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Whitney Gent on How Homelessness is Portrayed in Movies and Why it Matters

  • Whitney Gent
  • March 21 2022
  • PC110-2022

Whitney Gent
Whitney Gent

People experiencing homelessness are more often part of the background in movies than featured as the protagonists. But when they are the focus of a film, the ways that they and those who feel moved to help them are portrayed can have a big impact on how the public and policymakers think about homelessness and possible solutions.

In this episode, we talk with Dr. Whitney Gent about what she and her coauthor found in their analysis of films featuring homeless characters from 1983 to 2018, and in particular the concepts of visibility and agency. Gent is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She earned her doctorate in rhetoric, politics, & culture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was a graduate research fellow with IRP during her doctoral studies.


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Judith Siers-Poisson [00:00:04] You start your paper by saying on the silver screen, as in public life, people who are homeless are often rendered invisible. How do you see that playing out in movies?

Whitney Gent [00:00:14] Well, most of the time in films, homeless people are backdrop characters. We see them as indicators that we’re in a gritty neighborhood or as indicators that crime has occurred. Very rarely, actually, do we see people experiencing homelessness as the protagonists in film and as evidence of that. In the 35-year period that we examined for this study, 1983 to 2018, we could only find 16 films where the protagonist characters were experiencing homelessness. Now, not even all of those 16 films were Hollywood films. A number of them were independent films as well. Now, out of the hundreds of films developed and released during that time to only see 16 where homelessness is, the prominent theme I think gives us a really good sense of the invisibility of homelessness. Typically, on screen as in life.

Siers-Poisson [00:01:23] We’ll talk a lot more about specific movies and trends, but I want to jump ahead a little bit and ask why does it matter how people experiencing homelessness are portrayed in movies? I think it could be really easy to dismiss this as just entertainment anyway.

Gent [00:01:38] Hmm. Absolutely, yes. So I am what’s called a rhetorical scholar. And what that means is that I believe that the ways that we talk about things and the ways that we represent them visually and otherwise shapes the ways that we think about them. So this is true. You know, we’ve heard conversations recently about how representation of race or of LGBTQ people really matters on television. And in the last decade, we’re seeing a lot more diversity in representation on television. So when we’re talking about homelessness, it’s the same concept that when we see representations of homelessness in film, it shapes the ways that we think about what homelessness is. Who experiences it. What we are capable of doing in response to homelessness. And even whether homelessness is something that we ought to respond to. So part of what I’m interested in as a rhetorical scholar is what do those representations look like? How are we talking about people experiencing homelessness? How are we talking about what homelessness is even and then examining the connections between those stories? We’re telling those representations we’re creating and the ways that people think about and respond to homelessness when they are called to make decisions about that in their own communities. So a big part of what Dr. Loehwing and I are doing in this study is illustrating the ways that film creates stories and perspectives in our minds that impact deliberation on public policy issues. When there’s someone experiencing homelessness living in our neighborhoods, when we encounter them simply walking down the street. Film isn’t just entertainment. Film teaches us about our world. And so examining closely what it’s teaching us and how it’s doing that really does matter.

Siers-Poisson [00:03:49] So as promised, let’s take that step back in general. Over the past thirty-five years or so that you looked at these films, how has homelessness, when there is that protagonist, been depicted in mainstream movies? What are some of the themes that were frequently employed?

