Poverty in the Movies - So Not Changing the World

Sunday, November 22, 2009 | General | Margy's Blog & Updates | News

 

Precious, the movie, has been getting a lot of attention – and some of my friends recommend it highly. But, I’ve been resisting. A.O. Scott, in his commentary Two Movies, Two Routes From Poverty, confirms my inclination to avoid. I waited years to see Pursuit of Happyness for the same reason. That film made me cry, but it also made me mad. Scott points out the problem of movies about poverty: they usually focus (by necessity) on the story of the individual and thereby obscure the systemic issues. I just mostly get annoyed seeing movies that reinforce the problematic, widespread assumption that a little more charity and/or personal responsibility will solve the problem. Where do people get those ideas? From….uh, the movies!!

Raina Kelley, in an essay in Newsweek, took a more ambivalent, less incendiary view, noting that the movie’s intense focus on an individual’s terrible story blunted its potential to make a larger statement. “I wish I could agree with those who say ‘Precious’ is just one more movie that feeds our vision of ourselves as victims,” she wrote. “Even that would have been better than what lies underneath: the fact that black people have begun to accept as unchangeable the lot of those stuck in the ghetto.”

And this is a critique that might extend to “The Blind Side” as well. Both movies tell stories that suggest a way out of poverty, brutality and domestic calamity for certain lucky individuals while saying very little about how those conditions might be changed. For all their differences, they ultimately occupy a common ground that is both optimistic and, at the same time, curiously defeatist. Both locate the problems facing their main characters in the failure of families — of mothers in particular — and find solutions in better families, substitute mothers (Ms. Rain and Leigh Anne), whose selflessness and loyalty exorcise the biological monsters who have been left behind. The fact that “The Blind Side” is based on a true story lends credibility to this sentimental idea.

Left or right, black or white, Americans love happy endings. Overcoming adversity is our national pastime, especially when it can also be a spectator sport. And we love stories of heroic educators, coaches and moms — Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver” — who change the lives of poor, marginalized children by teaching them hard work and self esteem. Let me be clear: I’m not disparaging either “Precious” or “The Blind Side,” even though I think “Precious” is a much better movie. They are both sincere and serious, and if they serendipitously share a premise, they also share a blind spot, which is hardly theirs alone.

At the end of “Precious” the heroine shoulders her burden and sets off to make her way in the world, a conclusion that may be objectively bleak — Precious is an H.I.V.-positive teenage mother who has only recently learned to read and write — but that fills the audience with a sense of hard-won redemption. We believe she will be all right because we would rather believe that than confront the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.