Depictions of American Poverty in World Cinema

This is the third in a series of articles investigating cinematic depictions of poverty from around the world. The first piece looked at depictions of Indian poverty and the second at African poverty. This one focuses on The United States.

Very often, we deal with the poor as abstractions. We lump them all together as statistics, and plan solutions to raise those numbers. This is dehumanizing for the actual people whom those statistics represent. At their best, these statistics provide common ground for aid workers to debate and forecast the results of their work. At worst, “we give ourselves permission to play god in the lives of the poor,” because we fail to view them as fully formed people created by God, as Bryant Myers states in his excellent book.

Viewing world cinema provides a corrective to this danger. Films feature characters, and so films put actual names and faces on poverty. Though often fictional, the audience knows the stories are based on the real world, and so the audience is encouraged to accept a more nuanced impression of the poor. Through world cinema, audiences are granted a deeper appreciation of the complex challenges facing poor people in diverse contexts around the world.

Having examined films from parts of the world with high percentages of people living in poverty, I’d like to briefly look at the way poverty is depicted in two films from the United States, a nation where less than two percent of people live on less than two dollars per day.

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire and Winter’s Bone

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire and Winter’s Bone, were both nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, though neither won. They each deal with a separate segment of American poverty, though both feature young women in lead roles. Precious is set in Harlem and focuses on a young African American woman trying to obtain an education, and Winter’s Bone is set in rural Missouri and follows a young woman trying to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance.

Poverty in American cinema looks similar to poverty in films from parts of the world. The poor in Precious and Winter’s Bone don’t go hungry, but they do eat unhealthy, unorthodox food to survive (fried pig’s feet in Precious and fried squirrel in Bone). The poor in both films have contentious relationships with any governmental authorities even though the authorities are trying to help them.

The poor in both films also live surrounded by violence, but it is not the violence of crime or combat. The poor are plagued by domestic violence in American films (Precious is abused by her mother and father, and Bone’s Ree is beaten by her extended family who have also killed her father). The poor in both films are also very intelligent (both heroines are able to accomplish things no one else in the story can), strong (both heroines endure incredible physical, mental, and emotional hardship), and self-sacrificing for those they love (Precious is willing to be beaten to protect her son, and Ree refuses to abandon her siblings).

Family perpetuates poverty in both films. Both Precious and Ree’s relatives cause all their problems, and they have to overcome their family to solve those problems. Their family abuses them sexually, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Their family holds them back from any attempts they make to better their lives. In Precious’ moment of greatest triumph, she runs away from home, escaping her abusive home into homelessness. Ree calls her siblings a “burden” in the same breath that she promises to never leave them. Given a world which includes a capable, compassionate government, economic and educational opportunity, and the intelligence and strength of the films’ protagonists, family connections are, apparently, the only things that hold one back.

The films also present one hope for rising out of poverty – education – but before one can pursue education, one must walk away from ones family. Precious is able to begin a better life because she is accepted into a special school for troubled teenagers, but her new educational opportunities are constantly threatened by her abusive home-life. Eventually she escapes her domestic situation and is able to begin walking into a new life. Similarly, Ree wants to join the military for the educational opportunities she’ll receive there, but she is not allowed to do so because a recruiter tells her she needs to stay home for a bit longer and take care of her siblings.

American films come from a context in which systemic poverty has been all but eradicated, so they lay the blame for continued poverty at the feet of the largest autonomous societal unit – the family. If they poor can break those impoverished bonds, they are invited to enter into the greater wealthy society through the portal of education.