Gent [00:04:06] So the two that we have really highlighted are agency and visibility. What that means is that we’re interested, first of all, in agency, meaning what are housed people told that they can do in response to homelessness. What kind of power do they have to impact the lives of people who are living on the streets? Can they help people overcome homelessness? Is the goal to simply to give money to a shelter? What does it look like? So we’re interested in that. What do people who are housed do in response to homelessness? The other thing that we’re really interested in is visibility. What makes someone experiencing homelessness visible or of interest to someone who is housed? So as we explore these two themes, we find a number of trends. In agency, we find what you might call the “white savior” character or even just the savior character. Pretty much across these three and a half decades that we are examining, the stories are told with the housed person very much in mind. It is rarely until the independent films of more recent years, the story is very rarely just about the person experiencing homelessness. It’s about that interaction between someone who is experiencing homelessness and someone who has greater wealth and greater access to resources. In those cases, what we find is a call to compassion, a call to not be afraid of people experiencing homelessness, a call to do something. But what we often find in the housed person who tries to do something is that they fail, or that the person experiencing homelessness is actually more capable of helping themselves. The reason why this matters is that it undermines, ultimately in people’s minds, the idea that there are systemic problems and systemic solutions to homelessness. We almost never see homeless people in shelters in these films. And when we do, those shelters are far worse than the experience of living on the streets. What we see more often are families or individuals who have encountered some exceptional homeless person and have decided that they want to help and put all of their resources into trying to make life better for them. Even when that doesn’t succeed in helping to house the person experiencing homelessness, it does have a tremendous impact on the life of the person who is trying to do that, helping who is that savior. We say white savior because much of the time, maybe all the time, actually, now that I think about it, the person who is trying to do the helping is a middle- or upper-class white person. So we think that that’s an important thing for us to notice because if we are understanding homelessness as a social problem or a social issue that requires some sort of public response, then all of these depictions in film are telling us that the response is just that we need to be nice people and try to help individuals experiencing homelessness, as opposed to creating those larger-scale solutions that will impact more people at a time.

Siers-Poisson [00:07:56] And I think it’s really interesting because those movies, like you said, where it’s an exceptional person who is homeless for whatever reason—often a person of color—comes into contact with this usually white advantaged person who feels moved to help them. A couple of the movies that I watched in preparing for our conversation were “The Blind Side” and “The Soloist.” And in both of those movies, I came away feeling like everything that we saw and all of the perceptions and interpretations of what was going on were through the eyes, and the perspective, of the person who was trying to help, not the person that they were helping, In The Blind Side, for instance, I would love to see a count of how many words were spoken by Michael, the young man who was brought in, versus by the Sandra Bullock character, because I felt like he was almost in the background, even though it was supposed to be his story.

Gent [00:08:55] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me because particularly in this kind of “rescue” storylines, the story does become about the people who are doing the rescuing and whether they succeed or fail or what that success or failure looks like. You know, even in some of the older films, which are a little bit less, “here’s an exceptional homeless person, so we should save them” and a little bit more “Here are silly rich people trying to do something about homelessness,” even in those cases, the storyline is about the people who are trying to help much more than it is about the people who are experiencing that life. Again, the exception to that are the more recent independent films, the films that happen in the 2010s, that are really just the more gritty stories about what life on the streets actually looks like. And in those stories, actually, we don’t get the rescue narrative. We get a story of here’s someone experiencing a really hard life on the streets, and here’s what it looks like when they fail, actually, because there is no success in those films.

Siers-Poisson [00:10:15] When you look at the characteristics of people who are homeless in movies versus what we know about who tends to be homeless in the United States, how well does that line up?

Gent [00:10:27] Well, one of the trends that we haven’t yet talked about is race. So when we look at the films of the 1980s and the early 1990s, the protagonists are primarily white people experiencing homelessness, into the 2000s. When we start having these kind of exceptional stories, exceptional people experiencing homelessness and getting assistance, the characters all become Black. The people experiencing it all become Black. They’re also, across the decades, primarily male. I can only think of two exceptions out of the 16 films, maybe three, where a primary homeless character is female, always in relation to a man never on her own. So that’s significant, first of all, because it gives us a really narrow representation of who is homeless. We know that there are homeless women in the United States. We know that there are homeless families in the United States. And yet primarily what we’re seeing on our screens in recent years is single Black men who are unattached or single white men who are unattached, who are living the street life now. Some might argue that that is not an inaccurate representation, because those are the people that we are more likely to see living on the streets as opposed to in shelters or jumping from couch to couch, home to home, trying to keep sheltered. I would argue that even if that is true, that narrow portrayal on the silver screen gives viewers who don’t know much about homelessness the impression that that is the entirety of the homeless population. And that, again, is why representation on the screen matters.

