who engages in a sexual relationship with Star, attempts to control her body at every turn. But Star fights back like Janet Jackson’s 1986 self-empowerment coda Control — whether she’s ripping out bloody tampons and putting her femininity on display, bilking good ol’ boys for their cash, or making Jake beg to come when they’re having sex.
Star comes to realize that a fear of outsiders — the fuel for “us versus them” psychology — is all about control. To reference the protest of the American flag again, it’s not a shock that many of Kaepernick’s detractors are also people who defend the use of the Confederate flag, which itself makes a mockery of the American flag. But distaste with Kaepernick’s actions isn’t truly about patriotism, it’s about control. Even as American flags wave proudly throughout the entirety of American Honey, the people who seek to control Star proudly adorn themselves in the Confederate flag. The film jarringly reminds us that Star doesn’t fit within this world that she’s been thrust into — but neither do so many Americans who look like her. And for them, American Honey is a call to arms. At one point in the film, Star stands up in a moving convertible and thrusts her hands into the air while shouting, “I feel like I’m fucking America!” For women like Star, their power comes from realizing that phrase’s double meaning. They are America, just as much as anyone else. And sometimes, it’s OK to fuck America too.