Will Smith’s film The Pursuit of Happiness provides an overview of what poverty can look like in America for those who tend to struggle. The lead character, played by Smith, is Chris Gardner. Gardner is a classic man who is living out one of the classic stories in America. He is trying to make it when others before him have failed to do so. The character runs into problems with housing, he has trouble because of his lack of strong educational background, and he has a difficult time proving himself because of his appearance. He has the knowledge to succeed, but he is held back by other factors unrelated to his merit. Society celebrates Gardner once he finally attains success, but society tends to punish people in his position before they are able to gain that extra status within society. This is the difficulty of being in his position—he is thought to be somehow lazy or unrealistic for not accepting his lot in life. He lives on the margins, where one little mistake or accident can cause complete financial disaster and ruin his chances at a better life. Beyond that, the film shows how poverty and oppression can be generational in nature. Gardner’s son is a good kid who is just trying to live the fun life of a four-year old, but he has to see the realities of what poverty and homelessness can look like.
Gardner experiences many problems. For one, he does not have the traditional education needed to get ahead in competitive industries. Though he graduated high in his high school class and he finished at the top of one of his classes in the military, he lacked the official seal of approval that one gets when one goes to college. In this way, the film shows how those credentials can help to shape outcomes. Often, individuals find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to show their worth to the world at large rather than being able to earn opportunities just because of the name of a school on a piece of paper. In addition, he struggles with housing issues. He is living in an apartment, but because he cannot make rent, he is eventually evicted. This causes him to move from place to place. He lived in shelters, lived in low-rent motels, and even had to sleep with his son in a bathroom at one point. These things can make it difficult for a person to get ahead because they do not have a home base where they can go to recharge and because they are spending so much of their energy moving around from place to place.
In addition, Gardner struggled with a lack of equality of opportunity. Even though he had skills, he had to show extraordinary talent to even get a look from a stock brokerage. He eventually had to take an unpaid internship to prove himself. Many people have had to do that in the modern world, forcing themselves to work for nothing just on the hope that they might get a better opportunity down the road. This can be a challenge and exacerbate existing problems with poverty.
Gardner did not view himself as being a poor person who had no future. Instead, he always held out a vision over himself. One of the biggest conflicts in the film comes from the fact that his wife believed he was a dreamer. She was working hard, taking on multiple jobs so she could pay for the things the family needed. In some ways, she wanted him to accept the reality of being poor. She wanted him to take on a job that would pay something, but he knew he had too much talent to be settling for that kind of position. With this in mind, he made sure that he pushed for something better. He saw himself as being the person who could do the rubix cube. He also saw himself as being tough. Over the course of the film, one can notice the character start to take pride in some of the ways that he handled the challenges around him. Rather than allowing himself to get tired and bitter, he began to see himself as a person who could crush almost any challenge.
Society tended to view him as something different. While there is little demonstration of how society saw him in particular, one can see the way his homeless brethren were treated. They were herded into shelters that did not have the resources to accommodate them. On top of that, there is a situation where Gardner has a run-in with a taxi driver. Because he is poor and struggling, he is seen and depicted in that moment as being a person who is dishonest, and there is some implication that it is his dishonesty that has landed him in this financial predicament. However, there are other indications in the film that some people saw him for his talent and his work ethic. It seems as if the people around Dean Whitter, where he got his first job, understood that he was a man who was dealing with extraordinary obstacles. They were not allowed to fully view him in his context, though. This is because Gardner did not want to show them the full extent of his struggle. Instead, he kept some challenges to himself and preferred to just work hard anyway. This led to his success, but it helped keep people from seeing the full extent of the causes of his situation.
Ultimately Chris Gardner’s character is a great picture of what it means to be poor and striving in America. It shows how a person can sometimes be so on edge that they can lose their house because they got some parking tickets. It shows, as well, that for many poor people in America, things have to go perfectly right for them to come away with a positive ending.