Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Class and The Pursuit of Happyness (Film Review)

I saw Pursuit of Happyness yesterday and found it to be a very emotionally engaging film. This feel-good story features a homeless single father going to extraordinary ends to try to make it big in nearly impossible circumstances.

I was struck by the fairly realistic portrayal of working class life... The precariousness of this existence; those who scrape by are always only one small disaster away from financial ruin. The bone-weariness of constantly overextending oneself. The emotional fallout from all the stress and anxiety, which impacts self-esteem and relationships. The distress at not being able to protect one's kids from the realities of poverty.

I liked that Chris Gardiner's character was at once hero and anti-hero; he is intelligent, loving, and determined. He also doesn't always make the best decisions - in fact he makes some pretty bad mistakes. He is ultimately moral, but does a lot of unethical things (some due to panicking in tight circumstances) such as lying and stiffing others for money they also need.

I've read some reviews which describe this movie as a dramatization of the American Dream, the "meritocracy" that insists everyone can make it if they are upright, smart, and willing to put in the effort. Moralizing class like this leads to blame and judgment: if you don't make it you are lazy, immoral, or stupid and deserve your lot in life.

For me, however, as for this blogger I see the happy ending in the film as very unrealistic. Not everyone can make it in America. Indeed it "shows that for someone starting with nothing in America, it take a ludicrous amount of talent and drive to pull oneself up." For every one rags-to-riches story like this, there are millions of people who go from rags to rags, and many others who go from rags to slightly better. And of course, what little class mobility there is goes both ways.

Getting out of the cycle of homelessness is an incredible struggle, and many of us who have done it were lucky enough not to fall too deeply into that cycle, perhaps to have some help or an unexpected stroke of fortune. Those who think anyone can do it should try finding a job without a permanent address, a phone number, safety, or clean clothes, the need to carry everything on your back, lack of sleep, and a generally scruffy appearance. Hard, but many do it.

Now add a small child, and try to get a stockbroker job. Virtually impossible, and as noted, the extreme jump from total poverty to millionaire is "about the only jump that many black people get to see others of their race make when they’re growing up." Unfortunately there's no exploration of the injustice of the entire structure, or the need for collective action.

So is the film pro-capitalist propaganda or does it portray the realities of poverty? Both, a little. And neither. But it's emotionally satisfying, and ultimately worth watching.


Anonymous said...

Great review, your blog is amazing.

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Red Jenny said...

Thanks steve :)