The Riot Club: White Privilege and The Price Tag of Morality
Privilege; one of the most powerful words in the English language. Quite possibly the most powerful and dangerous type of privilege would be white privilege. Let’s be honest; if you are white in America, you are afforded certain privileges that many minorities could only dream of. Given today’s current social climate and an administration that tells those of Caucasian descent that they should not be ashamed of their privilege, I understand that many would disagree with this statement. Give this some thought though, if you are white think about how many times you have been harassed by the police, refused service for seemingly no reason or demanded to show your identification to prove that you live in a certain area. If the answer to any of these is never and you take into account how many times minorities have suffered through these injustices, then this is a not so “simple truth” that cannot be denied. When you add excessive wealth to the equation you end up with danger. Now, I bet you’re asking where I’m going with all this. Well, extreme wealth and privilege tends to allow certain individuals to get away with unspeakable acts. When you’re in this situation and know you can get away with anything, what rules are there for you to follow? If you can do whatever you want and have the money and means to get out of it scot-free, what’s holding you back? These are the exact queries that are explored in the 2016 film The Riot Club.
Written by Laura Wade and Directed by Lone Scherfig, The Riot Club is a film that explores the induction of two first year Oxford students into an infamous secret society within the university named “The Riot Club”. Named after a famous student who practiced in nihilism and spread his philosophy about using wealth and privilege to do whatever you want, the club is extremely exclusive and only admits students who fit a certain criteria. They must be rich, from a distinguished family and have only attended elite schools. Luckily for the club, they easily find their two new recruits in the form of an idealistic freshman named Miles, played by Max Irons, and a legacy freshman named Alistair Ryle. The two boys are initiated by having their dorm rooms trashed and then kidnapped at night and forced to do truly disgusting things like drink a glass of port wine blindfolded while they put snot, urine and cigarette ash into it while the boys have to guess the exact vintage. Yeah, I don’t know if this is a regular rich snob thing or a British rich snob thing but I don’t understand it at all. I mean, I’ve heard of hazing but come on! After Miles and Alistair are properly initiated in, the club plans their annual dinner which is a sort of kick off event. They typically rent out a private room in a restaurant, eat, get incredibly drunk and trash the room then simply pay off the owner for any damages caused. The restaurant they choose in this film is a small, family owned place far away from Oxford. One of the club members mentions that they had to book a place far away because they are banned from anywhere closer. The owner, Chris, seems genuinely excited to have these wealthy, well dressed young men patronize his establishment. He specifically goes out of his way to ensure that the room they rented is absolutely perfect and even briefed his staff on the elaborate feast they needed to prepare for the club. Although the owner tries to be a gracious and accommodating host, the club out-right treats him like garbage and disrespects his establishment. At the beginning of their “meeting” they sing God Save The Queen and, when Chris pops in to top off their drinks and even chimes in, all members of the club act as if he has interrupted their private event in an incredibly rude way.
Throughout the rest of the night, the club gets more and more inebriated as well as get rambunctious to the point that Chris loses out on revenue from other diners who decide to leave due to the noise coming from the back room, they invite a prostitute in to “service” the club during their dinner and continually insult the wait staff. At the conclusion of the night, when the club is so far gone that they trash the banquet room and all of the owners prized possessions in said room, Chris walks in and demands that they leave his establishment immediately and never come back. On a serious power trip due to some rousing from Alistair, I’ll get into that a bit later, they severely beat Chris until he hits the floor and passes out. This scene is so violent and intense that it honestly made my skin crawl when I saw it. After the beating, the police arrive and all of the boys are taken into custody. Now, in a perfect world all of them would be facing criminal charges for assault, battery and attempted manslaughter. But, as this is a film about a bunch of rich white boys with considerable privilege, they all get away scot-free due to their expensive representation and the fact that Chris was beaten so severely that he did not possess the mental capacity to identify his attackers. Just before the film ends, the club tries to pin everything on Alistair as he was the one who riled them all up to do it but to no avail. Alistair is only kicked out of Oxford and, when he goes to one of the member’s uncle’s about possibly exposing the Riot Club, the man convinces Alistair to keep his mouth shut by offering him some kind of political internship which could transform into a full fledged position in British politics.
