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Lithium Cosplaying the working class: the ethics of fictional poverty in cinema

Sep. 30, 2021

The music video for Justin Bieber’s 2020 gospel-pop track “Holy” is disorienting, to say the least. Bieber, a multimillionaire, plays an oil-rig worker living in a motel with his partner. The oil plant shuts down and the Biebers are evicted. Roaming the streets, they run into That ‘70s Show star Wilmer Valderrama dressed in military garb, who invites them home for a meal with his family. The video ends with the two families saying grace at the dinner table. All of this is intercut with shots of Bieber lip-syncing in a desert in grease-stained overalls.

Something just feels fundamentally wrong about Bieber donning a working-class costume to send the message of “money doesn’t matter as long as you believe in God.” In his three minutes of moral showboating, Bieber shamelessly exemplifies how not to navigate the ethical minefield of depicting poverty on screen.

While a music video may not be the best medium for social commentary, the case can be made that cinema, with its feature-length runtimes and immersive nature, can shed light on issues that may otherwise go unnoticed. Films about poverty can transform public attitudes and make a lasting social impact. 

Yet the act itself feels somewhat questionable: multimillion-dollar studios pay rich actors to dress up as poor people, ultimately turning a profit and winning awards. Those who love cinema may inherently believe that films can change the world, but when filmmakers spend millions of dollars recreating the experiences of the poor, does it actually help those who are struggling? Where is the line between representation and exploitation?

Hillbilly Elegy, one of 2020’s worst-reviewed films, disregards social and systemic factors to depict poverty as a result of moral failure. Based on a memoir by venture capitalist J.D. Vance, the film follows a Yale Law student who returns to his hometown in rural Ohio when his mother is hospitalized after a heroin overdose. After two hours of melodrama, Vance reaches the peak of his character arc when he realizes that his impoverished origins are an obstacle to capitalist success. He overcomes this by essentially leaving his addict mother behind for a job interview, because “I’m not saving anyone here.” 

In defense of the film, director Ron Howard said audiences and critics were looking at “political thematics” that “aren’t front-and-center in this story.” Filmmakers are not obligated to engage with politics, but they should be cognizant that representations of poverty in cinema are greatly consequential. Images and narratives put on screen can shape attitudes and policy around struggling communities. Hillbilly Elegy sends the message that poverty is something to escape rather than redress, absolving institutions of responsibility and justifying the socioeconomic neglect of rural communities. 

Is there a “correct” way to portray these communities? Filmmakers like Chloé Zhao strive for accuracy by becoming immersed in those communities rather than “helicoptering” in and out. Her first two films are set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which contains some of the country’s poorest counties. Zhao spent over a year and a half living on the reservation, cast locals to play themselves in stories that mirrored their own experiences, and arranged for them to get a share of the films’ profits. “In the end, we leave, but their lives continue,” Zhao said of her relationship to the communities she makes films about.

In a departure from her earlier work, Zhao’s latest film, Nomadland, employs “cosplaying” by inserting Fern, a fictional character portrayed by Frances McDormand, into a cast of RV-living retirees playing themselves. Based on the nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film follows elderly “nomads” who travel around the country performing physical labor to survive. The film faced criticism for its depiction of Amazon, where characters work as seasonal warehouse laborers. While the book details the nomads sustaining work injuries and calling the company “probably the biggest slave owner in the world,” the film shows them working with smiles on their faces and describing the job as “great money.”

The film’s impact is undermined by its misrepresentation of the struggles real-life nomads face and its reluctance to tackle systemic issues head-on. Zhao told Vulture that the film is political and contains socialist messages, but she’s avoided making explicit statements about Amazon, instead maintaining that the film explores “the issue of elder care as a casualty of capitalism.” 

Still, Nomadland has its merits in its sensitive depiction of the nomads’ bravery and agency, which subverts “poverty porn” tropes that objectify the poor to entertain a privileged audience. The same cannot be said of many mainstream Western films about people of color and the Global South.

Why must Black characters be put through trauma to garner mainstream acclaim, after all? The majority of recent Best Picture Oscar nominees that center Black characters depict either slavery (Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave) or poverty (Precious, The Blind Side, Moonlight, Fences). It’s true that the Black experience is inherently linked to trauma, and representing these stories on screen can be an act of reclamation and resistance. But the proliferation of these narratives and images runs the risk of fetishizing Black trauma and reducing Blackness to struggle. 

Similarly, mainstream Western cinema often reinforces negative stereotypes about the Global South. Western films tend to use locations in the Global South as backdrops to represent deprivation, sustaining Orientalist narratives that paint those regions as backwards and uncivilized. This is evident in 2009’s Best Picture Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, a British production about a boy from the slums of Mumbai who rises above his circumstances through sheer luck. While praised by many critics for its “feel-good” message, the film faced pushback from the slum residents it tried to represent. They filed a defamation lawsuit alleging that the film violated their human rights, and protested on the grounds that the film exploited the poor for profit. Many Western films invite voyeurism into the conditions of the poor in the Global South, with no regard to their implications on the communities depicted.

Hillbilly Elegy, Nomadland, and Slumdog Millionaire all divided public opinion, suggesting that filmmakers hold little control over how their work is construed. Yet today’s media landscape offers filmmakers many opportunities to shape the discourse. Howard and Zhao had been asked repeatedly about the political messages of their respective films, but their vague responses indicate hesitance to politicize their work. 

On the other end of the outspokenness spectrum is British filmmaker Ken Loach, who has advocated for socialist ideas through filmmaking and political organizing since the 1960s. Loach turned his lens toward the U.K.’s welfare state in his 2016 Cannes winner I, Daniel Blake. The film follows its titular character navigating the “Kafka-esque, catch-22 situation” of claiming unemployment benefits after a heart attack renders him unable to work. Blake battles the welfare system via protests and pointed speeches, leaving little room for misinterpretation.

The film’s marketing team helped politicize the project. They collaborated with trade unions to organize free screenings and offered free tickets through newspapers popular with the working class, ensuring that the film reached those it was meant to represent. 

I, Daniel Blake catalyzed a movement. Politicians quoted the film in speeches and on social media, and former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn explicitly told then-incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May to watch the film. On the grassroots level, it inspired food bank donations and protests against welfare sanctions. U.K. protesters followed the film’s protagonist in spray-painting “I, Daniel Blake” on the side of a Job Center and chaining themselves to railings. I, Daniel Blake is the most significant contemporary film to try to address poverty outside the bounds of the screen.

Yet the film failed to achieve concrete political change. Conservative politicians labeled it “not a documentary,” and Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green criticized it as “monstrously unfair” despite having never seen the film. The U.K.’s welfare system remained largely the same, with inbuilt delays and rent arrears putting claimants at risk of further hardship. I, Daniel Blake was designed to make a statement, and it did—just not enough to get through to those in power. The film’s legacy (or lack thereof) proves that fiction cannot affect systemic change if the targets of their criticism are not receptive. 

A film’s social impact depends greatly on audience response. For audiences far removed from poverty, watching these films for entertainment can feel like indulging in poverty porn, but this “wealth guilt” can ultimately be productive. Film is one of few avenues through which powerful people can live the experiences of the impoverished and hear the voices of the marginalized. Films won’t change the world on their own, but they can empower the disenfranchised and put their concerns on the negotiating tables of the powerful. 

Illustration by Julian Alexander.