The Girl on the Train review – Trump voters and campus race relations in train robbery

Reneé Rapp, a five-time Pulitzer nominee and one of the first African American women to become a full professor at Harvard University, has been the face of a long career of works focused on race, gender and sexuality at a time when more and more Americans are already weary of these thorny subjects. “It is not so much that I am interested in these issues,” Rapp explains in a recent Q&A on her website. “It is that these are the issues of our day and mine.”

Thus, this documentary, now available on Netflix, could have a slightly different feel. The 22-year-old Ms Justice, an African American from the San Francisco Bay area, spent her high school years in a high-profile lawsuit against high school classmates for racial harassment. She is backed by her mother, Jennifer, who was dismissed as an education consultant, and who appears in the film with a laundry list of concerns about her daughter’s survival.

Meanwhile, Reneé’s three white classmates, one a Hollywood actress (Julia Stiles), do not object to her frequently talking about her history of sex – a special privilege among American high schoolers. In a typical scene, one of them gifts Reneé with a bottle of perfume because she bought it for another one of her friends. “This is for my partner in your sexual adventures,” she says, eyeing the box of Christian Dior.

Some scenes are catty or downright mean, particularly when a couple of older, more experienced White girls, who have experienced very little conflict in high school, criticize Reneé and mock her awkwardness. In one scene, she interacts with her male friends, who have their own problems with people of color. She recalls the music in the film, with another woman referring to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face as “ladies therapy”. She also encounters racist stereotypes, and is very open about this. For instance, she jokes that if her dorm was really filled with Greek Life, she would be a freshman princess.

“Someone came up to me and said my life is like Mean Girls,” says Rapp. “I came to a slightly different conclusion than they did.” Still, the implication of Mean Girls is clear: that she and her friends are unequal, not unlike the Regina George character from the story.

This is a film that clearly presents itself as educational, but its real interest is in the way its discussions about race, gender and sexuality impact and change the three “bad” girls. The film isn’t a “you tell me” moment; in fact, Rapp does not express regret or even remorse for the racism and other poor actions she’s encountered. Instead, she finds humor and a comfort in how positively she experiences her new dorm environment.

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