Siers-Poisson [00:12:32] Well, that’s surprising to me because while those single men who are experiencing homelessness might be more visible in real life, wouldn’t the mom and kids be more effective or sympathetic in a Hollywood narrative?

Gent [00:12:46] Mm-Hmm. Yeah, I think that’s a very good point. I think that may be the case. But again, part of what we’re dealing with in this in these stories is that they are less about the people experiencing homelessness and more about the people who are trying to help them. And I think maybe, this is pure speculation, but maybe it seems easier to try to save one single man than it does to try to save a family. The only example that I can think of an attempt to save a family is in the 90s film “Curly Sue,” where we have a man and his, she’s not exactly his daughter, but she’s taken on as his daughter. So they are their own little family unit, and they are also exceptional in that the person who saves them is a single white woman as opposed to a white man or a white family. So it becomes a kind of exception to the rule. And in “Curly Sue,” we do have a place for sympathy, but also she’s a funny character. So even as we might feel sympathy for her as a child in this experience, she also provides comic relief, which I think prevents her from becoming a serious representation of what child poverty looks like in the United States.

Siers-Poisson [00:14:18] In your paper, you talk about how the point of view in the movies often reflects who the filmmakers think of as their audience, whether consciously or unconsciously. And it is those middle-class people, not the people experiencing homelessness. Can you talk a little bit about how that comes across and how we can identify that when we’re watching a movie?

Gent [00:14:39] Yes, absolutely. Well, I think it’s really evident that films are made for people who are housed instead of people who are experiencing homelessness for some of the reasons that we’ve already talked about. One, that while there are homeless people serving as protagonists in the film, the highlighted characters or the stories that seem to really matter in the end, are the people who are doing the saving the housed people who are having emotions about homelessness. But in addition to that, I think it matters in terms of how homelessness itself is represented—that we don’t see in the big Hollywood films the real difficulties of life for people experiencing homelessness. It’s sort of cleaned up for the audience, right? You might see Jamie Fox experiencing mental illness and playing the cello on the street, but you’re not seeing the difficulties of his trying to find a safe place to sleep at night. You’re not seeing his difficulty accessing meals, you’re not seeing the difficulty in simply finding a place to go to the bathroom. Those struggles are sort of erased in an effort to portray his exceptional talent as a Juilliard dropout who plays the cello really well. We do see some of his mental health struggles, but somehow it seems to me like those are more palatable to a housed audience who can more readily identify sometimes with those struggles than they can with the difficulties of living on the streets. So I think that what is absent in a lot of these stories is, as I said earlier, the real grit of the streets, the actual experience of homelessness. And honestly, this may well be because people who are housed don’t want to watch that.

Siers-Poisson [00:16:44] It makes me think of how often people who are seeking shelter. They spend a lot of time waiting in lines. In a recent conversation we had with Andrea Elliott about her book “Invisible Child,” it came up that poor people pay for things with their time by standing in line, by waiting for things, waiting for people. And that’s not something that gets portrayed, partly because that probably wouldn’t feel like it made a very good movie to watch someone standing in line. But that’s a lot of the reality.

Gent [00:17:21] Mm-Hmm. Yeah, absolutely. In fact, one of the most honest representations of homelessness that I have seen in film is the I think it’s a 2014 film with starring Richard Gear called Time Out of Mind. And in this film, you feel like it’s just dragging on and on and on. And that’s because Geer was convinced that he needed to offer a realistic portrayal of what it was like to be homeless. So there are long stretches of time where he is just waiting or sitting, or just having a drink on the street corner. And that makes it really difficult to watch. Even as a viewer like myself, who cares about these issues, it’s a hard slog to get through that film. And I think that really illustrates your point that the things that we, as housed viewers, might think of as entertaining don’t match up with the reality of life on the streets.

