Poverty in movies bleg

by on January 29, 2009 at 2:41 pm in Film | Permalink

Many people are complaining about the depiction of poverty in the recent movie Slumdog Millionaire.  My question is simple: which movies do a good job of depicting poverty, either its nature or its causes?

I believe the correct answers will involve movies that set out to do something other than depict poverty, but I am eager to hear your views.

1 DD January 29, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Not a movie, but an HBO series… The Wire

2 Matt January 29, 2009 at 2:51 pm

City of God (Ciudad des Deus)

3 Nora Carrington January 29, 2009 at 2:53 pm

I’m not sure The Wire does that good a job of portraying poverty, with the possible exception of the outside of Baltimore’s decaying row houses. The interiors are mostly of the homes of drug dealers, who aren’t poor, and the middle class police and politicians. The only movie I can think of that did a good job of portraying poverty is Norma Rae.

4 Nic January 29, 2009 at 2:55 pm

I had an unusual reaction to the poverty depicted in Slumdogs, which I haven’t heard echo’d anywhere.

I returned from a year in India doing development research a month or two before Slumdogs was released. After seeing the movie with a few friends, I was surprised at how shocked everyone was at the depictions of poverty. I suppose that a year in India had desensitized me to some degree, but there’s more to it than that. I thought the movie was remarkable in the degree to which it showed the agency of the poor, and the degree to which they were not pure victims (an image I think westerners are often exposed to). To me, it was a very empowering image of poverty. If anything, I felt it was glossing over the true hardships of poverty — the slow suffering of untreated medical conditions, hunger and malnourishment.

To my eye, this does as well as any film I’ve seen in giving a realistic portrayal. If anything, it errored on the side of NOT showing the true suffering of poverty. But I’ll accept that if it gives americans more of a sense of the poor as agents, and not people in need of saving.

5 Ned January 29, 2009 at 3:02 pm

City of God. And I know it’s sci-fi and all, but I think the end of Children of Men is a pretty solid depiction of what poverty might look like in the future.

6 Famous J January 29, 2009 at 3:07 pm

I second (or third) City of God. I recall that the movie wasn’t about poverty per se, but that’s the part that stuck with me more than anything.

7 Teedubya January 29, 2009 at 3:15 pm

The first half of Pursuit of Happyness. In America, we tend to associate homelessness with fecklessness, rather than circumstance.

8 Jim Gannon January 29, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Funny, most movie poverty that I can think of is distopian scifi. I guess that’s the only way that we middle classers can identify with poverty.

9 Sonny Bunch January 29, 2009 at 3:23 pm

The fourth season of ‘The Wire,’ which was less about poverty than the disintegration of the Baltimore school system and its students’ family lives, still manages to show the impact of not having money and how that lack of cash makes slinging heroin an attractive, lucrative lifestyle.

‘Wendy and Lucy,’ now in theaters, does a good job of showing the tenuous nature of life on the edge of poverty–the necessity to plot out every little expenditure, how quickly life can go ‘poof,’ the danger of living life on the road.

Someone mentioned ‘The Bicycle Thief,’ which is a smart look at a man trying to provide for his family who is pushed to the edge.

10 franko January 29, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Stalingrad. Grim. Poverty of hope and materials and most everything
associated with modern life.

11 AW January 29, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Does poverty have causes? I was under the impression only wealth has causes.

12 derek January 29, 2009 at 3:35 pm

I second City of Men.

13 mk January 29, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Better than “The Wire” according to this criterion is “The Corner,” also based on the work of David Simon.

14 Seth January 29, 2009 at 3:42 pm

I just came back from a class where I had my students read the Banerjee and Duflo piece on the lives of the poor.

Maybe not the best example of poverty, but a great movie I saw at the AFI is O Pai, O about small Brazalian town during carnival. It shows the multiple small jobs people do to make money, problems with government corruption, but the fun people can have too. Although people have enough to eat so it’s probably more $5 a day poverty, than $1 a day poverty.

