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Monday, December 11, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesPerforming poverty in 'Nomadland' and 'White Tiger'

Performing poverty in ‘Nomadland’ and ‘White Tiger’

Two acclaimed movies from poverty outsiders don't go far enough in exposing wealth-hoarding and corporate slavery.

“I live in there, it’s my home,” Frances McDormand “playing” a houseless woman named Fern in the new movie Nomadland, says to mechanics, who tell her it will be $5,000 to fix her van. These and other moments are some of the excellently “crafted” lines by brilliant actor McDormand—and are classic examples of Hollywood’s ongoing dedication to performing poverty, disability, and homelessness to feed the ever-hungry, ever-exploitative film, media, and academic industries.

Adarsh Gourav is another example of an excellent actor “portraying” Balram Halwaia, a very poor chauffeur working for Indian wealth-hoarders, in the movie The White Tiger, a depiction-performance of poverty in India.

Both of these movies are artistically powerful, and both of them have critiques (albeit way too subtle in Nomadland) of wealth-hoarding, employee slavery, and corporations like Amazon. White Tiger is a deeper and more powerul critique of the scam-lord “upper classes.”

But they both are depictions of us poor people without us poor people. (Notwithstanding the only redeeming part of Nomadland in this sense, three poverty skolaz playing themselves.)

Byline privilege 

Aravind Adiga, author of the book White Tiger, and Jessica Bruder, who did a “story” on houseless “Nomads” for Harper’s magazine and then published a book of the same, are both middle class-owning class academics, journalists, who have “never missed a meal” as my mama would call it, but who were “fascinated” with the “underbelly.” 

And as my OG ghetto poverty skola mama would also say, because they are well-educated, they are excellent editors and writers, and are able to create spins and slants and stories out of our messy, confusing realities. But the thing they both share with countless writers before them who write, perform, and create an endless stream of “about us without us” narratives about poor, houseless, landless, disabled, indigenous Black, Brown, and immigrant-migrant communities, from Dickens to Steinbeck to most recently, Jeanine Cummins of American Dirt, is what I call By-line privilege and linguistic dominance. 

In other words, these writers had a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and shoes on their feet while growing up, so they could focus and learn linguistic domination skills—so they could carve a powerful story arc, and create these beautiful portrayals. In both cases, the filmmakers of both of these movies, Chloe Zhao and Ramin Bahrani, were also schooled, clothed, loved, and protected so they could go to institutions and learn expensive software editing programs, get expensive computers, meet people who would finance them, and make connections to Sundance festival and other spaces, to fund their budgets so they could create powerful productions with excellent sound and cinematography.

These are subtle and silent privileges of media and art producers that are rarely if ever spoken about or understood,  And so Hollywood and Bollywood rages on making beautiful pieces of “art” from our lives of struggle. 

How else would poor people’s stories ever be told? Maybe they wouldn’t. Or maybe they would in the ways that we poor people, disabled people, indigenous people want to tell them. 

What did poor people get out of these movies? 

In the horror story (documentary) called Daughter from Danang, a documentary about a poor Vietnamese family that lost their mixed race daughter through imperial war adoption trafficking, her family in Vietnam was exploited, depressed, and badly translated, while the rich white directors and rich Vietnamese academics were able to have on a notch on their filmmaking, researching, and surveying belt, which led, as it always does, to more acclaim, grants and fellowships from more institutions, and an Oscar.

POC-led capitalism won’t save us

Balram’ big “liberatory-revolutionary character move in White Tiger (spoiler alert), i.e, killing his wealth-hoarding, more user-friendly “master,” which enables him to get access to millions of dollars to launch his own business, means his whole family in the village will be wiped out. And although he is conflicted about this impossible situation, he decides to go for that choice as it means he is “free” and it’s all OK because he has become a better, nicer, wealth-hoarding boss, someone who actually supports the people he runs over in his driver business. 

POC-led capitalism will save us all—especially when proposed with no critique of how it is still capitalism, mean to exploit, hoard, displace, and never share.

I’m not utopicizing indigenous family businesses, village, campesino, poverty, angry, bossy, poweful matriarchs and patriarchs who do desperate measures to stay alive like Balram’s grandmother’s character, who forced Balram to work in the tea shop as a kid and give up his White Tiger education dreams.

I am lifting this critique up as a poverty skola who had to drop out of school in the 6th grade to take care of my mama and work as a vendor on the streets so we could barely survive in a micro-business. This was not fun or cute and and we were constantly in deep poverty. 

