Beginning by outlining the basic development of the ‘land of opportunity’- concept through massive immigration from Europe in the 19th and 20th century, I will continue to show why even back then there have been quite a few contradictions between the new nation’s ideals and the reality that people, especially blacks, experienced in those days, implying that opportunity was only available to a very limited amount of people.
The Civil Rights’ Movement in the 1960s was merely able to raise society’s awareness of the problem because afterwards most people simply kept on believing the lie of living in the ‘land of the free’. Education, housing and income continued to differ widely between blacks and whites, causing not only resentment and poverty on one side, but also leading to pseudo- scientific attempts to explain those differences based on racial characteristics.
Analyzing ‘The Pursuit Of Happyness’ I will try to show the ambiguity of criticism of racial differences and America’s ruthless individualism on the one hand, and of promotion of the traditional American Dream concept on the other.
Following the question, if the movie is as critical and sarcastic as the title suggests, I will then try to point out some of the major symbols and metaphors used to enhance the contrast between rich and poor and black and white in the movie, also explaining why Chris Gardner could be seen as an American Adam.
Finally, I will try to give a short overview of racial inequality today, connecting it to my movie analysis in order to answer the question whether ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ manages to portray an adequate picture of the contemporary perception of the ‘land of opportunity’- concept: Is money still a matter of color?
Ever since the first permanent settlers set foot on the new continent in 1622, the United States of America have been widely praised as the ‘land of opportunity’, promising not only an abundance of natural resources but also freedom and equality. Beginning with the promise of “just and equal laws” in the Mayflower Compact, the idea of a ‘New Eden’ became a fixed image because it stood in such a harsh contrast to Europe’s still prevalent class system. With the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the concept had reached another manifestation which thus led to its acceptance being even intensified because it was now officially included in the founding documents of this new nation. This led to masses of immigrants trying to enter the U.S. throughout the 19th and 20th century.
While immigration remained largely unrestricted for the first half of the 19th century, the ‘sorting out’ of people suffering from any kind of physical disability or suspected of radical political views on Ellis Island was the first restriction imposed on the principle of true equality. With the number of immigrants steadily increasing and with industrialization on the rise, what they found when they could finally leave the screening depot was not free land and vast prairies, but cities that were massively overcrowded. This, in turn, led to anti- foreign agitation increase sharply, pressing Congress to pass a number of laws restricting immigration, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. One consequently has to ask if the principle of equality of opportunity as stated in the Declaration of Independence was just a convenient addition to the national creed because after all, there was about one fifth of the population kept as slaves when the Founding Fathers pronounced everyone equal.
Looking at the 20th century and the results of the Civil Rights movement in the sixties, there is an abundance of evidence suggesting that equality of opportunity was much more of an ideal rather than a reality, because many aspects of everyday life remained separate and unequal. Even in the 1970s, a pseudo- scientific reasoning behind racial differences in education, income and wealth was quite common, relating “the greater indebtedness among the black families [to] economic insufficiency” (Spreitzer, 254) and arguing that “’family disorganization’ and ‘culture of poverty’ may account for some of the variance between blacks and whites in levels of achievement” (255) thus explaining why all the popular self- made- man narratives had only ever involved white people.
Stephen Conrad’s “The pursuit of Happyness” not only attempts to illustrate this problem, but also to revise the prevalent color scheme of rich and poor, by evolving this story of social mobility around a black protagonist.
In San Francisco of 1981 the salesman Chris Gardner struggles to financially support his family because his investment in ‘bone density scanners’ turns out to be doomed as he is unable to sell even a single one of them. The rising debt, the inability to pay the monthly bills and Chris’s unrealistic aspiration to become a stock broker eventually cause his wife to leave him and their son Christopher. Gardner then has to overcome several hardships throughout the course of the story, like moving into a motel because he is unable to meet the rent payments or staying in jail overnight until he pays his parking penalty. Even though this causes him to show up at the job interview very poorly dressed and unprepared, he manages to convince the four white executives of his qualities and becomes the very few trainees that are accepted into the program.
Thanks to his experience in sales and to his unrelenting persistence: “In order not to waste any time, I wasn’t hanging up the phone in between the talks[…] I also wasn’t drinking water so I didn’t waste any time” (01:04:03), Chris is working more efficiently than everybody else, although he, being the only black trainee in the program, is repeatedly forced to stop working because he has to get coffee or doughnuts for the supervisor (01:02:33)- a blunt reference to the history of slavery.
He manages to keep up this above- average performance even when he and his son get thrown out of the motel and thus have to struggle for a place in the homeless shelter night after night, even spending one night in a subway bathroom. Despite being completely broke, homeless and a single parent, Gardner never gives up his dream to become a stockbroker until finally against all odds, he is the one that is offered the job thus receiving the opportunity to move up the social ladder. When the audience is hence informed that Gardner was eventually able to found his own investment firm ‘Gardner Rich’, it symbolizes the completion of his very own pursuit of happiness.
Starting with the misspelled ‘happyness’ in the title, this movie contains several symbols and metaphors that enhance not only the contrast between rich and poor, but also the still somewhat prevalent differences between black and white.
As part of the prefix we are critically introduced to America as the ‘land of opportunity’ today by first highlighting the phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ (01:16) and then contrasting it with the picture of a homeless man being almost overrun by a crowd in business attire (02:28). We see President Ronald Reagan preaching optimism on TV, while the Gardeners can’t even pay their electricity bills (08:30), the upper class neighborhood with impressive mansions and white kids playing ball outside (01:09:30) as opposed to mostly black people outside the homeless- shelter, and a cabriolet full of happily laughing white people passing by the enormous line outside the homeless shelter. While those elements seem to be explicitly and even sarcastically criticizing the shortcomings of today’s society, the protagonist’s unbreakable optimism stands in harsh contrast to this finger- pointing intention.