For 50 Years, Films Have Largely Failed to Fight The War on Poverty

By  · Published on January 14th, 2014

A repeated critique leveled at Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is that it doesn’t show the consequences of Jordan Belfort’s actions – we don’t see, in other words, the direct repercussions of Belfort’s lies to and manipulations of ordinary people. In contrast to the director’s otherwise very similar Goodfellas and Casino, it’s easier (cinematically speaking) to show somebody getting beaten to a pulp than panicking about their house payments.

However, Wolf does have one interesting moment in its final minutes that stands distinctly from the miasma of excess coating its other three hours – when Kyle Chandler’s Agent Denham takes a subway ride home, surrounded by an anonymous underclass whose lives and identities never breach Belfort’s bubble of expensive distractions.

Had The Wolf of Wall Street spent significant time representing those directly affected by Belfort’s actions beyond the class seclusion suggested by this brief moment, it would have illustrated a type of everyday financial struggle rarely addressed in detail in American cinema. Class differences and conflicts have been an ever-present topic in American movies, especially in Romeo and Juliet renditions like Titanic and Love Story, but there are have existed few narrative traditions for representing in detail particular class struggles, specifically those pertaining to poverty.

At Home and Abroad

This month marks the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s declaration of a War on Poverty, a legislation push which led to the establishment of programs like Head Start and Medicaid, and the strengthening of existing policies like Social Security, all in order to federally assist and support the most economically vulnerable among us. Yet this anniversary demands some qualifications, as Johnson’s efforts quickly became distracted by Vietnam, and the legacy of Reaganism made significant endeavors to dismantle all notions of centralized responsibility to an economic underclass. But with the financial collapse of 2008 and ensuing political movements, a renewed class awareness has shaped contemporary political consciousness. Could this lead to movies that tell stories about economically vulnerable people like those briefly glanced at in Wolf of Wall Street? If so, would such movies have any precedent to model themselves off of?

At the risk of sounding reductive, certain world cinemas seem to hold clear traditions in terms of their representations of class. Buñuel’s satires of manners subverted intrinsic Western European hierarchies. Britain’s kitchen sink dramas revealed a struggling proletariat, and their tradition of melodrama (everything between Educating Rita and Downton Abbey) made an enthralling spectacle of class conflict. Recent international art films have explored the complex class hierarchies that have evolved as a result of globalization; films like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Daniel Espinosa’s Easy Money, and Walter Salles’s segment of Paris je t’aime, to name just a few, illustrate with laudable insight the cost of social mobility, and who is left on the margins. And all of this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the countless class-conscious social realisms that have developed around the globe since the Second World War.

The Hero’s Journey Up the Ladder

But stories of inter- and intra-class struggle in American films are divided between a series of often-overlapping categories. The most frequent are stories of individual aspiration, or movies where protagonists experiencing prolonged poverty or an economic rut pursue some way to transcend their station, and either succeed in doing so through actually moving up or finding some realization of success outside of traditional class structures – as in The Pursuit of Happyness or Hustle & Flow – or suffer the consequences of their (legit or otherwise) struggle upward – as in Midnight Cowboy, The Wrestler, and the recent Out of the Furnace. Narratives of aspiration can occasionally incorporate some outsider figure through which the film’s gaze on poverty is framed, and this figure both helps the underprivileged and typically benefits in some emotional or thematic way as well – think Stand & Deliver, The Fisher King, Trading Places, or The Blind Side.

Unlike the aforementioned social realist styles that have been prominent elsewhere around the globe, these films often see class struggle in connection with individual personality traits rather than systems of exclusion. The humbly virtuous, impoverished protagonist of American cinema seemed to pass away with Charlie Chaplin; instead, some past trauma is typically the go-to explanation for economic plight (The Fisher King and The Wrestler are almost mirror images in this aspect). Such conceits often put the responsibility class mobility squarely on the shoulders of the character, not the environment that took part in determining their state of existence.

But it makes sense that such a view of American poverty has revisited our movie screens throughout the past several decades, for it affirms the received wisdom cultivated by the Reaganist philosophy that class position is a direct correlation of individual will and character, with poverty as evidence of the failure to pull oneself forcefully enough by one’s bootstraps (if bootstraps weren’t so damned expensive to begin with).

Trickle Down Storytelling

The 2006 smash-hit Pursuit of Happyness is probably the best example of how this political thinking is applied to cinematic storytelling. Chris Gardner’s story of surviving homelessness by working tirelessly to acquire a job at a brokerage firm both affirms a Reaganist view of poverty and fits snugly with the conventional Hollywood hero narrative by chronicling an individual character’s realization of a life-changing goal. Yet the very existence of the film raises some telling contradictions. If Gardner’s story is an exemplary narrative of a post-1980 version of the American Dream – one that, according to its own view of poverty, ostensibly “anyone” can accomplish if they simply incentivize themselves to try hard enough – then why is Gardner’s story (which he has built an entire career out of) so incredibly rare? What if Gardner didn’t get that job depicted at the end of the film? Would he then become an unworthy movie protagonist? Would we think he simply wasn’t as good and didn’t try as hard as one of his peers, or would such an ending put the ethics and assumptions of a Darwinian view of social mobility into question?

Inside or outside of the aspiration narrative, the few American films that bother to address poverty at all typically address stories of African-Americans and other persons of color, as the history of American economic inequality is greatly implicated in its history of racial inequality and oppression. Yet the aspirational narrative and its attendant political assumptions have made for some problematic representations at the intersection of race and class, suggesting that poverty and a lack of economic opportunity for persons of color is evidence of a shared failure to lift the collective self from it, which informs cartoonish fantasies like this:

But there has also been a rich history of African-American films that buck these conventions by examining low-income and impoverished African-American communities with depth and variation, and eschewing convenient hero narratives in favor of exploring a larger, more complex vision of a social milieu characterized by shared struggle and culture. While more recent films like Lee Daniels’s Precious and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild have been criticized for their use of caricature, films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Lance Hammer’s Ballast, and Charles Burnett’s masterful Killer of Sheep construct striking tapestries of everyday life without ever implicating economic status as directly tied to the merits of the individual characters.

Final Thoughts

From romantic comedies that portray low-stakes lives of relative comfort to indictments if the ruling class’s excesses ranging from Arthur to Marty and Leo’s latest collaboration, the spectacle of living rich has clearly produced more palatable material for the silver screen than the difficult daily reality of those who struggle. Clearly, there are notable exceptions to this non-rule, and the above is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of this difficult topic. But it’s abundantly clear that, in the political battle over the War on Poverty that’s been waged variously throughout the past fifty years, one political position aligns more readily with conventional Hollywood storytelling than the other.

Yet perhaps there’s something about narrative filmmaking that makes it structurally ill-fit to address complex systemic issues of economic inequality that result from dense histories and convoluted correspondences between private and public rule-makers. As I write these words, I’m watching the third hour of Frederick Wiseman’s epic documentary At Berkeley, whose opening fifteen minutes feature a Public Policy course discussion that address American poverty with greater depth and clarity than nearly all of the films mentioned above.

But, then again, representing poverty shouldn’t require the running time of a television miniseries or a comprehensive understanding of economics, but the admission of a simple, fundamental truth that great pre-1964 films as disparate as The Gold Rush and The Bicycle Thief knew all too well. Barbara Ehrenreich puts it best: “Poverty is not a character failing or a lack of motivation. Poverty is a shortage of money.”