The Common Good
April 2006

On-Screen Blind Spots

by Donovan Jacobs | April 2006

Hollywood shows little respect for working-class and poor people.

In less than five years—the time it took to produce a movie on Sept. 11—Hollywood will unveil a major motion picture on Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans. One can already imagine some of the movie’s big sequences: the hero clawing through his attic ceiling to escape the floodwaters, a rape in the bowels of the Superdome, a crowd of (mostly black) gunmen firing at the police from a partially submerged overpass. (The latter two, of course, never happened.)

But it’s a safe bet you won’t find many scenes that humanize the poor and working people most devastated by the storm and its aftermath. And it’s even more unlikely that the movie will explore the day-to-day social conditions of the disaster’s impoverished victims. Most films and television programs run counter to gospel values in an important regard: their dismissive, scornful treatment of the poor that Jesus repeatedly urged us to reach out to and find worth in.

Hollywood’s history has included brief periods in which significant numbers of sympathetic poor and working-class portrayals have appeared. The end of the Great Depression saw the film classics The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley; even the pre-twister portion of The Wizard of Oz spotlights the humble Kansas farm of Dorothy’s aunt and uncle. In the early 1970s, several hit TV series focused on characters under or just above the poverty line, notably The Waltons and Norman Lear’s sitcoms All in the Family, Good Times, and Sanford and Son. (It’s worth pointing out, however, that two of these series were based on British shows.)

Such movies and TV series have become increasingly rare in the last 25 years. The mid-1980s saw a trio of motion pictures chronicling the woes of the small farmer (the most notable of these being the Oscar-winning Places in the Heart), while Do The Right Thing in 1989 and Boyz ’N the Hood in 1991 proved that films about inner-city life could be artistically and financially successful, but both trends failed to last. The late 1980s also saw the birth of two popular TV sitcoms about working-class families: Roseanne and The Simpsons. Now in its 17th season on Fox, the latter series continues to find satirical humor in Homer’s struggles to make ends meet in his dead-end job at a nuclear power plant, a job Homer intermittently escapes but always returns to for financial security.

But it’s hard to think of a successful TV program about working people besides CBS’ The King of Queens that has premiered since Roseanne ended its run nearly a decade ago. The most prominent portrayals of the poor these days appear on the ABC reality series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where the problems of people overwhelmed by life are both exploited as entertainment and “solved” by giving them a new house that primarily affords opportunities to plug the show’s sponsors.

When the poor are seen in theatrical movies these days, they tend to be viewed with contempt. The recent comedy Fun with Dick and Jane features a gallery of grotesque, moronic shoppers and workers at a Costco-like warehouse store and deported Latinos acting like animals while trying to re-enter the United States. Dick and Jane themselves are reduced to seemingly subhuman status by their brush with poverty (both suffer temporary speech impediments and have their faces disfigured after Dick tries to work as a day laborer and Jane participates in a medical trial to make any money they can). Admittedly a satire—though the targets of the satire aren’t consistent—the movie goes on to celebrate Dick and Jane’s method for escaping the hell of being poor: becoming robbers.

When working-class people in movies are shown in a sympathetic light, they’re either physically stunning (see Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan or Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball) or viewed from the safe distance of 70 years (as with the heroic working-class characters in Cinderella Man and Seabiscuit, both set during the Depression).

SO WHY DO the entertainment media show so little respect for impoverished and working-class people? First and foremost, the poor and their stories—however brave and significant both are—don’t fit the Hollywood formula. Hollywood’s conventional wisdom requires heroes on the big and small screens to possess a sufficient level of economic freedom (or at least well-paying jobs, such as police officer or doctor) to allow them to help others, as if the poor don’t routinely overcome their financial straits to provide for themselves and their cohorts. Even if poor characters were given the opportunity to battle their circumstances, poverty isn’t an obstacle that can be overcome with physical action or the sort of simple, decisive problem-solving process found in virtually all stories in movies and on TV.

