Hannah Mueller (Bowling Green State University) offers a list of films that show poverty as a structural, intersectional issue in contrast to the typical portraits of invidualised suffering overcome by even more individual action:
Precarious Lives: The Intersectionality of Poverty
The myth of upward mobility, long perpetuated by the American Dream and currently blended with the neoliberal ideology of individual choice, has for decades been the invisible protagonist in Western cinematic narratives about poverty. Hollywood in particular continues to sell emotionally overwrought poverty porn on the one hand, and inspirational fairy tales of class mobility on the other, both of which present economic hardship as an individual, often self-made problem that can be overcome through resilience, personal responsibility, or the support of a benevolent white savior.
This playlist introduces films from the last decade that actively push back against the dominant narratives of individualized, self-made poverty. The works explore economic inequality as a structural, intersectional issue, and introduce characters with agency who are shaped by systemic disenfranchisement but not solely defined by their social status either.
The movies on this list also shine a spotlight on those who are often the most heavily affected by poverty, the most vulnerable to its consequences, and yet often omitted from cinematic representations of poverty. The persistent focus on white male working-class poverty in Western cinema means that few films engage explicitly and in nuanced ways with poverty among communities of color, LGBT communities, children and mothers, or the disabled and ill. The following films attempt to remedy this by offering careful, loving portraits of the twice disenfranchised and their lives.
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, UK 2011)
The cult science-fiction comedy seems perhaps an unlikely candidate for a movie playlist on poverty. Yet this story about a gang of mostly Black teenagers in a London Council Estate fighting off an Alien invasion stands out for presenting the everyday challenges these young men face as an equally serious threat as the extraterrestrial monsters falling from the sky. Unlike many other films focusing on low-income housing environments, Attack the Block portrays its protagonists neither as violent deviants nor as helpless victims: At its best, the film shows the young unlikely heroes actively taking charge of their familiar territory, their unabashed pride in their neighborhood, and the playful creativity with which they approach the obstacles at hand. Bonus: Features Star Wars actor John Boyega, who has been an active participant in recent BLM protests, in one of his early roles.
Where to look for it: Included with pluto.tv, also available through Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, iTunes, and Netflix (UK).
The Florida Project (Sean Baker, USA 2017)
Pastel colors dominate the almost dreamlike cinematography in this story about a group of children growing up in a Florida motel inhabited by low-income residents in the shadow of Disney World. The strength of the film is its ability to show much of what is happening through the eyes of the children, who roam freely and actively embrace the magic of their environment, despite their desolate living conditions. Meanwhile, the parents (most of them young, single, and precariously employed) are floundering as they struggle to provide food and a bed for their children while constantly running up against the obstacles the system puts in their way. The Florida Project is a devastating critique of hypercapitalism and at the same time an affirmation that a life in poverty is not a life devoid of joy.
Where to look for it: Included with Netflix subscription (US) , also available through Amazon Prime Video (US and UK) and Vudu.
Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, France 2014)
La banlieue – the racially diverse low-income high-crime neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris – provide the setting for this film. Yet in contrast to the angry, often violent disenfranchised young men that tend to be at the focus of the typical banlieue film, Girlhood centers the experiences of young women growing up in and around the neighborhood’s desolate concrete high-rise buildings. The film shows its teenage protagonist pushing back against and buckling under both the patriarchal violence exerted by the men in her own community, and the structural oppression of a state that has already written her off as a lost cause. The intimate female friendships she forms with other young women provide a safe haven but are also fraught with tensions as the girls struggle to cope with often competing pressures, injuries, and needs.
Where to look for it: Available through Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, iTunes, and BFIplayer in the UK.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, USA 2019)
The film’s stunningly beautiful cinematography brings to life San Francisco as a city whose rich identity and history are crumbling and disintegrating under the iron-tight grip of gentrification. The protagonist’s seemingly futile longing for a place of belonging (a home, a family) within this rapidly changing environment manifests through his steadfast belief in the vision of a time in which Black families and their descendants were/are/will be able to claim San Francisco as their rightful home. The emotional heart of the film is the tender friendship between the searching protagonist and his childhood best friend, which radically diverges from more common cinematic representations of Black male friendship: their bond is shaped by a deep, gentle loyalty that neither the film nor the characters themselves seem very interested in labeling as platonic friendship, romantic companionship, or a form of found family.
Where to look for it: Available through Vudu and Amazon Prime Video (US and UK).
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA 2010)
Rural poverty in the American South most commonly features in U.S. cinema as a setting for the ‘hillbilly horror’ genre, where hapless Northern city folks get lost in the backwoods and are violated by uncivilized rednecks. But no Northerners or urbanites make an appearance in Winter’s Bone: rather than take the alienating perspective of the fascinated-yet-horrified outsider, this melancholy, slow-paced film introduces audiences to the harsh environment of the Ozark Mountains through the eyes of 17-year old Ree, who feeds her younger siblings and mentally-ill mother by hunting squirrels in the backyard. Put in the position to resolve her murdered father’s affairs or lose the family home to the bank, she finds herself grappling with the unwritten social rules of a deeply disenfranchised community that values family loyalty over everything else, for better or worse.
Where to look for it: Included with HBO Go subscription, available through Amazon Prime Video (in US and UK), Hulu (with HBO add-on).
Dr. Hannah Mueller is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Bowling Green State University. She has published several articles on cultural representation and spectatorship in cinema and television. Her book on political conflicts in fan communities is forthcoming with McFarland.