“Don’t ever let somebody tell you… you can’t do something. Not even me. All right? You got a dream… You gotta protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they wanna tell you that you can’t do it. You want something, go get it. Period.”
Above is a quote said by Chris Gardener (played by Will Smith) to his son Christopher Jr. (played by Jaden Smith) in the film “The Pursuit of Happyness“. Helmed by director Gabriele Muccino, “The Pursuit of Happyness” is a biographical film based on a true story of the entrepreneur Chris Gardener, featuring his one-year struggle of homelessness during the early 80s.
The film shows Gardener facing an utterly hopeless situation. Bankruptcy, marital separation, eviction, homelessness, single parenthood and the list continues. The struggling salesman also has another front, an unpaid internship with a stock-brokerage firm Dean Witter Reynolds. Nonetheless, armed with an iron self-discipline and an unstoppable sense of responsibility, the 27-year old father overcomes the ordeals of homelessness and achieves the full-time position as a broker upon the conclusion of his unpaid internship.
The ferociousness of the struggles he endured in the meantime can be described as sleeping in a public bathroom (with his 5-year-old son), getting hit by a car during his pursuit of a potential buyer (imagine not getting paid for that), running to the line of a homeless shelter after work, and so on.
The Myth of the American Dream
The film inherently highlights the following themes; hard work, creativity, positive attitude, and self-responsibility. These elements converge into a grand ideal- the American Dream. The ideal that suggests that if you work hard, you will achieve upward mobility no matter who you are and where you are from.
While the audience should celebrate that the film is indeed based on a true story, they also ought to be aware of the underlying message it presents – the entrenchment of self-blame and the indisputability of the American Dream.
The rhetoric of the plot implies the replicability of Gardener’s success. However, one should be aware that there is a myriad of different circumstances when it comes to battling poverty. What if Gardner’s son was ill and needed some costly healthcare? What if he did not have the bone density scanners that afforded their living during the period of his unpaid internship? What if he had a criminal record that prevented him from getting the internship or the job thereafter? Such ‘what ifs’ are all challenges common within struggling households. The idea of starting over or a “second-chance” is not always a feasible option for everyone battling financial hardships (Holtzman, Sharpe).
Furthermore, the film omits or downplays the barrier of structural racism, economic recessions, and the rigor of obtaining a financial-sector internship. After all, it is about a homeless African-American man in the 80s who eventually got hired by a stock-brokerage firm without a college degree while taking care of his 5-year-old kid. It is easy to realize that some of his leaps relied on sheer luck. In reality, the odds are not always in our favor as featured in the film. The doors of opportunity are not always within everyone’s reach and the fruits of individual input are not without bound(Holtzman, Sharpe).
A Car Needs More Than Just an Engine
It would be foolish to argue that self-responsibility is a futile idea. Miraculous turnouts of consistent hard work are demonstrated by numerous examples. While considering such as our role models, we must avoid the fallacy of over-generalization. Not all self-powered engines of success stories are more advanced than those still fighting to get out of a ditch. There are multiple variables at play when it comes to the equation of upward mobility, and individual input is simply one of them. The equation also includes the economy, social acceptance towards an individual, available support systems, and one’s unique situation at hand (Holtzman, Sharpe).
In summary, as much as we should appreciate the value of self-input, we must not promote the skewed idea of encouraging excessive self-blame while neglecting the effect of societal barriers that hinder one’s upward mobility.