Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The poverty of American film

Some decades ago, British film scholar Laura Mulvey showed us that movies possessed a male gaze. That is, the viewer was assumed to be a man — a straight, white one — and films were created by men to entertain men like them.

We’ve made some progress. Among this year’s Academy Award nominees are eighteen African Americans, five Asian Americans, and one native-born Hispanic American. Three of the nine Best Picture 2017 nominees put African Americans at the center of their narratives (Fences, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures), as do three in the Documentary category (OJ: Made in America, I Am Not Your Negro, and 13th). One third of the Best Picture bracket have female leads (Hidden Figures, Arrival, and La La Land), and one (Moonlight) is concerned with matters of sexual orientation.

There’s still a long way to go, but this heightened attention to race (thanks in part to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign) and gender (aided by ongoing research from the Geena Davis Institute) is all to the good. Yet while Hollywood has begun to confront its straight, white male gaze, it has yet to acknowledge its propertied gaze: While it’s still unusual to find big studio films about people of color, gays and lesbians, and women, it is even rarer to find ones that offer perspectives on the lives of poor and homeless people.

This is a long-standing problem. By my count, in the history of American cinema there are perhaps 300 films that deal centrally with those issues — even though the majority of us will be poor at least once over the course of our lives. Only two films even passably about poverty — My Fair Lady and Lady and the Tramp — can be counted among the 100 highest grossing US films, which offers one possible explanation for why more movies about people in need are not made: Perhaps that’s not what audiences want.

But it’s not just quantity that’s a problem, but quality, too, for even when filmmakers are trying to offer insight — even when they seem to mean well — they often wind up reinforcing pernicious myths and relying on clichés and tattered narrative tropes.

Advertisement in Moving Picture World for the American film The Fear of Poverty (1916) by Thanhouser Film Corporation. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Advertisement in Moving Picture World for the American film The Fear of Poverty (1916) by Thanhouser Film Corporation. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

2009 Best Picture contender, Precious, is a useful example. Its director, Lee Daniels, only the second black Best Director nominee at the time, nonetheless gave us a film that trafficked in the ugliest stereotypes of poor, African American communities, and the people in them. His nomination reflected not a recognition of diverse viewpoints and original storytelling, but a reward for conforming to age-old supremacist ideology. Perhaps it is no surprise that Daniels has disassociated himself from #OscarsSoWhite.

Even when films seem interested in these marginalized populations, they turn out not really to care much about them. Take The Soloist. Despite its marketing, this was not a story about the homeless musician played by Jamie Foxx, but one about how far the reporter played by Robert Downey, Jr. will go to rescue the poor man, and how the reporter is made better for having done so. When they are not tools to be used for others’ redemption, poor and homeless Americans are objects of fear (villains who will destroy the social order — Hobo with a Shotgun is an extreme recent case) or objects of pity (passive, pathetic souls with little agency — think of Robert DeNiro’s character in 2012’s Being Flynn). They are typically not mad about their condition, however, and the audience is not meant to be, either. We may feel sympathy, or even gratitude (there but for the grace of God go I), but seldom are we called upon to react with anger or indignation.

When a character is poor or homeless, that is ordinarily the most important thing about them, and when movies try to explain why people are in such a state, the causes are rooted in individual failure or a dramatic, tragic event. There is almost never a sense of the political and economic forces that create poverty and make it a common occurrence. Blaming people for their poverty serves a function, obviating the need for policy change or a reallocation of resources. It relieves us, the viewer, of the obligation to press public institutions to operate more equitably. It reassures us that the world is as it is for a reason, and even if things are grim for some, it’s ultimately their own fault or the hand of God. There is, either way, nothing to be done.

While Hollywood valorizes those who must undertake heroic efforts just to survive (think of Will Smith in Pursuit of Happyness), in reality, hard work and “grit” do not necessarily lead to improved circumstances. Most Americans in poverty don’t triumph against the odds – they succumb to them.

There are exceptions to these patterns in cinema of course, and one of this year’s Best Pictures, Moonlight, is among them. While young Chiron lives in public housing, his greatest challenge isn’t poverty, but his mother’s addiction and coming to terms with becoming a man and being gay. There’s no prurient gaze, no judgment. Hell or High Water, another Best Picture nominee, is among the few movies concerned with the effects of the recent economic crisis. The Great Recession hums in the background here (“Closing Down” “Debt Relief” “In Debt?” “Fast Cash When You Need It,” are among the roadside signs we see throughout) but the problems are deeper and older — these are folks who have been struggling for generations. So, when Toby (Chris Pine) robs banks, it is a small gesture toward balancing the scales: Banks have been robbing Americans like him forever, after all, and they are poor not for lack of effort but because the forces arrayed against them are so great.

The success of these films tells us that there is an audience for them. We should celebrate that, and encourage more filmmakers to follow their lead. And next year during Oscar season, when we ask how well women, sexual minorities, and people of color are represented, we should also ask how many fully realized poor and homeless people we find on the screen.

 Featured image credit: film 8mm low light 15299. Public domain via Pixabay.

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