The issue of poverty existing as a major taboo in American society is neither a secret nor a surprise. Keen on preserving the illusion of the “American Dream,” American mainstream media strategically chooses to steer clear of the topic of poverty altogether. This national fear of undermining our own levels of freedom and opportunity explains why poverty remains such an under-prioritized issue in politics, the media, and most especially, entertainment.
Although poverty is a national epidemic, only a handful of American films choose to include it as part of their narrative. Even worse, the few amount of films that do dare to touch on the topic of poverty often do so regressively by perpetuating two ableist and classist stereotypes: homelessness is fueled by mental disability and struggling individuals can conquer poverty through demonstration of sheer determination and willpower.
Within the handful of films bold enough to place poverty in the foreground of their narratives, two stand out as powerful representations of the infamously impoverished community of Oakland, California: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and Sorry to Bother You (2018). Despite the fact that both films showcase the struggle of living below the poverty line, The Pursuit of Happyness and Sorry to Bother You are remarkably different in genre, tone, and style.
Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness is a tear-jerking cinematic rendition of multi-millionaire stockbroker Chris Gardner’s battle to overcome severe financial insecurity as a single father. The film is a unique, refreshing drama that expertly weaves its heavy moments into its underlying childlike lightheartedness.
In contrast, Boots Riley’s satiric, surrealist, and unapologetically dark Sorry to Bother You is a scathing critique of capitalism in the form of a sci-fi comedy. Although the film lacks narrative finesse—rife with numerous unfinished and underdeveloped plot elements—it is nonetheless entertaining with its socially-aware wit and charming unpredictability. The film’s knack of pleasantly subverting audience expectations along with its intriguing style, jaw-dropping plot, and one of a kind story has allowed it to earn its place among 2018’s top films.
While both films serve rather different purposes and originate from distinct political contexts, both reveal how the national view of poverty has—and has not—evolved within the past decade.
The Western tendency to relate mental illness with homelessness retains its strength in part of the entertainment industry’s reluctance to contest it. If anything, American media and entertainment only further fuels this stereotype by creating quirky homeless side characters to serve as mere plot devices or comedic relief.
In spite of its efforts to humanize impoverished individuals by shedding light on their struggles, The Pursuit of Happyness is ironically part of the onslaught of films that perpetuate the stereotype that homelessness and mental illness are connected. In the film, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) often encounters a long-haired, shaggy-looking homeless man who constantly spews delusions from his incessant mouth, repeatedly referring to Chris’s bone density scanner as a “time machine.” This quirky—and seemingly harmless—caricature reinforces longstanding generalizations of the exaggerated prevalence of mental illness amongst the homeless population. In reality, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, only about a third to less than half of the homeless population can be classified as mentally ill. However, American media and entertainment produce content that make the ratio seem much larger than it actually is—creating impressions of mental illness as a dominant phenomenon among the homeless population. Furthermore, this tropey depiction of mentally ill, homeless individuals supports the stereotype that those with mental disabilities are incapable of functioning properly in society.
In addition to regressively relating homelessness and mental illness to one another, The Pursuit of Happyness’s bootstraps narrative inadvertently perpetuates the stereotype that chronic poverty is the result of pure individual laziness rather than the systemic oppression of longstanding prejudiced institutions. Constantly, mainstream media and the entertainment industry bombard the American public with stories embodying the idea that hard work, determination, and a “strong moral center” are all that are necessary in order to succeed. While such a narrative tends to inspire viewers, it is nonetheless a dangerous illusion that ignores the complicated reality of opportunity. The notion that all American citizens have equal access to resources that guarantee social mobility is simply not true. Thus, this overly optimistic way of viewing American opportunity does more harm than good for the cause of poverty alleviation. The bootstraps narrative irresponsibly assumes that poor people already have the tools they need in order to rise above the poverty line but are simply too lazy to use them.