But we came out of it together, and my mama was not left to be ghettoized, warehoused, or destroyed. Mama didn’t leave me in a foster home, even though survival was really hard, and instead together without any use of fake bootstraps narratives we survived, in coalition with other poor people, poor artists, media makers, writers and poets to live into a poor people revolution called POOR Magazine and lift up our own stories into a theory of survival. This is what we call Poverty Scholarship. 

What I am critiquing is the fact that while we disrespect and destroy our own mamas and elders and cultures and villages, and by any means cultural survival methods, we lift up, love up and fetishize the concept wealth-hoarding, scam-lording, and land-stealing as the solution to our collective happiness. 

Like Balram, we were told in the delicate story arc that its ok if his entire family was killed, so that a nicer, gentler capitalist entity (his business) could be born.

Like Balram, we were told in the delicate story arc that its ok if his entire family was killed, so that a nicer, gentler capitalist entity (his business) could be born.

Invisible monster in the room

In Nomadland, Amazon is barely seen as monster it is, which enables and causes the destruction of entire town economies, through the push to “order everything online” and falsely cheap costs, their absolute unsafe and violently unsupportive work conditions, and their enabling and causing of homelessness through their meager wages—things that fierce Amazon workers are organizing against right now.

Instead the company is just seen, sort of benignly, as one of the places Fern works, launched with a weird “safety” training, as if Amazon ever worries about its employees or their insanely unsafe working conditions. But Nomadland filmmaker Chloe would not know that or fight for that, because she has never worked at Amazon to survive. 

Out of the mouth of one of the three actually houseless characters who played themselves, there is a softly edited-down critique of capitalism and accumulation, but then Van life is utopicized and fetishized, instead of seen as what it is, which is responsible for the death of houseless people all across the US, due to police sweeps, endless ticketing, and exposure and harassment by “owners.” 

There is one time in the movie that Fern’s character actually gets asked to leave from the parking lot she is in. Which is also absolutely so untrue, as a houseless person who among other things slept in hoopoes (broke-down cars), when me and mama were lucky enough to have one, I can tell you it was a constant battle to not be seen, ticketed, arrested, or worst of all towed.

People aren’t encouraged in this country to live interdependently or support their families as a village. If that does happen, folks are labeled “failures” by family members if they stay at home, live with relatives, their mamas, their communities. Jokes and aspersions and insults are routinely told about people for living inter-generationally. Which cultivates and relies on the inherent shame held in the hearts of people who are houseless. 

“I’m not homeless, I’m houseless,” Fern says to a young daughter of a friend in the movie, not proudly as a poverty skola who has managed to live houselessly on her own skills, but embarrassedly, defending the fact that she isn’t a bum, because her friend offers her to move in with them.

It’s Poverty Porn or Poverty voyeurism, as my Mama Dee and me call it. These aren’t our stories told by us for us and more importantly for collective liberation. They are fodder for the ruling class and the Charity Industrial Complex.  

Our own narratives

A powerful example of filmic push-back to Hollywood was the recent Fred Hampton movie Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, which a lot of revolutionaries were not happy with. But Fred Hampton Jr. refused to give up and worked alongside the director to get the story of his father revolutionary Fred Hampton as right as they could.

In literary work, when the American Dirt dream book was released, the critique was led by Latinx writers like Miriam Gurba, Josiah Luis Alderete, and Matt Sedillo. In visual art, there has been powerful poster art launched by artists at Western Regional Advocacy Project, some of which was created by Ronnie Goodman, a street artist who is currently on the street. POOR Magazine’s paper copies, all filled with poor people-led art and liberation.

There are grassroots powerful writers and artists like Ayodele Nzinga and the Lower Bottam Players, and Emmit Thrower, filmmaker of Where is Hope, on disability and police brutality. Kiss My Black Arts creating community based art and liberation. White ally directors like Peter Menchini and Michele Grace Steinberg make movies as collaborators, resisting the othering of us about us, movies like Beyond Recognition on Indigenous land reclamation and Soar Torian Soar with Audrey Candy Corn, on the struggle of mamas who have lost their babies to gun violence. 

In the end poor, houseless, disabled, indigenous communities are a multi-verse of art and love and thrival and resistance. We actually have our own theories and powerFULL art and media and solutions, we are already creating self-determined community-run media and art projects, and that media needs to be seen, respected, and honored for what it is Truth. By Us With Us.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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