15 MS January 29, 2009 at 3:47 pm

The early scenes of the classic Sergeant York gave a good picture of poverty in 1940’s Appalachia

16 Eric H January 29, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Happyness and Always Outnumbered.

17 jason voorhees January 29, 2009 at 3:55 pm

City of God and The Wire.

18 dmh January 29, 2009 at 3:56 pm

In America, film about an Irish immigrant family in modern NYC trying to make a go of it on a shoe string. The best, most realistic, part is the depiction of the oppressive heat the poor endure in the summer without air conditioning, something that has to be experienced to be believed.

19 sean January 29, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Ali Zaoua (Moroccan poverty), similiar in theme to Slum Dog, bit more gritty.

20 greggles January 29, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Accurate or not, De La Calle is a harsh/pessimistic view of street life in Mexico – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0279765/

21 Douglas January 29, 2009 at 4:11 pm

My Childhood by Bill Douglas

22 Patrick R. Sullivan January 29, 2009 at 4:16 pm

There are a lot of them.

‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ from the novel of the same name. ‘Midnight Cowboy’, ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘My Man Godfrey’, ‘Stage Door’, without even leaving the NY area.

Post-war Europe provides many, ‘The Third Man’, ‘The Big Lift’ (Montgomery Clift being duped by a German woman trying to escape 1948 Berlin), Sophia Loren in ‘Two Women’.

From Britain; ‘The L-Shaped Room’ with Leslie Caron as an unmarried pregnant French girl living in a boardinghouse, and ‘Tiger Bay’ with 11 year old Hayley Mills playing a pathological liar who witnesses a murder.

23 Ben January 29, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Better than The Wire, in terms of depicting poverty, is David Simon’s earlier mini-series The Corner. It’s basically The Wire minus all the uplifting parts.

24 Julian January 29, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Tyler, many people are complaining about the depiction of poverty in Slumdog Millionaire precisely because the depiction is good.

25 Dave Peterson January 29, 2009 at 4:59 pm

I was gonna say Tsotsi, but since that means thief in Xhosa (I believe) and it is also about an orphan in a shanty town, the same people would probably have the same problems with it as Slumdog.

26 chevalier January 29, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Obviously the Wire… but that’s a show…

for my money, there isn’t anything better that came out recently than ‘Wendy and Lucy’;

27 mk January 29, 2009 at 5:35 pm

No movie *sets out* to depict poverty. That would be a terrible movie.

28 Martin Kennedy January 29, 2009 at 6:00 pm

City of God. I haven’t seen the movie but the book is very good. Struck me at how similar the lives of the very poor are like my own – trying to scratch out a living, take care of family, celebrate a bit when you get a chance.

29 B.H. January 29, 2009 at 6:01 pm

How about The Grapes of Wrath? Does it count against it that it was based on a novel? You didn’t put that restriction in.

The story has a sentimentality that reflects a world of 70 years ago, a different people and a different set of issues. But the story was blunt about life for Okies.

Another choice: Midnight Cowboy, about the hustler world of life on the streets in Manhattan.

30 Jar Jar Binks January 29, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Non-serious answer:

Trading Places.

31 mike January 29, 2009 at 6:43 pm

cinderella man

32 wwren January 29, 2009 at 7:12 pm


33 scott January 29, 2009 at 7:14 pm

“the harder they come” was supposed to be before that ‘?’ – sorry.

34 tom January 29, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Angela’s Ashes

35 David R. Henderson January 29, 2009 at 7:53 pm

1. Schindler’s List
2. Midnight Express (poverty in prison)

36 Sean Brown January 29, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Hoop Dreams, Amores Perros, Finding Forrester. Hoop Dreams does best though, IMO.

37 Michelle January 29, 2009 at 8:51 pm

The Dreamlife of Angels (La Vie rêvée des anges). It’s not *about* poverty, but depicts two unemployed women who scrap to get by.

