My thoughts on the 2007 film
Will Smith is very engaging and sympathetic, but my critique is of the world he enters – and that it is never really critiqued by the film.
In passing, it does throw up that a homeless woman has more chance of getting a bed for the night, though I’d like to add that both men and women need shelter, whether or not they have a child with them.
I thought that the way the church he slept at handled the “we’re full” tonight was about as tactful as the end of Bugs Bunny cartoons – that’s all folks. No more, you need to leave. And yet the real Chris Gardner, whose story this is, is grateful and asked that the real pastor re-enact his role.
The US tax system is disgusting: that money can be taken without notice or discussion direct from your bank if they believe that you have underpaid. The IRS seem to have no thought for what money they leave you with. This was directly responsible for putting Chris and son on the streets.
The carparking fine system is likewise a disgrace, that holds you in prison overnight, jeopardising job and the safety of children. Is this person dangerous? Is this money so urgently and truly needed? And then to threaten social services on you for being a bad parent!!
The behaviour of landlords was also abysmal. I wish in the film that Chris had tried to explain his circs to his, rather than just fob off yet another rent request and keep walking. But twice he is without home and without notice: he finds a new lock and his things outside, not even a letter. That is illegal – you have to serve notice and go through the courts where I live. Their lack of compassion from landlords shows why so many face homelessness.
It also shows why you need to keep railway stations open at night, and how all night trains also serve a purpose. And it shows that all kinds of people can face homelessness, in case one has a stereotype and belief about who’s deserving of help (an attitude I reject).
It shows how some people make a living through selling unnecessary objects, and how that selling enough of something to live off can be very hard.
But then Chris graduates to more selling of unnecessary objects – financial packages. I was saddened that his impetus to join the world of stockbrokers was seeing a flash car. As a poor person, I could understand his thinking – what would it take to stop this struggle, and what do people who don’t struggle do for a job? But the car lure felt shallow, and stock brokerage not the aspiration that his partner assumes— “Why didn’t you just say astronaut?” she sneers when she hears.
I thought that the film would criticise the stock brokerage entry scheme – that a ‘lucky’ handful of hopefuls work 6 months unpaid, but only one gets a job at the end of it. They’re abused – being asked to lend to (and sometimes pay for) their overpaid superiors, run errands they daren’t say no to, work ridiculously stressful days, always trying to increase productivity and beat their colleagues. I did not admire Chris for saying that he worked out that not drinking water and hanging up the phone between calls gave him an advantage. All jobs need breaks – yes to the bathroom, and to drink. It should never be an advantage to overwork, go without, to be pressed to maximum.
I really wanted Chris to be offered the position at the end, but I also really wanted him to say no. I wanted him to have learned that happyness is not found managing fiscal portfolios, nor in the harsh competitive and abusive world of glass towers. It’s not even just found in family bonds.
The title cards at the end disappointed me – for this was not my idea of reaching happyness, and I’d like to think, not the sort that Lincoln meant when he wrote the quote that the film’s title comes from.
I watched the extras to see if the real Chris had anything better to say. He did say that though the world presented this as a rags to riches tale, he saw it as one of parental love, but even that didn’t entirely endear and soften me. Making it in the financial world wasn’t my idea of achievement. Although I was glad to see that he uses his wealth to help others, I am unsure of the true worthiness of spreading capitalist ideas to new counties and generations.
It felt a little like the oft mentioned Rubik’s Cube (there’s a whole featurette on it) and those medical instruments Chris sells – not that useful, just an end in itself. And whereas those cube competitions don’t harm anyone, the economic markets do, and so does the unspoken message from the film that success in them is something to aspire to.
I would be more concerned about reforming the tax office, night shelters, parking fees procedures, landlords, and the abuses of internships than linking this story to the American dream. I am all for coming through, overcoming odds, seeing determination rewarded, supporting love – all things I hoped for when I chose the film. But I want to see more Lincoln, less Lehman in the outcome.