2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness [sic] is one of a handful of movies that bucks the trend — as well as a rare example of a single dad of color. Based on the rags-to-riches story of Chris Gardner, it stars Will Smith as a down-on-his luck striver, struggling in his business selling bone density scanners to hospitals, while taking care of his five year old son following his wife’s departure. He lands a prestigious stockbroker internship with a 1 in 20 chance of leading to a job, but it’s six months of grueling, unpaid work (plus studying for an exam) leaving him to fit all his sales calls into the weekend, when he doesn’t have childcare.
But even before he becomes a single parent, he plays an active role in his son’s care, drilling Chris Jr. on spelling and math, and asking him about his day. Contrast this with 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer, where Dustin Hoffman’s Ted Kramer has little insight into his son Billy’s daily life before his wife leaves them. When he cooks breakfast for Billy for the first time, he doesn’t know where anything is kept, and keeps saying that not only does he bring home the bacon but: “I gotta cook it, too!”. (He’d clearly quite like a medal.)
Kramer was notable for being a sensitive portrayal of fatherhood and divorce which illutrates how single dads with full custody were viewed back in 1979. (As non-gender conforming oddballs whose bosses might suggest they send their kid to live with relatives, essentially.) In Happyness, the fact that Gardner is a single dad isn’t a plot point; it just raises the stakes. Interestingly, the movie is set just two years after Kramer, but the fact that it paints that era as more progressive in retrospect suggests that we’re becoming increasingly accepting of non-traditional gender roles and wouldn’t relate to the reality of the time.
It’s clear that it’s much harder for Gardner to make ends meet because of his working class background, but the movie shies away from any exploration of intersectionality and the fact that Gardner is black isn’t acknowledged (he’s much poorer than the Huxtables, but he lives in a similarly “post-racial” world). In real life, Chris Gardner doesn’t consider his race to be integral to his experiences and paucity of opportunities, but the movie hints at it, as every professional Gardner meets or associates with is a white man. Near the start of the film, we see Reagan on TV, giving his famous speech about the (short-lived) early ’80s recession. This makes the context of the film clear: It’s the economy, stupid — let’s not look too closely at structural inequality.
Things worked out well for Chris Gardner in the end: he secured that job and went on to become a multi-millionaire stockbroker, motivational speaker, and author, with Will Smith playing him on the big screen. The performances of Smith and his son Jaden, who plays Chris Jr., are utterly charming and this story is undeniably inspiring, but as a narrative about the American Dream, it reads more like a nightmare. Gardner plays the capitalist system and wins, parlaying his friendly personality, math ability, and physical stamina into a lucrative career.
But in doing so, he experiences unbearable hardships (he can’t take time off even after being hit by a car, goes without meals so his son can eat, and the pair spend several months homeless). It’s clear that someone without Gardner’s natural gifts would have no hope of finding a way out of such grinding poverty. (In one scene, it’s a relief to see Chris and his son let into a homeless shelter for the night, but hundreds more, many presumably without a hopeful future, are turned away). Extrapolating from Gardner’s story to romanticize bootstraps thinking would be dangerous; the kind of mentality that leads to life-ruining policy initiatives and the increased marginalization of vulnerable groups.
At the end of the movie, not only does Gardner succeed at work, but his son tells him, “You’re a good papa.” Like Kramer before it, Happyness shows that men can be just as good at parenting as women. It’s unfortunate, though, that a sympathetic portrayal of a male primary caregiver often comes at the expense of an unsympathetic female ex. Blossom’s mom ran off to Paris to sing jazz and Joanna Kramer has that flakiest of explanations for her departure, “I needed to find myself.” In Happyness, where sharp-tongued Linda Gardner has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, there’s even less nuance. (You’re weak,” Gardner shouts after her retreating figure, in case we weren’t sure how to feel.)
As a narrative choice, this underestimates both women and men, suggesting fathers make great caregivers only when they have to be, as if mothers are and should be the default. But as we see more men take on these responsibilities in real life, I hope we’ll see increasingly realistic pop cultural portrayals which allow both men and women to be flawed and show that parenting can be challenging and fulfilling, regardless of gender.