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How films depicting the working class fail to capture the reality of poverty

Our movies need to challenge the power structures inherent to capitalism
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The praise that Parasite received for being an accurate depiction of the working class is largely unwarranted. COURTESY OF TIFF
The praise that Parasite received for being an accurate depiction of the working class is largely unwarranted. COURTESY OF TIFF

It is a cold and eerily quiet night. You find yourself alone in a damp alleyway — a place where you know you shouldn’t be. You should be cozily tucked in bed in your Harbourfront Toronto condo but, alas, here you are. 

A seedy figure approaches from the darkness. You clutch your Louis Vuitton Sofia Coppola bag close to you. The woman dressed in shabby, smelly clothing approaches you, eyeing your purse. You’re absolutely convinced she’s going to rob you. She’s only a few inches away now; you’re preparing to let out a blood-curdling scream. 

And then, nothing. 

She does nothing. She simply walks by you. But the fear you felt in that moment stays with you and it plagues you every night as you try to sleep. You close your eyes and you can see her, smell her stench. 

You’re descending into madness and then, one morning as you’re making coffee, you hear the front door slowly creak open. The woman from the alley peeks in from behind the door. She flashes a crooked smile before brandishing a knife. The end.

I can only assume that such are the imaginings of screenwriters looking to depict the working class on film. In 2019, I was one of the many people who had the privilege to watch Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. It told the story of the Kims, a poor Seoul family who have to do all manner of jobs such as folding pizza boxes in order to get by. 

After a series of questionable events they end up employed by the rich Park family. Yet, things take a dark turn when the Kims begin fantasizing about living in the Park house and, slowly but surely, things get bloody because of their greed. 

The film is clever and suspenseful. However, what I cannot understand for the life of me is the claim of well-to-do critics that this movie is somehow an accurate depiction of the working class. 

Spoiler alert: people who are affected by poverty are not sitting in our ramshackle apartments plotting ways to infiltrate the lives of the rich. In an article in The Guardian, Hahna Yoon compared Parasite to the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, which discourages children from charity as it makes ‘mice’ greedy and incapable of self-reliance. Yoon writes: 

“Without examining the system that has created the Kims and the Parks, the film’s message is reduced to this: commiserate with the working class – not because they are fully developed human beings with the same ethical dilemmas you have – but because they’re a hopeless lot.”

Films depicting the working class that show the drudgery of poverty without criticizing capitalism are surface-level at best, and deeply inaccurate at worst. They do not show how rent hikes run families out of homes, or how students turn to sex work to afford tuition, or how pandemics like COVID-19 cost people their lives because those in power care more about profits for big business than the safety of the working class. 

And it’s not just Parasite. Joker, Velvet Buzzsaw, The Purge, and Eating Raoul all spread the false narrative that the working class is blood-thirsty and immoral. This rhetoric is dangerous because it dehumanizes the working class. It makes society forget that the person pumping your gas is perhaps a talented painter, or that the person mopping your office’s floors needs to afford rent and food for their family. 

Furthermore, it desensitizes us to crises that affect the working class. Case in point: COVID-19. Despite widespread illness and lockdowns and overflowing hospitals, our capitalist society continues to obsess over productivity. 

We move our jobs and schools online, not thinking of those who cannot afford laptops or internet access. We refuse to wear masks in public, not caring if the people who bag our groceries contract the virus. We elect politicians who stay in luxury hospital suites while hundreds of people die waiting to be treated. 

But this is all normal, right? We’ve seen worse things happen to people in horror movies. 

It’s not normal.

We do not need more movies that demonize the working class or movies that singularly focus on the destitution of poverty. We need movies that challenge the power structures that make the poor poorer and the rich richer. 

House of Hummingbird, Roma, and I, Daniel Blake are just a few places to start. These are movies that properly represent the working class — not just our struggles, but also our hopes and dreams, our emotional complexities that transcend the drudgery of poverty. 

Perhaps, in our attempts to correctly portray the working class, what we actually need is support for the working class in the film industry.