Washington is considered one of the more progressive states but BONNIE GREER underlines the problems of homelessness, mental health and its opioid crisis.
It is easy to believe that the movie Sleepless In Seattle might be the quintessential Washington State movie.
But the 1993 romcom is not about the 42nd state of the Union. It is really about a long-distance love affair that reaches its moment of discovery at New York City’s Empire State Building. In a sense, Seattle becomes, in the hands of the film’s East Coast writers, the furthest place from America that America can be.
And technically, this is almost true.
Washington, officially known as the State of Washington, so as not to confuse it with the national capital, is the northwestern-most constituent of what is called the contiguous United States.
This contiguous United States consists of the 48 adjoining US states on the continent of North America, plus Washington DC.
And there could be a reason why the State of Washington might be remote in the minds of many Americans: its distance from Florida is roughly that of the UK to Greenland. This may be one of the reasons that the name of Seattle, the state’s most populous city, was used as a metaphor about a long-distance romance.
The Pacific is to the west of the state; Idaho to the east; Oregon to the south and the Canadian province of British Columbia to the north. Washington is a leading producer of lumber. The largest number of apples in the US also come from here; and that huge haul can be applied to pears; hops; sweet cherries; grapes; lentils; potatoes. Its waters are also rich in salmon and halibut. And the only state that outranks it in wine production is California.
The state manufactures ships and missiles. It produces chemicals, machinery and metal products. It has 1,000 dams, chief among these the mighty Grand Coulee Dam, a concrete monster constructed on the Columbia River to provide hydroelectric power, irrigation, flood control and water storage. It has been controversial from its inception, in the early 20th century.
The indigenous people of the state suffered grave consequences as a result. Their way of life revolved around salmon fishing. The Grand Coulee Dam blocks fish migration. The dam also flooded 21,000 acres where indigenous people had lived for thousands of years.
Settlements and graves had to be relocated. Towns were submerged which had large indigenous populations. There was a “Ceremony of Tears” in the summer of 1940, seven years after construction began and two years before the dam was opened.
Yet the Grand Coulee helps make the state one of the wealthiest in the country. Washington is also one of the most progressive.
It ranks among the highest in life expectancy and the lowest in unemployment. It was one of the first to legalise medical and recreational cannabis. It was among the first to legalise same-sex marriage. It provided legal abortions on request before the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v Wade in 1973 loosened abortion laws nationwide.
In a 2008 referendum, it approved physician-assisted suicide. It is one of eight states that has criminalised the sale, possession and transfer of bump stocks – the tech that is used to boost a gun’s fire power.
Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, is a Democrat who ran for president briefly in the current election cycle. His platform – combat climate change. He left the trail last year and is now seeking his third term in the governor’s mansion in Olympia, the state capital.
The state’s senators are Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. Both are Democrats, both voted in the senate to convict and remove Donald Trump.
In the House, Washington is represented by three Republicans and seven Democrats, including Pramila Jayapal. She is the first woman from her district to serve in Congress and the first Asian-American to represent the state. She is a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders and a frequent Trump critic on TV.
In the 2016 election, Washington’s eight electoral college votes went to Hillary Clinton who took 1,742,718 votes (54.30%) compared to Trump’s 1,221,747 (38.07%) of the vote. He and the state are no fans of each other.
In fact, it is not clear if he has ever visited the state as president, since he only goes to places that like him. Last September, one Washington State paper made five guesses as to why he skipped the area when he visited California: 1) California had more conservative multimillionaires. 2) His people booked the Tacoma Dome for two nights, but Elton John refused to give up his two nights there. 3) He was upset that the Department of Fish and Wildlife would not issue special fishing permits for Donald and Eric Trump. 4) Hurricane Dorian was on its way. 5) The governor and attorney general were building a wall out of all the lawsuits they had filed against his administration.
Yet all is not jokey and rosy in the Evergreen State. The governor recently pointed out that the state needs more affordable housing. It needs shelter relief for the homeless. Housing is a huge problem in the State of Washington. Better mental-health care facilities are needed. The opioid crisis in the state has to be tackled. Worker-training and career-training has to be addressed. His opponents tell him that his climate-crisis solutions are not considered radical enough.
And so the complexities of this rich and complex state are not best understood through Tom Hanks’ lonely widower and the unexpected love affair of Sleepless In Seattle.
The state might be summed up in Bob Rafelson’s complex masterpiece signalling the “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and early 1970s – Five Easy Pieces, starring Jack Nicholson at the beginning of his ascendancy, pictured.
In the film, Nicholson is Bobby Eroica Dupea, an oil-rigger, leading a precarious and fairly nomadic life. He returns to his elegant family home in Washington State to see his ailing father who can no longer recognise him. And he also returns to his old wish to be a classical pianist.
Even though it was shot mainly in Vancouver, in neighbouring British Columbia, the film portrays Washington State as a land of deep forests filled with a kind of mystery and otherness. There is a plainspokenness in the film that sometimes falls into silence.
Maybe that silence is filled with a sound that we cannot hear: the sound of what the indigenous people lost. And are still fighting for.
Or that silence is the struggle of the wildlife to survive. Or of a homeless person on the streets of Seattle, sitting in silence on a street corner.