December 14, 2006, - 5:30 am
By Debbie Schlussel
“The Pursuit of Happyness” is one of the great movies of the year (perhaps the decade) and a rare product from Hollywood.
In theaters Friday, the film presents a male character and father in a positive light. And it shows the virtues of merit–not race-based preferences–in America. It is the story of the high hopes–and achievement of those hopes with hard work–that are only possible in this great country.
In a day when men are portrayed as losers and dopes, absentee fathers, and deadbeat sperm-donors who don’t care about their kids, Happyness tells us the real story of most American fathers. They love their children and work hard to give them a good life.
In this case, it’s the real story of Chris Gardner, a down-and-out-on-his-luck bone-scanner salesman who succeeds to become a multi-millionaire, all while raising his young son alone. Gardner’s wife, the mother of his two-year-old son (in the movie, he’s five), has no faith in him. After bitching and moaning endlessly and trying to kill his dreams, she leaves Gardner to raise his son on virtually no money.
Gardner, without a college education, enters an internship for stockbrokers at Dean Witter. But he’s paid no money, and must raise his son and succeed in the internship while homeless. The scenes of Gardner living with his son in homeless shelters, subway station bathrooms, and cheap motel rooms are no exaggeration.
Most of all, Happyness is the story of the love of a father for his son–in the face of incredible difficulties. Every disaster in the world, every bit of bad luck happens to Gardner. The scanners he sells are stolen or fail to work, and he is arrested for unpaid parking tickets on the night before an important interview, evicted from his apartment, evicted from his cheap motel room.
Throughout all of this, it is not just his drive to succeed that motivates him. It is, above all, his love for his son, the custody of whom he refuses to give up. And although Gardner is a Black man, race is never mentioned and never plays a part in the Chris Gardner story.
Still, it is important because the Black fathers we see on television are portrayed most often on venues like the Oprah Winfrey show. To Oprah, Black fathers are absentee millionaire NBA players who cheated on their kids mothers and didn’t pay child support. She’s also portrayed Black fathers largely as extramarital cheaters, gospel singers addicted to porn, spending addicts, married gay men on the “down low”, and assorted other highly unflattering presentations America is shown daily on her syndicated daytime talk show.
The true story of Chris Gardner did not originate on Oprah. It originated on a solid news show that doesn’t engage in male-bashing, ABC’s “20/20.”
Happyness is the story of hard work. Only one person out of many in the Dean Witter internship gets a permanent job. Gardner was the chosen one.
But Gardner did not get a break because of his complexion. He was chosen on merit alone. In the stockbroking business, race-based preferences can’t help you sell stocks and make money for the company. Gardner was chosen because–with his pluck, initiative, and sticktuitiveness–he sold the most stock and financial pacakages for Dean Witter. In the movie–which Gardner says is true to his life (but for the age of his son at the time)–race has nothing to do with it.
Sadly, this message is lost on Happyness star, Will Smith. In an interview with Detroit Free Press film critic Terry Lawson, Smith says he is upset that Michigan voters voted for Proposal Two, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which ends affirmative action in public hiring, contracting, and college admissions. Given his role as Gardner, Smith’s psychobabble is jarring:
As a Black American, I am 100 percent in favor of affirmative action. But Jada [Pinkett Smith, his wife] always talks about the beauty and the pain of the true political process. She believes every paradigm ends in paradox, that the result can be the worst thing and the best thing at the same time.
The very thing that sparks one person can break another. For Chris Gardner, defeat only made him work harder and believe in himself more.
But Chris Gardner didn’t succeed because he got special treatment for being Black. The company he founded, Gardner Rich & Co., didn’t prosper because of race preferences either. He succeeded because of hard work and resulting profits. The movie’s script makes the point that equality of result is not guaranteed–that the Declaration of Independence specifies only the pursuit of happiness as a right, not happiness itself. Gardner succeeded because he was smart, resourceful, hard-working, and dedicated to making a better life for his son.
Those should be the only reasons anyone succeeds in America–not the coincidence of birth with a certain skin tone or set of internal plumbing.
Smith–of all people–should know this. Hollywood is full of unemployed actor-model/waiters of all races. Those few who make it don’t get there because of affirmative action. They made it because they appealed to the audience marketplace on merit and talent alone.
Will Smith did not initially succeed because he was “The Black Prince of Bel Air,” but because he was the talented “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
Tags: ABC, America, Bel Air, Chris Gardner, Debbie Schlussel, Detroit Free Press, film critic, Friday, Gardner Rich & Co., Michigan, National Basketball Association, NBA, Oprah Winfrey, pain, Pinkett Smith, Prince of Bel Air, salesman, Terry Lawson, The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith