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150 Films #19: The Breakfast Club (1985)

It’s going to be weird to turn a movie that’s wall-to-wall whiteys into a conversation about race, but it’s what came to mind when watching The Breakfast Club again. Strip away the jokes and the teen angst, and what remains is a story about communication and understanding among “cliques” that would not otherwise interact. As Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) describes them in his essay, you have “a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal” jammed into a room together for an entire day.

I can’t tell you at what age I first saw this movie, but considering the sheer number of F bombs dropped by characters, the answer is probably “too young.” The nice thing about my parents was their policy of not hiding adult-oriented (or teen-oriented) entertainment from us, as long as they watched it with us and discussed its subject matter and themes. I might be the only kid on Earth who saw Basic Instinct at the tender of 11, as a family event. “I heard it’s a great psychological thriller,” I recall my mom saying when they brought the tape home from Blockbuster. So there we sat, in the dark living room, as I got a surprising introduction to ice-pick murders, lesbianism, and full-frontal nudity. I remember nothing about any discussion of the movie, but the image of Sharon Stone appearing fully nude in front of a window is pretty well ingrained in my memory.

Um… What was I talking about again? Right, seeing The Breakfast Club at a young age may have formed the first piece in a general theory about bigotry. It’s common knowledge that, in this country, urban centers tend to favor social liberalism, while rural areas do not. I’ve always thought that had to do with urban centers cramming a panoply of people into a relatively small area, and exposure to so many people—so many of them different from you—helps to erode stereotypes and create mutual understanding, a sort of common ground. When you live near, go to school with, and/or work alongside people of all different backgrounds, they stop being scary “others” and turn into…just people. And if people are just people, then why should they be denied rights like marriage or access to education and polls? While I’d never exactly call any large city a social Utopia—so-called “hypersegregation” ain’t exactly an endorsement of social liberalism—it seems to follow that, for many, “exposure” is key for overcoming prejudices.

That theory, which is my own and may not hold any water (researchers, prove me wrong—and send your papers right to me, since there’s no way I’ll seek them out), may trace directly back to The Breakfast Club, a much more dramatic and serious movie than I recalled. Regardless of the white middle-classness of every character, they come from disparate backgrounds and different cliques. They know each other in the way every high school kid has a dim awareness of most everybody else (especially “popular” kids), but aside from “sporto” Andrew (Emilio Estevez) and “princess” Claire (Molly Ringwald), they’ve never spoken. They’re not friends.

“You don’t even count,” Andrew says of Bender (Judd Nelson), the juvenile delinquent, but it could just as easily be any of the characters speaking of any others. As far as they’re concerned, the others are not relevant to their lives. Even Claire, who considers her popularity a burden because of how the peons must look up to her, gets called out by nerd Brian as “conceited.” To him, Claire doesn’t matter; he doesn’t look up to the popular kids any more than they really, truly look down on him. They ignore each other, until they’re trapped in a room together for nine hours. Like similarly structured morality tales—Twelve Angry Men comes to mind, but even something like the sci-fi racism allegory Enemy Mine would fit this category—their walls come down, and they end the day actually seeing each other as people, worthy of respect and perhaps even friendship.

This is the overarching bond of these characters. Throughout the story, each expresses disappointment that they appear invisible to their parents, either outright ignored like Allison (Ally Sheedy), seen only as a target for abuse (as with Bender’s physical abuse and Brian’s emotional abuse), or simply seen as a vessel for a mini-me (as with Andrew and Claire). Vernon (Paul Gleason), their warden, views them only as an outlet for their authority. The only one who truly sees any of them for who they are, from the beginning, is Carl the janitor (John Kapelos), the self-proclaimed “eyes and ears of this institution,” but even he struggles with nobody seeing him. Carl’s not going to mediate anything; these kids have to find each other, and by the end, they do.

That concept is both so simple and so profound. It’s so easy to fear the unknown, to fear “others,” and to run from that fear. Running leads to resentment, and the fear evolves into some form of indistinct hatred. When people run from it, they think they’re running from something real, something worth fearing; instead of looking inward at their own problems, they blame what scares them. That becomes the problem, not the simple fact that people can have irrational fears, and that isn’t about the subject of their fear.

People call me naïve for believing in the good in people, but trust me, I’m more cynical than that. I believe people are good until I have reason not to (and reasons are provided regularly), at which point fuck ’em. I’m not looking for the buried good; if you treat people like shit, that’s your nightmare. We won’t be friends, and I won’t respect you. End of story. I’ve been mugged by a black man, but I still don’t understand the concept of crossing the street if I see a black man coming my way. I’m not afraid of getting mugged, I’m not afraid of black men, and I don’t accept the premise that “I got mugged by a black man; therefore, all black men are criminals.” That happened one time, over fifteen years ago, and if I’m being honest, he was actually rather polite and let me keep my wallet.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve learned through life experience that people are individuals, not categories. It’s hard to say how much of that belief traces directly back to The Breakfast Club and lessons from my parents about how to treat people, but I can’t dispute it’s a major touchstone of how I learned to see the world. It wasn’t always easy, and I wasn’t always successful, but I tried not to make assumptions based on appearance or clique. Seeing the directions some of my friends from school went, I think that attitude has made me a better person than I could have ended up. I thank John Hughes, and I thank my parents’ in-retrospect-kind-of-bizarre, laissez-faire policy on movies.

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: Breaking Away (1979)

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