Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Ride Along and Social Mobility

by Matt McKenna

Ride-alongIf Tim Story's Ride Along was merely intended to be viewed as a film about a plucky security guard attempting to win the favor of his girlfriend's brother by becoming a full-fledged police officer, it would have been christened with any number of pun-laden titles to better suggest its goofiness and simplicity. For example, it might have been called Cop-in-Law or To Serve and Reject or maybe even Hey, Is It All Right If I Become a Cop and Marry Your Sister? But the movie is called Ride Along, and that is our first clue that the picture is more than just a sigh-inducing attempt to squeeze every last silly dollar out of actor Kevin Hart's burgeoning stardom. Hidden underneath the veneer of this two-chuckle-max comedy is an essay picking apart America's long-standing issue of class immobility, a topic whose popularity has reemerged during the preamble to the run-up to the early-stages to the beginning of the 2016 Presidential election.

Long gone are the days when Ice Cube would swarm on any gentleman in a blue uniform. In Ride Along, Cube plays the role of Officer James Payton, a brash, rule-breaking cop on the hunt for a mysterious bad guy who has hatched an insidious plot to traffic weapons or something. Kevin Hart plays Ben Barber, a flip security guard with a heart of gold and a penchant for getting in over his head. These two diametrically opposed characters clash when Barber asks to marry Payton's sister, Angela. Payton, wearing the most twisted smile since the Grinch stole Christmas, tells Barber he can marry Angela only if he first completes a “ride-along” and demonstrates the requisite courage along the way.

And so we have arrived at the surface reason for calling the film Ride Along–indeed, Barber is riding along with Payton as he performs his duties as an officer of the Atlanta police department. But there is another, more consequential reason for the film's title. Barber is also riding along with Payton as he enjoys the privileges afforded to members of the film's upper class. While cops in the real world certainly don't have the advantages of Wall Street bankers and Fortune 500 CEOs, in the world of Ride Along, they are, in fact, the 1%. Cops drive nice cars. Cops commit crimes with impunity. Cops are the guys every other guy–Barber included–wants to be.

And what of Ben Barber, our working-class nobody who is appreciated solely within digital confines of an Xbox game he plays with his cadre of online friends? He and his fellow gamers represent Ride Along's proletariat–and a self-hating one at that. The low social standing of these characters is made explicit by the fact that Barber's best friend goes by the self-chosen online moniker of “Assface”. In case anyone was confused as to where these characters fit in film world's society, Assface's name provides a pretty solid clue.

Barber, gleeful from having earlier been accepted to the police academy and ecstatic from having been invited on this ride-along, initially believes he has what it takes to climb the ranks of society. What he doesn't realize is that Payton, an established cop with no interest in welcoming a new member to the upper crust, has planned a series of impossible obstacles meant to demoralize Barber and destroy his dream of joining the ranks of the elite.

Barber's difficulty moving up in class mirrors the resistance real-life Americans feel as they attempt to transition to higher income brackets. While the prevailing conventional wisdom says that anybody in America can reach the top echelons of society if only they have the smarts and the gumption, the statistics on the subject tell a different tale. Social mobility hasn't changed much in the past forty years, and a person born into the poorest fifth of Americans in terms of income has only a 9% chance of making it to the richest fifth. In other words, Ben Barber doesn't have a very good chance of becoming a real cop with a 2014 Dodge Charger like his hero, Officer Payton.

Viewers of Ride Along will inevitably watch the scenes of Barber struggling to win the approval of Payton and understand that they are supposed to laugh. But they won't laugh. Why? Is it because the scenes aren't funny? Or is it because they see part of themselves in Ben Barber's character, a man who continually has the odds stacked against him by those more affluent than himself? For many moviegoers, the answer may lie somewhere in the middle, but for those who have suffered the indignities unique to living within the bottom quintile, the film's subtext may speak a little louder.

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to tell you that, by end of Ride Along, things have worked out pretty nicely for Barber–he helps catch the bad guy and earns Payton's respect. There is a dark side to this ending, however. Clearly, Barber's performance during the plot of the film indicates he is not ready to be a police officer. After all, he accidentally shoots a guy in the shoulder and causes a slew of property damage. But since Payton has finally okayed Barber's marriage to Angela, Barber's membership into the upper class is all but assured. Payton has no choice but to ingratiate Barber to the police chief and guarantee him a future role in law enforcement. By the end of the film, it looks like Barber will join the top quintile after all, though not by virtue of his smarts or gumption. No, Barber reaches the top by marrying into it, which coincidentally is the most straightforward method of achieving upward social mobility in the real world too.