Siers-Poisson [00:18:25] It seems like a lot of the well-meaning people who are trying to help the homeless people that they encounter, they make a lot of missteps. And I think we are often encouraged to, to kind of forgive them those missteps, because they’re trying, they’re trying to do good. Are there any films that you looked at that you feel like turn a more critical eye on the people who are maybe with good intentions, but sometimes are doing harm while they’re trying to do good?

Gent [00:18:59] Well, the best example I have is the Fisher King, the 1991 film with Robin Williams. And in that film, we have Jeff Bridges playing a shock jock whose critical comments lead to a shooting spree. And Robin Williams wife in the film is a casualty of that shooting spree. So Williams ends up with the experience of mental illness and ends up living on the streets, and Jeff Bridges ends up in depression himself and very nearly on the streets. And when they encounter one another, Robin Williams saves his character, saves Jeff Bridges, and they go through this process of developing a relationship where Bridges is trying to make up for his past, since he’s trying to save Williams by giving him money, by dressing him up so that he can find love, by doing all of these things. And in the end, he discovers that those are not the things that Williams needed. Williams needed a relationship. He needed a friend. This is not a perfect story. It’s not a perfect representation. But I think it matters that the storyline there is. You can’t save him from the experience of mental illness. You can walk alongside him on the journey. I also think that it matters that in these savior narratives, most of the time, we don’t see success. We see these saviors learning things about themselves and learning things about the experience of homelessness. And we see people still living on the streets. In some ways, I think that’s a good thing, in that it prevents people maybe from believing that they can just go out and house a homeless person themselves and save the world in this way. In other ways, I think that it’s damaging because I think that it can discourage people from trying to help, from believing that they can do anything meaningful. What to do about homelessness is a difficult question, right? But it’s my belief that it’s a collective question that we address homelessness better as a community than we do as isolated individuals. These films tell us that as isolated individuals, we should reach out to help. They miss that we are stronger together. They miss that we can create collective solutions. That we can actually, for the long haul, house people if we pool those resources. A good example of this is the Housing First approach to homelessness, where essentially, we provide housing first to people have become who have become homeless and then help them to address whatever causes that homelessness to begin with. This is a hugely successful program that has a tremendous retention rate for people experiencing homelessness. But this program doesn’t work without pooled resources, without political will, without some sort of commitment to understanding homelessness as a systemic problem that we can address person by person by person. If all we have are these pictures of people who want to go in and rescue the exceptional Black boy who plays football really well or rescue the cellist that they’ve heard on this side of the street who dropped out of Juilliard, then we don’t have any representations of actually working together to house lots of people, regardless of whether we see them as exceptional.

Siers-Poisson [00:23:17] I think that’s really interesting looking at it from both sides of the equation as collective, the collective effort, the systemic efforts, but also on the other side, obviously it’s a better movie or book or whatever depiction if you can focus in on a character, right? But that also makes it easy to forget that this is a representative person of a lot of people who are facing this issue. And I kept thinking as I was watching some of the movies and reading, especially reading some of the reviews or the blurbs about the movies, it’s really common for them to emphasize the amazing, true story of so-and-so. And that made me wonder if that plays into that idea of the exceptional homeless person that there is this one person, but it kind of forgets all the other people, the ones I don’t play football or cello or are amazing writers or you know who are more average people like most of us are, but we happen to be homed. Is there anything there about those true stories maybe making it even harder to get people to think on the systemic level?

