July 16, 2020

Recommendation and Review: “The Pursuit of Happyness”

thepursuitofhappyness.jpgEvery so often, Hollywood surprises you.

Imagine that a major studio is making a movie starring a marquee quality African-American actor. The story is set in the Reagan-era 80’s, with an African-American protagonist who, despite being the top of his class and the class of his navy unit, is still on the verge of economic ruin, living one paycheck away from disaster. He’s surrounded by wealthy, corporate white people while, without a car and abandoned by his wife, he tries to make a living as a salesman. Eventually, forced to live on the streets with his son, he pursues the dream of being a stock broker, but is so hassled by creditors and the IRS that he can barely compete alongside other potential brokers – all white and Asian- and is always the one called upon to fetch coffee and donuts.

Given what you know about Hollywood- and frankly, about America, these days- what should this picture be about? What would be its tone? How would it deal with the portrayal of black Americans, corporate America, the disadvantages of being a minority and poor? What would be its point of view on homelessness? Who would be the villains? How would redemption come to its hero?

Of course, you can write that movie, but I assure you it’s not Will Smith’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a stunningly positive, pro-individual, pro-America film that may go to the top of every economic conservative’s “must see” list. “Pursuit” is a stereotype breaker in every scene, and it’s not an accident. This is a film with the unashamed message that America is a place where individuals aren’t rewarded via pity, but through initiative, sacrifice and hard work. Chris Gardner’s success came by taking the gifts God gave him, motivating himself with love for his son, and persevering in a superhuman effort to outdo people with racial, social and educational advantage.

It’s a powerful movie for any of us who have ever lived close to the edge financially and realized “There but for the grace of God go I” when we’ve seen someone else wiped out by divorce, disease or hard times. There are moments in “Pursuit” where the determination of Chris Gardner to keep his son, work for nothing and suffer rather than quit will make you cry. Will Smith comes of age as an actor who can explore the dark places that lie underneath the humor and wit of the man who won’t tell you about his suffering because he has too much dignity.

There are moments in this film- such as when father and son return to find their belongings removed from their motel room, with no money or place to go, or when Smith sells his blood to raise $24 to survive another day- that the film goes places almost no American movie will go without blaming all the usual conservative, American scapegoats. But there is no scapegoating in this film. Life is hard, even for bright high school graduates with big dreams. Skin color has little to do with Smith’s predicament. He’s made some bad choices, found himself in a hopeless marriage and could fall into any number of predictable dead ends, but he simply is determined to survive and succeed. Though he lives on the outskirts of a sea of poverty and homelessness, and must navigate it, he has decided that he will build a life for his son, and he will not be another predictable story of failure.

There is no anger, no political rhetoric and, when portraying the corporate world of Dean Witter, no indulgence in making “the man” the ultimate criminal oppressing society in the course of corporate success. When Chris Gardner sees a man driving a Corvette and asks him what he does and how he does it, it is not a moment of villainizing someone for getting rich selling stocks. No, it is the moment when Gardner’s life finds its compass. When his teacher in the Dean Witter intern program repeatedly sends him to get coffee and park his car, the movie simply assumes that’s the way it is in the real world. Smith’s character never loses his dignity and never shows the first moment of resentment or predictable blaming.

And when he achieves his goal- a genuinely emotional breakthrough that will be hard for any man who loves his family to resist- it is not because of affirmative action, but because Chris Gardner was the best man for the job. You can look in the eyes of all those corporate types and know that they have only been dimly aware that this is a man who has been sleeping in restrooms and at homeless shelters, but they are treating him completely in line with the content of his character and not in pity. At a moment when he is nearly starving, his boss- a millionaire many times over- asks him for five dollars for cab fare. Gardner gives it to him because that is who he is and will always be.

There is not a moment when the film makes you believe that Chris Gardner wants to be rich because he’s bought into some kind of American greed. He wants his son to have his own room, to have a good school, to have choices and to have the life other boys have. When he embraces him at the movie’s climax, it is a moment of redemption for a character determined to be a great father, and he has been at every moment of his journey.

Go see “Pursuit of Happyness,” and make sure that whoever made this movie experiences some of the success they deserve in a great country of great opportunities.


  1. I don’t know. I’m afraid this movie will be used by conservatives to imply that the solution to black poverty in America is for them all to get off their duffs and go become stockbrokers. I think it was also inaccurate in that it failed to portray the racism he would have almost certainly endured in this scenario.

  2. ***Christmas present to IM readers= no response to the above comment***

    Go see the movie. “Go get my donuts. Go get my coffee. Go park my car.”

  3. Chris, if conservatives imply that the solution to black poverty is to work and overcome, what is the liberal solution? More government dependence? Oh, wait, that’s what is keeping people poor…

    I’m sure he endured racism, too. What if the point isn’t that he endured racism but that he persevered through his adversity and was successful.

  4. I teach about 30 African-American young men. I love them like my sons. I listen to them and I talk to them. Most importantly, I preach the truth to them.

    Should I tell them that the best response to racism is 1) Believe and practice the Gospel 2) perseverence against evil 3) education 4) work and 5) sacrifice for others, especially family?

