Sending the Homeless to the Movies: A Social Program I Can Get Behind

Mary Katharine Ham

12/22/2006 12:00:43 AM - Mary Katharine Ham

What do you call a person who feels bad about a feel-good movie? Probably a liberal.

I saw “The Pursuit of Happyness” last week. It will be called a conservative movie, a Republican flick, a right-wing anthem.

In fact, it already has. Washington Post movie reviewer Stephen Hunter called it “a radically conservative encomium to trying hard, to capitalism, to salesmanship, to Dean Witter, to never saying die, and to reaping the big reward.”

I’m sure it will be called worse than “radically conservative,” too.


appyness” is a classic overcome-the-odds journey, an underdog-wins-big story, an American dream chase. And, it’s true. It’s the story of Chris Gardner, a high-school graduate, medical supply salesman, and father, who’s determined to climb the steepest hills of San Francisco toward a better life for himself and his young son.

After spotting a man with a Ferrari in the early 80s landscape of the West Coast and finding out that man’s a stock broker, Gardner--played with an easy combo of warmth and grit by Will Smith--makes up his mind to become one, too. He takes a chance on an unpaid internship with Dean Witter. He’s in a pool of 20, out of which exactly one man will eventually be hired. It’s the very definition of big risk, big reward. He’s got a young son to care for—played by Smith’s own son, Jaden—and the “unpaid” part of this internship puts the two of them in homeless shelters and church soup kitchens for half the movie.

The real-life Chris Gardner is now a 51-year-old multi-millionaire with his own Chicago brokerage firm.

Think “Eye of the Tiger” on the corporate ladder.

He did it all with bone-grinding discipline, precious little complaining, and a belief that he could. The movie is remarkable for what it does not contain. No griping about race, even though Gardner is a black man trying to make it in a mostly white firm. No bashing of Reaganomics, even though the time period makes the movie ripe for it. No two-dimensional, evil, greedy, white executives trying to stiff the little guy. No two-dimensional black male figure leaving his kid in the dust. No government hand-outs for Gardner.

No excuses.

Gardner just gets it done, against greater odds than many of us will ever have to face. Hunter, who gave the movie a good review, describes the movie’s lessons:

It's certainly got the old man's lessons, the ones you thought were so full of hooey. Remember when he told you, "Stick to it until it's done"? What did he know?

And then there was: "Get along with your boss. He's your boss because he's earned it." What a crock.

And then, "Don't whine, don't make excuses, just do the job." Boy, that one was a bummer. What was he, a Republican or something?

And finally, worst of all, the one nobody wants to hear, it hurts so much: "Work like hell." I hate that one.

America is used to seeing those values embodied in a sports film. When a hero sticks to it to win a state championship, the values are not considered “radically conservative.” When a football player is allowed “no excuses” for not catching a game-winning pass, no one thinks he’s a Republican.

It’s mostly because this man succeeds against great odds in a business environment that the movie is “conservative.” His accomplishment is found in capitalism, not football. It’s refreshing to see that held up for recognition, glamorized just a little bit without making the white-collar hero into a money-grubbing demon.

After all, the free market is the motor that makes this country run—and run better than any other country on earth—whether liberals want to believe it or not. It offers greater opportunity to greater numbers of people than any other system every conceptualized.

Not everyone will be a Chris Gardner in our society, but the free market can offer great rewards for those willing to take great risks, and very good rewards for most of the rest of us. Upward mobility is not a myth, though many liberals would like you to believe it is.

The utter reliance and faith some liberals express for government programs requires that they believe men like Gardner are victims, and stories like his, impossible. For many people who believe that, liberalism has devolved into a way to encourage victimhood over personal responsibility, and value dependence over self-reliance.

For that reason, this movie is a pleasant surprise coming from a very liberal Hollywood. Also a pleasant surprise, the fact that Will Smith’s star power carried the movie to the top of the box office in its opening weekend. I imagine it will continue to do well.

The message and values of “The Pursuit of Happyness” are not so much “radically conservative” as they are just plain optimistically American. Americans like those kinds of values, and they like seeing them on screen—“Rocky,” “Rudy,” “Hoosiers.”

Seeing them on screen, embodied in a homeless black man gunning for a stock broking position, is different, and inspiring. Chattanooga mayor Ron Littlefield is banking on Gardner inspiring a few of the homeless of his city, whom he took to the premiere.

As far as government initiatives go, I’ll take that one over most of the liberal social programs I’ve seen in practice. Ten bucks a person for an introduction to the still-accessible American dream, or a mill or two to convince them it doesn’t exist?

Go see the movie, retell this American story, and watch your liberal friends squirm. If these are “radically conservative” values, then we should all be proud to be radicals and create work to create more of them.