It’s an odd paradox of film and television that while the highly popular horror genre revolves around scaring people as entertainment, being poor is considered scary in an entirely different and unpleasant context. CBS President Les Moonves spelled this out in a New York Times interview last year when he declared that “American audiences don’t like dark....They like strength, not weakness, a chance to work out any dilemma.”

Movies and television programs generate much of their appeal by illustrating and upholding the myths that define our social and personal relationships. Portraying poverty honestly challenges—even debunks—two cherished American myths: that desire and hard work can solve any problem, and that all Americans have the opportunity to make their lives better.

According to Hollywood wisdom, economically, the poor aren’t seen as important film or TV customers. They’re assumed not to have the disposable income needed to attend movies frequently, to subscribe to cable and satellite services, or to afford most of the products TV sells.

There are a lot of poor people (37 million Americans live below the poverty line) and the poor watch more TV than average—begging the conclusion that these audiences should be served with more programming that addresses their issues and needs. But network and advertising executives counter that their programs don’t need to appeal to the poor: They consider the poor a captive audience.

The backgrounds of most top creative people and decision-makers in entertainment media also play a role in excluding people with limited incomes. Few of these industry leaders come from poor or working-class homes, and many were educated at elite institutions. A dictum every screenwriter in Hollywood hears is, “Write what you know.” Too many top writers, directors, producers, and executives have never known what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet—and don’t care to find out.

Finally, a disproportionate number of movies and TV shows celebrate the trivial (because it sells) and shy away from more serious, spiritually driven topics. The hard work and sacrifice it takes to follow Jesus’ teachings (serving the poor, the sick, and the outsider; giving away one’s possessions; believing that the death of one man—who shunned earthly power—opened the door to everlasting life for all) either doesn’t connect with or conflicts with the values (celebrity for celebrity’s sake, conspicuous consumption, aggressively pursuing and wielding power, choosing short-term pleasure over everything else, etc.) that too many movies and TV programs praise. This doesn’t make enjoying movies or TV evil, but the embrace of this worldview makes it harder for entertainment media to defy their profit-and-loss statements and serve everyone in society.

THERE ARE GLIMMERS of hope. NBC’s hit comedy series My Name Is Earl makes fun of its low-income characters but also praises the resiliency and sense of community found among the poor. Two cable reality shows, Random 1 on A&E and 30 Days on FX, have compassionately portrayed issues facing the homeless and people working for minimum wage. In addition, a handful of recent movies advocate ideas such as giving up one’s own riches to assist the poor (the wonderful British film Millions) and supporting the rights of working people (the Charlize Theron drama North Country), while others authentically portray even the most brutal members of the underclass as possessing the capacity to love and nurture (the superb South African movie Tsosti).

But all of us—as citizens (the true owners of the airwaves) and consumers—must work harder to make the situation brighter. We can lobby motion picture and television executives and creative people to more consistently spotlight the issues of poor and working-class people as well as generate more positive images of these groups. It’s no stretch to imagine a CSI episode that offers a respectful, non-stereotypical portrait of the impoverished family of a crime victim, along with a story that revolves around a medical condition that especially impacts those who can’t afford health insurance.

Another solution involves finding ways to teach poor and working-class people to use new media technologies. The Internet savvy might help set up blogs to make working peoples’ opinions and issues more accessible. Those with access to inexpensive digital video cameras could equip poor people around the world, allowing them to chronicle their lives and film their own stories; these accounts could be widely and cheaply distributed on DVD. A challenge to making these forms of expression widely available involves closing the “digital divide,” which prevents low-income people from gaining full access to the Internet and video technology.

In a perfect world, Hollywood would recognize the fascinating stories that poor and working-class people can tell about their struggles and triumphs and present those tales more consistently. But if Hollywood won’t help, it is incumbent on poor people and their allies to find new ways to lift up their voices and stories to be heard and seen by all.

Donovan Jacobs is a writer and script consultant based in Los Angeles. He contributed a chapter to the book Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture (Baker Books, 2005).

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