Gent [00:24:36] Well, I think that what you’re getting at is a really core issue, a really core question that we need to be asking ourselves and that’s who deserves our help or who deserves to be housed. If all of the stories are about people who are somehow exceptional, even among housed people, then that leads to, I think the notion that you’re being deserving of housing is linked to your ability to demonstrate your worth somehow as opposed to you are simply being worthy of housing by being human. And so you’re right in saying that these stories make for good films. There’s intrigue. And I think that that label of based on a true story really builds intrigue like, “Oh wow, this this isn’t just made up. This really happened.” I think we love “based on a true story.” And I think that those films may have a stronger rhetorical impact as people assume that this must be how it really is. One thing that we haven’t talked about much is that films reach people who don’t have any direct exposure to homelessness, they reach people who may live in more rural communities where they don’t see street homelessness in the same way, or people who tend to spend their time in suburbs instead of in downtown areas where they might have more exposure to people experiencing homelessness, or simply by limited mobility themselves, not encountering homelessness. That’s a big part of why film matters in terms of how we’re thinking about race, how we’re thinking about homelessness, how we’re thinking about what homelessness is and how we can help. If this is what you see as homelessness, if you’re only ever seeing these “based on a true story” films that show us the exceptional well, then only the exceptional deserve assistance, only the exceptional homeless person can be helped or “look, they tried to help even the exceptional homeless person, then it didn’t work out the way they wanted it to. So maybe we shouldn’t even try.” So the messages here are multiple, but again, they rarely turn us to seeing homelessness as a systemic problem with systemic solutions, and they just plain don’t call us to work together on homelessness. They show us a Sandra Bullock who we should love because she’s loving on this Black boy with potential. We see a Robert Downey Jr. who himself becomes a better person through trying to help this cellist, even though he cannot get the cellist housed for the long haul. We see those stories. It matters that that cellist doesn’t stay housed in the story because then the helping becomes about us, the housed viewer, rather than about the success of the person experiencing homelessness.

Siers-Poisson [00:28:08] So what would that look like if there was a film that really showed that systemic approach and that collective effort to end homelessness or to address homelessness? What would that look like and what would you like to tell directors, “This is what you should do if you want to really have an impact.”

Gent [00:28:28] That’s a great question. I want to point first to a 2018 film by Emilio Estevez called “The Public.” “The Public” is unique among all of the films about homelessness that we analyzed in that it’s the first time that you see a collective of homeless people interacting with one another where there are meaningful characters, many who are experiencing homelessness and who are working together to try to make their lives better. Now we see lots of complicated interactions with the state there, and I got to tell you, I don’t recommend “The Public”. I don’t actually think it’s a very good film. It’s a little bit holier than thou in almost every way. But what I think it does really well is that it reminds us that homelessness is a problem of scale, that there are relationships involved and that there are in fact, solutions not just because shelter systems are imperfect doesn’t mean that they are not useful. Just because we don’t have enough money in many communities to house the number of people that we should. Doesn’t mean that we can’t get the money to house the number of people that we should. Right? So I would tell directors and actors thinking about people portraying homelessness to think about homelessness not as an isolated experience, but a community experience. And to think about having a community of housed people interacting with a community of people experiencing homelessness where there is input from both sides. Right? The people experiencing it and the people who want to help so that the informed decisions being made about what would be best. I know that I mentioned earlier the Housing First approach to homelessness. The reason I’m such a big a fan of that approach is that it comes from asking people experiencing homelessness, “what do you need? What do you want?” And the answer almost always was, I need a place to live. So Housing First gives people a place to live, answers the question that was asked. It provides those resources directly, and in my mind, it’s one of the most successful policy approaches to homelessness. We have seen in the United States, since homelessness became such a big issue in the 80s, our films leave those kinds of approaches, leave policy entirely invisible, and they don’t have to. We can tell interesting stories about policy solutions like that while bringing in the humanity of characters, while making it an interesting story to watch. So that’s what I would ask, Hollywood, produce more films about homelessness. If you’ve got a story about someone who is exceptional, don’t forget to work in other people experiencing homelessness who don’t have those same talents, but who are still worthy of assistance. I think that in making some of those tweaks and in really changing the message to viewers about how they can participate in making life better for people who are living on the streets, that would really tremendously positively impact what Hollywood is doing in representation of homelessness.

Siers-Poisson [00:32:09] Well, that’s a great place to leave it, Professor Gent, thanks so much for joining us today.

Gent [00:32:13] Thank you. I really enjoyed the conversation.


Economic Support, Employment, Financial Security, Health, Health Care, Homelessness, Housing, Housing Assistance, Inequality & Mobility, Mental Health & Substance Abuse, Place, Place General, Racial/Ethnic Inequality, Unemployment/Nonemployment