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Movies/TV Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

'Pursuit' and Survival
By Esther Editor and Film Critic
Dec 15, 2006, 15:13

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A film based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a struggling Black father who sought a change of career as a stockbroker, could have easily turned into another corny tale of American ambition. Instead, The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith, is a poignant reminder of the frailty of American families and the so-called American dream.

For its particular meditation on time, place and Black humanity, “The Pursuit of Happyness” is destined to become one of our movie classics, alongside “Claudine,” “Cooley High” “The Color Purple” and “Antwone Fisher.” I can’t think of another film that has so capably captured the social and economic upheaval of the 1980’s, when Reaganomics and “economic restructuring” widened the gap between the very rich and poor, when legions of newly homeless filled the streets of big American cities and the American workforce quickened its daily lock-step in order to survive.

When we meet Chris (Will Smith), he and his wife Linda, (Thandie Newton) and son Christopher (Jaden Smith) are struggling to get by in an apartment in the mission district of San Francisco. We quickly learn that the couple is behind in their rent, behind in taxes owed to the I.R.S. and that their marriage is on the brink of failure. Chris is also not having much success as a salesman of portable bone density machines. Much of his stressful existence is spent lugging around the boxy contraption with a handle that sort of resembles a portable sewing machine.

But just as things seem to be falling apart, Chris, who is smart, instinctive and knows how to seize opportunity, works hard to be accepted into a stock broker internship at Dean Witter & Company, which, unknown to him, is an unpaid position. After his wife leaves him, he faces single fatherhood with the specter of danger and homelessness looming over his head. This is the point where “The Pursuit of Happyness” gets real in a way that few hero films do, certainly in a way that I have not seen starring a Black man as a father.

The direction by Gabriele Muccino, a newcomer to American films, and the script by Steve Conrad allows many scenes to unfold as if we are watching a documentary. The narrative is drawn forward by an assembly of moments that, collectively, tell the story of one man’s perhaps uniquely American travelogue—from a homeless shelter, to a corporate conference room, to a daycare center and to sleeping on the BART train.

“The Pursuit of Happyness” tells, most of all, of one man’s pursuit of survival. It neither praises nor condemns the financial world, on which so much 1980’s success and failure was based. It does lay bare what is, for a sizable portion of the population, the grind of American life. A phrase from the U.S. Constitution becomes a question, a quest, a joke and a prayer.

Esther Iverem is founder of and author of a forthcoming book on Black film, We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, April 2007). Her review of "The Pursuit of Happyness" also appeared on

© Copyright 2006

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