Black History In Film: ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ Review – “It All Feels Real”
Throughout the month of February, Full Circle Cinema celebrates Black History Month by revisiting films made for and told by prominent Black men and women. We will reflect on an extraordinary history filled with moments both triumphant and tragic in the still ongoing fight for equality and justice for all. Through the sharing of stories, we pay tribute to the storytellers. Check out our first and second installments of Black History In Film here and here.
“Don’t ever let somebody tell you that you can’t do something… not even me. Alright?”
From Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves to Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, movies have a long history of depicting the complicated dynamic of father and son. However, few of these films center on the relationship between a Black father and his Black child. Ugly stereotypes often depict Black fathers as lesser than their white counterparts. However, in reality, anyone with a Black father will undoubtedly recount nothing but admiration for the man who raised them. In fact, it’s especially hard not to admire someone for having hope when they are in a dire situation. Raising a child without the immediate means to do so is definitely one of those such occurrences. A perfect example of this rarely explored notion is also one of the most heartwrenching films this writer has ever seen, The Pursuit of Happyness.
To start things off, The Pursuit of Happyness is based on Chris Gardner’s 2006 best-selling memoir of the same name. Gardner is a highly successful American businessman and motivational speaker. However, Gardner’s story is drenched in tragedy. From a very young age, Gardner was deprived of a positive father figure. With his dad absent, his stepfather was abusive to Gardner, his mother, and many siblings. Unfortunately, his mother was convicted of trying to kill his stepfather by burning down the house while he was inside.
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This led to Gardner growing up in the foster care system while seeking relationships with his uncles. Following a short stint in the Navy, Gardner began his career as a research assistant at the University of California Medical Center. However, following a bevy of poor decisions, a stay in jail, and a few failed relationships, Gardner is left homeless and the sole caretaker for his young son, Christopher Jr.
The Pursuit of Happyness benefits hugely from the chemistry between a real-life father and son. Casting Will Smith as Chris Gardner and a young Jaden Smith in the role of Christopher Jr. is a stroke of genius. This raises the stakes for the viewer. The story kicks off with Smith’s Gardner taking a pretty big risk. Investing his life savings in portable bone-density scanners, he seeks to demonstrate the tool to doctors. To his credit, he sells most of them. However, his inability to turn a profit takes a toll on his relationship with his wife (Thandie Newton). While they continuously exhibit behavior seen in doomed marriages, they both continue to shower their son with the love and attention he deserves.
Gardner’s luck seemingly takes a twist of fate after he meets Jay Twistle, a manager for Dean Witter Reynolds, an American stock brokerage and securities firm. This chance meeting offers Gardner the chance to impress Twistle with his impressive display of completing a Rubik’s Cube during a taxi ride. However, while impressed, Twistle exits the cab, leaving Gardner with the fare. Not having enough to cover the fee, Gardner flees the taxi driver, losing one of his scanners in the process. The sequence of events poignantly depicts the fleeting moments of hope. Right after taking the chance to show off his intelligence, he is forced to face his financial situation. As he dives deeper into poverty, the glimmer of hope continues to gleam in the eyes of this man simply seeking a chance to prove himself.
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Another fine example of hope vanishing is when Gardner strikes a deal to paint his apartment to avoid eviction. This comes the day before an interview he obtains to become an intern at Jay Twistle’s firm. However, two policemen greet him at his doorstep and haul him to jail for unpaid parking tickets. Nevertheless, Gardner does not allow the world’s incessant ability to hold him down to change his mind. He is going to succeed. He has to for his son.
Fortunately, after spending a night in jail, he impresses the interviewers and lands an unpaid internship. He would be amongst 20 interns competing for a paid position as a stockbroker. More hope. However, unimpressed by the unpaid status of his new gig, Gardner’s wife leaves for New York. A bitter scene sees Gardner exert his frustration and claims his wife is unfit to be a single mother. After an eviction, Garnder finds himself as a single father with $22 to his name. Hope begins to diminish while never truly extinguishing.
It is difficult to take the rags-to-riches story of Chris Gardner, a story audiences know has a happy ending, and imbue it with suspense. However, seeing the real emotion Will Smith manages to capture from taking his son to homeless shelters or sleeping in the bathroom of a subway station with one foot firmly on the door, is heartwrenching. The pain Gardner feels is felt through the screen thanks to a performance Smith will never get enough credit for. Furthermore, the pure elation the Oscar nominee expresses when the happy ending is reached is one that will be regarded as one of his best career performances.
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The film manages to steer away from feeling inauthentic in its execution. Gardner is struggling to make a go of it by any means possible. The film never feels corny nor does the narrative of angst and disappointment ever overstay its welcome. Instead, The Pursuit of Happyness tells the story of an extraordinary man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. More importantly, the story is about a father’s desire to give his son what he never had. The motivation for Gardner’s success appears to be his hope to live up to his unending potential. However, when viewing the story as a Black father fighting his way through countless obstacles, the true motivation is to get a child out of a situation in which they have no control over. It all feels real. – Christian Hubbard
In honor of the unconscionable murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black lives, please take a moment to visit the Black Lives Matter homepage and see how you can help. Spread awareness!
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