It is open season on rednecks in our culture. In polite society, one is allowed to make fun of them, diminish them, call them awful names, or simply ignore their perspective entirely.
“I, Tonya” is the first serious film I’ve ever seen about a great redneck. This is not an indictment of the American working class, it is a condemnation of the classist jerks in Hollywood who don’t understand or appreciate them. But, hey, if you have to wait a lifetime for a film about your people, at least it should be great. “I, Tonya” is the best picture of the year.
Some critics observe that “I, Tonya” is condescending to Tonya Harding. I suppose that’s because they’ve never seen a movie like this and don’t understand it. Director Craig Gillespie tries to tell the truth about Tonya Harding to the best of his ability. And the truth is that she is an amazing athlete, an amazing competitor, and an amazing fighter. She’s a redneck, an admirable hero, and a great American champion.
The story begins in the mid 70s, somewhere in Oregon. Tonya Harding was LaVona Golden’s sixth child from her fourth husband. What did that mean? It meant no one ever treated Tonya like she was wanted or special. But she was special.
Tonya began winning skating contests at age four. By the time she was a teenager, Tonya was a nationally recognized skating dynamo. In 1991, she became the first American woman to land the Triple Axel in a competition.
It was quietly agreed upon that Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the greatest figure skater in the hemisphere. But she wasn’t always getting top scores, and it infuriated her.
After bravely (and profanely) confronting dozens of judges, one sheepish judge finally tells her what’s happening: “It’s not your skating, Tonya. It’s you. You’re representing America, for Goodness sake. We need to see a wholesome American family.”
Tonya Harding was the Tom Brady of skating. But she was treated like Blake Bortles because she wasn’t dainty, demure, passive, or upper middle class.
She could have sold out and acted like a proper lady to coax better scores out of the judges. But she couldn’t pretend to have a wholesome American family. Tonya was from a broken home and her loveless mother beat her. Tonya didn’t know any better so she married a loser who beat her.
Instead of giving Tonya Harding extra acclaim for overcoming her challenging personal life, people tried to keep her down. And ultimately succeeded.
Margot Robbie is a revelation as Tonya. This is the best performance by anyone in 2017. If Meryl Streep wins Best Actress over Robbie, it will be because the Academy voters are as classist as they are wrong.
Director Craig Gillespie doesn’t make “I, Tonya” a melodramatic story of heroes and victims. He presents Tonya Harding’s life as a tragic black comedy.
If you’re expecting “I, Tonya” to be about that one time a guy Tonya Harding didn’t know whacked Nancy Kerrigan in the knee, you’ll be disappointed.
This film isn’t about the Kerrigan incident, it’s about how we all reacted to it.
The fact that Tonya Harding isn’t revered as a sports hero says more about us than it does about her. America isn’t built to appreciate and admire redneck women. It’s built to laugh at them. And, when necessary, to destroy them.