Though The Pursuit of Happyness succeeds at depicting poverty in a more empathetic light by retelling Chris Gardner’s grueling journey of conquering financial insecurity, it is also just another iteration of the bootstraps narrative. Although the story it tells is true, the film fails to recognize itself as an anomaly—many individuals are not lucky enough to land a pivotal client or even a position by being at the right place at the right time. However, The Pursuit of Happyness is a film that is neither wholly progressive nor regressive towards the cause of poverty alleviation. Rather, much of the film’s charitable characteristics are overshadowed or even undone by the backward stereotypes it reinforces.
Much unlike The Pursuit of Happyness, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You rejects the bootstraps narrative. As part of its anti-capitalist nature, Sorry to Bother You scathingly critiques the bootstraps narrative as an unrealistically optimistic perception of social mobility.
The film’s protagonist, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is set on overcoming financial instability. Being both ambitious and hardworking, he dedicates himself to his underpaying telemarketing job in hopes of “making it” as an upper-level “power caller.”
Although Cassius’s story of overcoming poverty follows the traditional trajectory of the bootstraps narrative, it does not follow the narrative’s primary principle of preserving integrity. As Cassius eventually achieves the coveted position of “power caller,” his friends point out how he rather shamelessly “sold out” by using his “white voice” to close the numerous over-the-phone sales to earn him the esteemed title of “power caller.” While a clever and comedic plot point, Cassius’s story of social mobility represents his abandonment of the fight against the mistreatment of his fellow employees and black prejudice in favor of a better salary instead.
Even after “making it” as a “power caller,” Cassius further submits to Regalview Telemarketing’s corrupt practices by complying with their policy of selling morally dubious products, such as weapons and human labor, to greedy corporations. Through Cassius’s submission to Regalview’s corruption, the movie symbolically rejects the bootstraps narrative for its simplicity. The bootstraps narrative completely ignores the grim reality of social mobility: although it is achievable through hard work and determination, it often is achieved at the cost of self-compromise.
While both films do a service toward the cause of poverty alleviation by either shedding light on impoverished individuals’ experiences or challenging longstanding stereotypes that have forced the issue of poverty to exist as an American taboo, their efforts to accurately represent poverty and raise actionable awareness fall short in the face of each film’s respective flaws and themes. Neither The Pursuit of Happyness nor Sorry to Bother You solely serve to remedy poverty in Oakland. Both films have their separate messages and themes that, although may be related to poverty, do not stand for alleviating it. Rather, The Pursuit of Happyness propounds the bootstraps narrative message that hard work and determination are the only tools necessary for one’s success, and Sorry to Bother You stands as a hilarious yet scathing critique of capitalism.
Much of art, especially commercial art, is created to cast as large of a net as possible over a target demographic. Adding potentially offensive elements to one’s work (i.e. political, social, and cultural commentary) can shrink the size of the net that is cast and subsequently reduce the amount of profit that a work can garner. Movies inevitably fall into this category. A film can only be so progressive within its ideological margins of profit. The “bolder” a film tries to be, the greater the risk of it being unprofitable. For this reason, many movies possess rather generic, apolitical messages. These themes are safe, attractive, and therefore, profitable. The ever-present fear of breaching proprietary boundaries dilutes even the most radical of films.
With that in mind, we should remember that what we see on-screen should often be taken with a grain of salt. Before anything, filmmakers aim to make a profit. This is not to say that viewing a mainstream film that is specifically created to address the issue of poverty is impossible in the future, nor that we as viewers are incapable of influencing Hollywood film executives on what they should release. Variety says filmmakers could not be more uncertain of the future of movie making. With the film industry’s current precarious state, consumers possess more influence than ever. How we spend our money decides which kind of movies get made and which do not: films that forward the cause of poverty alleviation or ones that inadvertently and ignorantly counter it. We always have the option to just not see nor pay for a movie with seemingly regressive messages. As consumers, we are undoubtedly capable of changing the film industry into one that discourages misrepresentation and backward ideologies. Though this process of change may be lengthy and arduous, the product will be infinitely more rewarding.
Kaitlin Aquino is a content writer at InSight Magazine.