The Bookshelf: Stephen Pimpare and the On-Screen Politics of Poverty

Aug 18, 2017

Since the advent of film in the early 20th century, movies have taken up the task of depicting poverty and homelessness. Scenes of the poor have been informed by the culture in which they were made, and in turn influenced public opinions about what it means to be poor or homeless.

Stephen Pimpare is senior lecturer in American Politics and Public Policy at UNH, and his new book takes a look at how films depict people living in poverty. The book is called Ghettos, Tramps, and Welfare Queens: Down and Out on the Silver Screen and he talked about it with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Stephen Pimpare’s Top Five Film Recommendations

1.   Claudine (1974). “The most insightful portrayal of life on welfare you’ll find on film, with stellar performances by Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones. It’s the antidote to Precious.”

2.   The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011). “If you want to understand why so many public housing projects were considered failures, there’s no better place to start than this documentary. Smart, sophisticated, and infuriating.”

3.   Candyman (1992). “Surprisingly enough, this horror movie offers its own sophisticated argument about segregation and public housing, and is pretty creepy to boot. Say his name three times in the mirror and…”

4.   Wendy and Lucy (2008). “A meditative, heart-breaking movie that captures a lot of the day-to-day struggle that poverty brings with it. Ballast and Frozen River, from that same year, are well worth your time, too.”

5.   The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Perhaps the most famous movies about poverty ever made, and among the very best. It holds up beautifully.

For this book you watched nearly 300 American films that featured some element of poverty and one of the things you looked at was how depictions of people living in poverty changed over time. Did you observe any patterns of change? 

To be specific, I watched more than 300 movies and wound up identifying 300 that I think are significantly about poverty or homelessness in one way or another. And among the things that I found that surprised me a little bit is that I didn't, in fact, find much by way of a pattern.

I expected that at the very least, surely there's going to be something distinct about movies in the 1930s right during the height of the Great Depression, there’s going to be something that singles out those portrayals and I expected them to be more sympathetic, perhaps, and significantly more of them. Neither of those things turned out to be true.

From my perspective, the story is in fact one of consistency over time. There are certainly lots of variation from film to film and director to director as to how these kinds of portrayals play out. But I've not seen anything that breaks down those patterns into decades or to particular moments in political history.

There were quite a few films that you mentioned here that, when poor people were depicted, they were often depicted not entirely in three dimensional ways. They were often props for other, more well-off characters.

This is something that for me popped up over and over and over again and became a little bit surprising in its prevalence. If you think of a movie like, say, The Fisher King, or more recently The Soloist. Fisher King is a movie that presents itself as being about Robin Williams, a homeless man living in Central Park. The Soloist presents itself, and you can see this if you look at the advertising, as being about a former Juilliard musician played by Jamie Foxx who is homeless living on the streets in Los Angeles.

But if you watch those movies and pay attention to what's going on, those are not the characters that the movie is most interested in. Those are movies about the ways in which non-homeless men fix themselves, redeem themselves through the act of coming to understand and helping a poor and homeless person.

It's not quite that they are ignored but that they are tools—a very old religious kind of idea right. That the reason that the poor are put on the earth is so that we can use them to attain and secure our place in heaven. I find that this plays out in lots and lots and lots of movies.

Were there any movies that you felt were accurate or had fair descriptions of people who were living in poverty or who were homeless?

There were. Unfortunately we have to go back a number of decades, but in 1974 a movie called Claudine, which for my money is probably the best portrayal of what it is to be on welfare and try to raise kids under the old AFDC program as you're likely to find, with Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones.

It really is beautifully portrayed, but it also does a better job of actually understanding the ways in which those policies played out in the world.

When we’re talking about Hollywood movies, we don't find an awful lot of careful attention to the reality of the ways in which these policies function among real people. What we get is a lot of echoing of those public stereotypes and the less empathetic public rhetoric around poor people and homeless people.

One of the things you also focused on in this book is how social workers and people who work to advocate for these people are portrayed.

Social workers fare very, very badly in the movies. By and large in the movies, if there is a social worker present then she—and it is almost always a she—is going to make things worse rather than better. It's in a funny way one of a few instances in which we see a radical perspective played out, because you know within the social work profession on the far left, radicals in social work have been complaining since the 20s, since the advent of Freud, that social work is ultimately too conservative and too judgmental and doesn't understand or appreciate the lives of poor people.

Movies adopt that perspective, and if a social worker is showing up, she is going to be the villain, she's going to be haughty, she's going to be clueless, she's not going to be listening carefully, and she's going to be much more interested in rigidly applying rules and regulations than she is in actually offering assistance to people.

Has that changed over time?

You know, there is a period in the early century, the teens and the 20s, in which we see a fair number of social workers. The social worker is sort of a regular character. If anybody knows Clara Bow's It, the team of social workers wind up being important to this story.

More recently, almost entirely absent. We’ve got a social worker or two in Precious, but nothing of note before that until Claudine.            

Precious made waves when it came out, because it was considered one of the more brutal depictions of life for some people. You remark in your book, with respect to Precious, that this might be an outlier and this may not be exactly how most people depend on welfare or use welfare.

It’s probably fair to say that I reserve my harshest critical language in the book for Precious. It is quite difficult to describe how much I loathed it, in part because we do not get an awful lot of depictions of African-American families in the 1980s in central Harlem living on public assistance. So it feels to me, that when we do get a story that traffics in age old ugly, invidious stereotypes—I mean this is the embodiment of the welfare queen and the rapacious black male—the argument is not that such people do not exist. But the argument is that everything we know across all of the social sciences is that that is not the experience of most people using those programs, and that's not what Harlem was like in poor and low income communities in the 1980s.

To only give viewers that portrait seems to me doing a disservice, particularly when you know that Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry were among the producers so they've got disproportionate power and influence. And who am I to speak for them, but it seems to me that they've got a moral obligation to be more selective about which kinds of images they show to a broader public, knowing that they're going to make more people see that movie because their names are attached to it.

When we go to see a movie, any movie, are we likely to encounter a realistic scene of what it's like to live in poverty, or in general is American cinema just missing the mark?

I think to generalize American cinema is missing the mark. Because of the nature of the medium, there are not lots of poor and homeless people involved in making movies there aren't a lot of poor or homeless movie directors or screenwriters or producers.

So what we wind up with is almost inevitably a second or third hand portrait of what those experiences are like. One of the ways in which we can do better is to approach movies about poverty and homelessness the same way we approach movies about the police or about war or about the CIA. It’s now standard practice in Hollywood, if you're making a police movie, you go out you hire retired police officers who can show your actors how to hold the gun and talk about what procedure actually looks like—in this belief that authenticity matters.

We could do the same for other kinds of movies, including those about poor and homeless people, to actually bring in people with a deeper knowledge of that experience to help shape the kinds of narratives and the images that get created.

Do you see some kind of connection between the way poor and homeless people are depicted in film and the policies that our government implements?

I do. And when I first set out to write the book, my hope was that I would be able to trace a line of causation to identify these particular political or cultural moments that produce these kinds of movies, or particular movies that produce particular kinds of political actions.

And I wasn't really able to do that. Part of the problem is that we're looking at a feedback loop, where we all inhabit this particular culture that has very particular attitudes about poor and homeless people. Moviemakers are not excluded from that, so they wind up drawing on that in order to produce those images, which then wind up reinforcing those very distorted public conceptions about what it means to be poor in America.