Can Hollywood do more about homelessness?
On Oscars Night 2009, a rags-to-riches story—with Bollywood song and dance interspersed—of a slum dwelling child from Mumbai, India, reaped eight Academy Awards. But, while the team of Slumdog Millionaire celebrated, the country on whose back the narrative rode on was not entirely happy—an entire Wikipedia page’s worth of unhappy comments from Indians and the Indian diaspora, in fact. Critics, of the official and the unofficial kind, labelled the film another package of clichés, another overt glorification of India’s poverty. It is certainly not the first time Western media has had to wrestle with how to portray a developing country, in its glory and its underbelly.
Western media has been scolded time and again for being laissez-faire about such sensitivities. British band Coldplay’s music video for Hymn for the Weekend was criticised for culturally appropriating Indian culture and bowing to worn stereotypes. British artist Ed Sheeran was awarded the Rusty Radiator Award for a charity campaign that painted him as the white saviour to Liberia’s impoverished street children. Poverty porn, of which Slumdog Millionaire has also been accused, has been a consistent thorn in authentic activism. For those unfamiliar with the term, it was coined around the 1980s to encapsulate the imagery used by Western charities to attract donations. Close up shots of the emaciated bones and bulging eyes of a starving African child is its most familiar manifestation. Such visuals have been deemed exploitative of its subjects and misrepresentative of the complexity of poverty, all for financial gain. And it is not just developing countries that are stand-ins for such narratives; the poor and homeless of developed countries are also largely classed into mentally ill alcoholics and drug addicts with a penchant for violence. The furore is not in vain, at all; it is fairly uncommon to find a truly authentic depiction of what poverty looks like—outside of the documentary genre at least.
That is not to say, however, that it is a path uncharted. There have been several productions that treat the subject of poverty in its unadorned self. As we near the 2018 edition of the Academy Awards, there is no better time to begin a conversation about these films that have dug just a bit deeper under the surface:
This Australian production tells the true story of Saroo Brierley. Separated from his family at the age of 5, Saroo is eventually adopted by an Australian couple. Almost two decades later, he uses Google Maps to pinpoint his birthplace of Ganesh Talai in Madhya Pradesh, India, and reunites with his biological mother. As the first half of the film unfolds, we follow Saroo and his brother as they zip across town, taking odd jobs to put food on their plate and support their single mother, a construction worker who lives hand-to-mouth. The film also sheds light on a larger endemic, the missing children of India, most of whom are not fortunate enough to find their way back home.
Lady in the Van (2015)
This British production takes a more comical approach to a very real story. The film is the fifth iteration of a fascinating relationship that Alan Bennett, a British playwright, screenwriter, actor and author, had with a homeless woman named Mary Shepherd. The story was previously translated into an essay, a book, a stage play and a radio play as well. Dame Maggie Smith portrays Mary, an eccentric woman who befriends Bennett and parks her van in his Camden home for 15 years. While deliberately character-centric rather than a stance on a social problem, the film reiterates the human elements that are often overshadowed by the problem itself. The International Network of Street Papers puts it rightly so: “The Lady in the Van is about making protagonists out of characters whose voices would normally not be heard”.
Time Out of Mind (2014)
This American drama follows George, a mentally ill homeless man on the streets of New York, as he confronts his many demons. The film was well received overall, with several critics noting its filmmaking technique as creating an authentic experience. Rogerebert.com described the film as being “more like being in a public place and deciding to allow the scene around you to become a drama”. Lead actor Richard Gere also received immense praise for his portrayal—a role he researched for close to two decades. According to New York Daily News, the film’s script was first conceived in 1988 and was put on the back burner until a suitable team came on board. In the interim, Gere worked with the New York Coalition for the Homeless among other groups and also visited shelters to understand the plight of the homeless. A committed performance, truly.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
This drama is based off entrepreneur Chris Gardner’s biography of the same name. The story follows Chris and his toddler son as they confront homelessness on his journey to becoming a successful stockbroker. The film was a critical success, with Will Smith’s performance earning him his second Academy Award nomination. While critics hailed the on-screen chemistry between Smith and his son, Jaden, they were also quick to highlight the film’s poignant honesty in displaying the struggles of achieving the American dream. While his stint with homelessness was brief compared to many out there—around a year in length—the film is especially firm in illustrating how perceptions can differ from reality. Not all homeless individuals are mentally ill alcoholics with drug problems, as the media so often leads us to believe. As Chris Gardner said in a keynote speech in 2011, they can also be “people who went to school, worked hard, played by the rules and then life happened".
The Internet tells me there are many more films of the kind but how successfully or unsuccessfully they tackle homelessness as a theme or in their subjects is for your exploration. What is important, however, is to discern when stereotypes are being lazily perpetuated and when there is sincerity in trying to tread the complexity of homelessness and poverty at large. Because ultimately, the idiot box influences us much more than we care to admit.
About the author
Madhurya recently joined the billionBricks team as an volunteer to create beautiful content for our blog
and social platforms. She has degrees in journalism and communications and is passionate about
storytelling for social impact.