There is obviously much more to discuss about this film but I really want to focus on our two mains, Miles and Alistair. Both are white males that come from wealthy backgrounds but they are both quite different as well as the same. Alistair is a legacy at Oxford but Miles was simply expected to go. Miles leans in a more liberal direction and Alistair is much more conservative. The two boys are paired together as partners in some kind of political essay class and clash quite a bit about their respective ideologies. However, when they are inducted into the riot club, we see that Miles is not as liberal as he thinks he is. Although he begins a relationship with Lauren, a working class student there on scholarship, and is generally kind to everyone he meets, he is pretty complicit in the behavior of the club. Though he does not take part in Chris’s beating at the end of the film, he makes no effort to stop the violence. I don’t want to call Miles a hypocrite but, there is a scene where Alistair steals Mile’s phone and tricks Lauren into coming to the restaurant. Once she arrives, Miles immediately tries to get her to leave. Denying having ever texted her then treating her like his side piece by saying he’ll put her in a cab and send her home. The boys in the club then proposition Lauren into giving them all blow jobs for money. Obviously offended, she tries to get Miles to help her and all he responds with is “It’s up to you”. This bugs me quite a bit because his club members are treating her like a prostitute and all he can say is it’s your choice whether or not you want to compromise yourself. I don’t think this statement came from a place of cruelty but of outright ignorance. On top of this, when Lauren attempts to leave the room, one of the club members pins her against the door and starts feeling her up and placing unwanted kisses on her face. In all fairness, Miles does try to stop them when he sees this but is physically held back by two club members. This does not at all excuse his behavior though. Before things at the restaurant escalated, he could have easily walked away, said to himself, “The riot club is not for me if this is how they behave and treat other people that I say I care about”. But no, he lets things go on until a man who was nothing but kind and accommodating to them was beaten to within an inch of his life.
Miles is the perfect example of an idealistic liberal, he says he’s for the people and their rights but yet lets his privilege work for him when things get out of hand. Yes, he goes to the hospital to check on Chris and suggests that the club cannot decide who is at fault because the police and the justice system will, but not only is he not thrown out of school but he gets off completely. Although he did not touch Chris and even called an ambulance when the beating was over, we don’t see a single instance where he genuinely feels sorry for his lack of action. Even Miles visiting Chris in the hospital seems like a procedural act in which he wants to cover his own ass and see just what he remembers. Miles doesn’t care about that man or what the effects of the club’s actions will have on his future or his family, he gets to walk away with his hands clean of all of it. Miles does distance himself from the club at the end but he does not escape all of the damage he’s done. His relationship with Lauren is completely shattered and she wants nothing to do with him. Miles will always have to live with the memory of what he was complicit in. One last thing I want to mention about Miles and his privilege is the scene with him and his parents in the Dean of Oxford’s office at the end. When the Dean reveals that they’ve only decided to expel Alistair since he was the one the police determined was the instigator of the violence, Miles’s father thanks the Dean and asks if there is any “donation” he could make to thank him for his decision. The dean sternly says no but Miles does not say a word during this meeting or even express disgust that his father basically tried to provide the dean with a bribe to thank him for not expelling his son. This is a very telling scene because, as with the events in the restaurant, Miles is completely complicit in the goings on around him. He does and says nothing to rock his boat of privilege and lets it work for him with no comment or aside.
Let’s switch gears and talk about Alistair. A legacy of Oxford with his older brother having been president of the Riot club at one point, Alistair begins his journey with very large shoes to fill. He feels as if there’s a lot expected of him but doesn’t feel like he can live up to it. That kind of pressure can be quite damaging and really shape a person’s worldview. We see this at the beginning of the film when Alistair’s father is arguing with a housing official because his son was not given the same room both he and his brother stayed in during their time at Oxford. It seems as if the room was given to Miles and Alistair was supposed to stay in the college’s new housing unit, which is much smaller and less historic. When Miles overhears this, he walks into the room and proclaims he is perfectly fine with switching rooms. This honestly doesn’t seem like that big of a deal as Miles happily gives Alistair his keys but Alistair seems quite embarrassed by the whole situation. Once Miles gets his new set of keys and takes off with the housing official, Alistair looks at his father and says “What if I didn’t want my brother’s old room”. His father pretty much tells Alistair to deal with it and, as a legacy, he has no choice but to fall in line.
Later that day, Alistair is talking to Lauren in a dining hall about bailing out the banks, and when he gets a bit intense she immediately turns her attention to Miles who is sitting right next to him. He seems annoyed their conversation was interrupted and then attempts to apologize to Miles about the room swap. He tries to commiserate with him by remarking about the institutionalized structure of the new dorms but Lauren immediately chimes in to say that she lives in the new dorms as well and she doesn’t see anything wrong with them. Miles agrees with her but, in the scene where he enters his new room, he does look around and say “shit”. So, although he did not mind the switch he did seem to have a higher expectation about the size of the room.