38 Nick January 29, 2009 at 9:42 pm


“Caminho das Nuvens” – Very powerful movie, set in brazil, def worth a look.

39 Tom Davies January 29, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Angela’s Ashes did a good job.

40 ricardo January 29, 2009 at 10:50 pm

The Bicyclist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bicyclist; somewhere between “The Bicycle Thief” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”.

After that, watch Close Up:


41 ricardo January 29, 2009 at 11:13 pm

And: Ritwik Ghatak’s films, especially:


Think Ray crossed with Douglas Sirk. Cloud-Capped Star and A River Named Titash are great, great films.

And finally: Gummo


42 mr commenter person January 29, 2009 at 11:32 pm

I know you asked for poverty, but isn’t it striking how movies and television shows usually depict living standards that are way beyond what the median income American middle class household experiences?

A few movies for some reason stick out as depicting American households that aren’t in poverty, but aren’t very advantaged, either:

– E.T.
– Goonies
– Close Encounters of the Third Kind
– Back to the Future
– Napoleon Dynamite
– A Christmas Story

All depict middle class families with kids, owning modest homes in ordinary neighborhoods. The cities they live in are usually not very prestigious either.

Anyhow, back on topic – the seedy decaying inner city scenes from 12 Monkeys are a striking picture of crime and homelessness.

43 sohaib January 29, 2009 at 11:42 pm

City of God and, your recommendation, Satantango.

44 Ian January 30, 2009 at 12:27 am

Days of Heaven

45 Anonymous January 30, 2009 at 2:12 am

pride and prejudice.

46 PFJ January 30, 2009 at 3:50 am

Hoop Dreams for the nature of poverty.

47 Ross Parker January 30, 2009 at 4:54 am

El Bano de Papa

48 CDG January 30, 2009 at 6:21 am

I think “The Year of Living Dangerously” with Mel Gibson accurately shows all the complexities surrounding poverty in Indonesia in the 1970s.

49 NPTO January 30, 2009 at 7:50 am

My vote is for City of God (City of Men is also great). By the way, any guesses why such a high proportion of movies come from Brazil? Here’s mine: the best movies about poverty will be produced in countries that are poor and/or unequal enough to have people who are really poor, but developed enough to sustain a movie industry.

If Bergman wanted to film povert, he would have to travel.And, although there are some excellent African movies, I imagine it is not easy for someone to come up with the resources to shoot a film in Somalia.

Here is another possibility: the poverty in City of God is different in degree, but not in kind, from the poverty that is found in America; urban setting, residential project. Maybe that kind of thing resonates more with American viewers than movies about rural poverty (which is the really extreme stuff, I guess). Movies about famine in refugee camps might be unbearable to watch.

50 Amanda Taub January 30, 2009 at 11:10 am

How about Dirty Pretty Things?

51 Anonymous January 30, 2009 at 11:51 am

‘Salaam bombay’ by Mira Nair is a much better film. Though I have not seen Slumdog, depiction of poverty by any non-Indian director always wins them accolades. There is no denying that poverty in India sells.

52 mm January 30, 2009 at 1:35 pm

killer of sheep

53 Anonymous January 30, 2009 at 5:23 pm

The early nineties documentary HOOP DREAMS practically had me balling in its depiction of two aspiring high school basketball players from poor families. It strikes so deep because it takes place in the U.S.(somehow we’ve been conditioned to believe that poverty occurs only in third world countries), and because the heroes get so close to the object of their desires.

54 Ron Byrnes January 31, 2009 at 12:16 am

Hoop Dreams

55 Amitav January 31, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Salaam Bombay. See it.

56 Willox Perez February 1, 2009 at 10:27 pm

I have to agree City Of God tells it all and it does show poverty especially with relation to young kids growing up.

57 Doug February 2, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Oldie, but Stand and Deliver with Edward Olmos

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