    …or should I tell them something else?

  5. My initial reaction to the review was similar to Chris’. Not everyone has the opportunities that Gardner has, and it would be a mistake to cite this movie as the empirical vacuumous example that anyone can do what he does. That said, I want to see this movie not because it shows what anyone can do but because it tells the story of what one man was able to do.

    I also want to add that neither the “conservative” solution (“Just work hard and you’ll be successful”) nor the “liberal” one (“More government programming”) are sufficient in themselves. Programs such as welfare are meant to help struggling people get themselves back on their feet and are neither meant to identify lazy people nor encourage dependence. The best solution is both/and.

  6. Of course, the movie wasn’t about government policy or welfare. All the government did was seize his bank account and make him homeless.

    I am sure Chris would have accepted welfare in order to save his son. But would he have stayed on it long term? Should he?

    The role of government can and should be a positive. I accept and support that.

    But am I supposed to tell my students that? Am I suppose to say the answer to poverty and racism IN YOUR LIVES is the kindness of white liberals?

  7. chrisstiles says

    But am I supposed to tell my students that? Am I suppose to say the answer to poverty and racism IN YOUR LIVES is the kindness of white liberals

    No – because to do so would be conflating the response of an individual with that of a society.

    In my opinion jnelson is right, the correct answer is both/and and not either/or. Recall the Dan Edelen piece on ‘Failure’ – whilst we don’t set others up for failure, at some point we have to address the issue that for some others hard work is not always enough.

  8. Spiritually speaking, the movie is a feel good story of how a man can pull himself up by his own strength. Browse the bookstores and find whole sections that have man and his efforts at the core while neither needing or acknowledging God, whoever he is.

    The Word is powerful enough (Heb.4:12) to penetrate the racism of either the offender or the recipient of prejudice. The church is supposed to be the hand of God extended to those in need, not the government.

  9. Guys:

    I’m rather confused.

    It’s obvious to everyone- especially conservatives- that people often need a hand. Despite an earlier comment assuming that conservatives don’t help people, they do. I’m well below the poverty line and I help people because it’s the right thing to do.

    Nothing in the movie or the review is inclined to the message that people don’t need help. It’s one guy’s story. He did the right thing and that included taking help.

    It didn’t however include taking an affirmative action job. The problem I think liberals are going to have with this movie isn’t the role of statist welfare solutions, but the role of the corporation, in this case Dean Witter. They gave him a job? Yeah…and he earned the right to be considered. They may have been a bunch of old white guys, but they had a program that took a black guy with a high school education and gave him a shot at being a stock broker. They weren’t the bad guys, and the capitalism they practiced wasn’t condemned as evil.

    THAT’S what liberals won’t like about this film. The private sector and individual effort, instead of government, were the heroes.

    It is demonstrably true that African Americans have not been well served by the welfare state. I believe Bill Clinton would agree with that.

  10. I didn’t and would never suggest that that’s what you should preach, Michael. My comment was directed more toward remhj, who suggests that there is little to no merit in the so-called “liberal approach.” I think that Chris’ point was less to advocate for any particular approach, “liberal” or no, and more to raise a concern that one viewpoint is in constant danger of the implication that anyone who can’t do what Gardner did in his situation only have themselves to blame, without taking into account the societal factors at play. That doesn’t automatically translate to “hard work is nice, but really the government will help you.”

    You and I seem to be in agreement that government assistance in a limited role can and should be helpful, but individual motivation and perserverance is just as important if not moreso.

    And nowhere did I say that you should preach anything other than what you say you’re preaching (in fact, I don’t completely see how we got there). Instead of preaching that the answer is the kindness of others, I would say show kindness to others, whatever color you are.

  11. Henry: The movie was about getting a job. And the church did assist him.

    jnelson: Please don’t take rhetorical comments personally. I’ll have to rewrite everything I ever wrote and I hate putting smilies behind every sentence. 🙂

  12. Where’s the rolling eyes smiley?

    In no way do I advocate a boot strap mentality. I’m glad the government is able to use my tax money to help people in need. In fact, I think we should be doing more of that than nation/democracy building in other parts of the world. The fact remains, however, that our welfare system creates a climate of poverty and encourages people to stay on it rather than help them financially and help them be self-sufficient.

    My response was mainly because Chris apparently can’t go see a feel good movie without having a knee-jerk anti-conservative reaction to it. What’s not to like and be inspired by a story like this?

  13. I’m not even going to participate in the governmental discussion that has somehow formed in this comment thread.

    Just wanted to drop by and say that I also adored this film, and that your review, Michael, is excellent.

    If you’d like to read mine, you can go here (sorry, I don’t know how to insert a hyperlink in this comment box):



  14. Saw it last Friday.
    Good film.
    A determined man who kicked in, recognised his talent and seized the opportunities before him. Is it a panacea for all black male professionals? No. Is it a good movie for how one person kicked in and risked all to get the life he wanted to and made sure he was always there for his son. yes.

    Trust me if you read the book you would be grateful some stuff was left out.

    I say make more films like this, even if it to show that there are many of us black professional males who will do everything they can to inhabit their magnificence and go out on a limb for their children.