Alistair seems to not be able to connect with either of them during their chat and even scoffs at Lauren when he reads the brand of the champagne she brought with her to drink on her first day. It seems as if Alistair’s bourgeois sensibilities have followed him closer than he thought. Later in the film when, while the other members of the Riot club are out partying and Miles is out at the same bar socializing, Alistair stays in. He is seen heading to the ATM and is mugged by two men who hold him at knifepoint and make him withdraw money for them from his account. He is then found by Henry, a member of the club, and Henry invites him to hang out for the night. Now, it’s presumed that Alistair never told his parents about what happened due to general embarrassment but, if you really think about it, this is trauma that he never learned to deal with. This does not excuse his behavior for the rest of the film by the way, I am simply trying to apply some context. Through the rest of the film we see Alistair’s high society arrogance and upbringing take control. Not only is he the one who incites the violent act bestowed upon the restaurant owner, but he scowls at Miles when he finds out he has been inducted into the club as well, lures his girlfriend into their dinner just to mess with her and spouts his wealthy white conservative rhetoric for most of the night. Alistair outright states that they should not be ashamed of their wealth and privilege and not only let it be known but treat others like they are beneath them, because, in their eyes, they are. Although both Miles and Alistair are framed as being opposite sides of the coin, they are really one in the same. Miles resents Alistair at the end for disrupting his idealistic image of what individuals in their position should behave like and Alistair resents Miles for pretending he doesn’t enjoy their privilege.
The last thing I want to discuss about this film is morality and the concept of paying around it. There is a very telling scene near the end of this movie where the club, high on coke and drunk, completely destroys the banquet room. The owner walks in and rightfully asks “What the hell did you all do to my place,” and Alistair attempts to give Chris a wad of money. Alistair outright tells the owner that this is what they do. Basically saying they can do what they want and pay others very generously to look the other way. When Chris declines payment, Alistair completely loses it and assaults him. This is not the only time the club attempts to use their wealth to excuse their behavior either. Earlier in the night, when Lauren shows up, the club offers to pay her to give all of them blowjobs. She rightfully declines but then a member of the club suggests they did not make the offer tempting enough, he pulls out his phone and offers Lauren three years of tuition if she agrees to service them. This is not only completely disgusting but it honestly displays these individuals’ ideology when it comes to money; if you have enough money, you can do whatever you want and not even give it a second thought. These boys literally do not see any harm in offering a girl they do not know money to perform a sexual act. Not only that, but the fact that she is romantically involved with one of their fellow members does not seem to matter to them at all. Although these instances really highlight the club’s views about women and the working class, there is no example more potent than the scene with Charlie the prostitute. One of the club members, in an attempt to win the favor of the club and potentially become the new president, hires a prostitute to service each member under the table during their dinner. When Charlie shows up she explains that she does not do that and was under the impression that she was only to be servicing one of the guys. When she politely explains to the boys that something like this must be arranged ahead of time, the club member who paid for her completely loses his composure and yells at her to just do her job because she is a whore and that is what whore’s do. Not having any of this, Charlie leaves. This is a very interesting scene that I could go on forever discussing but, for the sake of this article, I will keep it mercifully short. The way the club attempts to treat Charlie and how offended they are that someone of her profession would deny the needs of paying customers shows just how much of a transaction they see this whole situation as. The club honestly doesn’t realize that what they were asking her was way out of the scope of what she agreed to and, like Lauren, will not compromise herself just to appease a bunch of man-boys.
The scary but true bit of the whole film and everything that transpires throughout is that money is indeed power. If you have money you gain power if you have power you have privilege and if you are white, you get access to means unheard of to the common man or woman. Each of the Riot Club members escape punishment for what they have done and, in a major way, their money and privilege helped them. Almost immediately, each boy was able to get out of lock up due to the fact that they had family lawyers on speed dial. Alistair is the only one who suffers any real consequences, getting expelled from Oxford, but he’s offered a job by one of the member’s uncle’s at the end. This part of the film really stuck with me. I mean, Alistair is the perfect example of the worst type of young, white male and he gets away with nearly killing a man. He will never truly learn what he did to the pub owner was wrong and will never even contemplate how his actions will affect the pub owner and his family. This is what is so scary and frustrating to me about this film. No one suffered true consequences and their privilege aided in that. I can go on and on about this but let me wrap up with what I believe to be the apotheosis of this film: If there is no one or no consequence that will let these individuals know what the difference between right and wrong is, will they ever learn what it means to make a moral judgement? Will they ever get out of their own way and learn that money will not buy someone’s integrity or affections?
Overall this film is fantastic but, if you’re like me, it will definitely hit a raw nerve at moments. The acting is phenomenal, the writing is sharp and since the Riot Club is based on a real dining club at Oxford called the “Bullingdon Club” that was known for its wealthy members and vandalism of restaurants and dorms, the sense of realism is felt and feels well placed. This is a highly recommended watch in my book!