The Pursuit of Happyness: Guess Who’s Coming to the Brokerage

As I work on Enterprising Fables I will be writing posts about the texts I’m watching or reading. My approach is to write about a group of texts in a particular subgenre, and the first subgenre is entrepreneurship. While I posted about The Social Network after it came out (see my posts of Oct. 26, 2010 and March 1, 2011), I’ll now be going back historically, and my first stop is the 2006 movie starring Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness.

Truth be told, I completely missed this movie when it was released. What attracted me was a reference in law professor Larry Ribstein’s article Wall Street and Vine: Holllywood’s View of Business. Ribstein’s main thesis, which I’ll explore in a future post, is that Hollywood has long presented a negative view of business. Ribstein pointed out The Pursuit of Happyness as the exception to his rule, calling it “one of the most pro-business films of modern times,” and an artistic and financial success, and wondering why there are not more films like it.

The Pursuit of Happyness was inspired by the rags-to-riches story of Chris Gardner, an African-American who started life in a broken family, encountered business failures that left him homeless for a year, but ultimately succeeded as a stockbroker, establishing his own brokerage firm. I will focus on the movie’s plot, as opposed to the version presented in Gardener’s 2006 autobiography.

The movie begins in 1981 following Gardner in a downward spiral. Building on a background in medical technology, he has invested all his savings in selling portable bone density scanners, a device that improved slightly on x-ray technology, but at a considerably higher price. His failure in this venture leads his wife to leave him, and he takes custody of their young son. Gardner is evicted from his apartment and he and his son are reduced to homelessness.

In the midst of the downward spiral Gardner has an epiphany. He sees a businessman getting out of a fancy sports car, telling him that he is a stockbroker, which is a good job for someone who is “good with numbers and good with people.” On the spot, Gardner resolves to become a stockbroker. Gardner lurks outside the San Francisco offices of Dean Witter to accost senior executives, and ultimately shares a taxi ride with one, impressing him with his ability to solve Rubik’s cube. Gardner is accepted into Dean Witter’s internship program, aces the securities exam, and becomes the one intern of twenty in the program who is hired full time. He does all this while he and his son are homeless, spending most nights in the shelter of San Francisco’s renowned Glide Memorial Church. The movie ends with the real Chris Gardner having a cameo, and onscreen text informing us of Gardner’s subsequent business success.

Gardner, as portrayed in the movie, is a hero with many virtues. He is innately good with numbers – demonstrated by his facility with Rubik’s cube – and good with people – demonstrated by his ability to impress his colleagues and win clients. More than that, he has tremendous persistence and determination. Even beyond that, he displays almost superhuman unflappability and self-control that enables him to survive in the radically different worlds of a stock brokerage and a homeless shelter.

Ribstein is correct in that the movie depicts business in an extraordinarily positive light. Everyone Gardner encounters at Dean Witter is eager to help him. When he turns up uninvited at the mansion of a wealthy potential client whom he has not met before, the man invites him and his son to share their corporate box at a Forty-Niners game. While the movie is set in liberal San Francisco and almost everyone at Dean Witter is a middle-aged white male, there is no trace of racism or elitism. Even if twenty interns are vying for one full-time position, the competition is clean and without animosity. This depiction of a stockbrokerage – so different from, for example, the brokerage where Bud Fox gets his start in Wall Street – strikes me as much too supportive and cooperative to begin to approach the truth. As the title of this post indicates, ultimately this is one more in a long line of films intended to make whites feel good about their relationship with blacks.

For Gardner to have bounced back from such adversity requires not just his smarts and determination, but a social safety net that provided a meal, a place to sleep, and a place to shower so that he could maintain the workaday charade of stability in his personal life. Glide Memorial Church is one of the most prominent liberal churches in the US, renowned for its numerous social service programs. So while Ribstein sees The Pursuit of Happyness as a narrative glorifying free enterprise, it can also be read as glorifying the voluntary sector. And, my guess is that the depiction of the generosity of strangers at Glide Memorial is more accurate than the depiction of the generosity of colleagues at Dean Witter.

To conclude, I interpret The Pursuit of Happyness as something other than the powerful paean to the glories of capitalism that Professor Ribstein sees in it. Manolha Dargis in her review in the New York Times (Dec. 15, 2006) called it “a fairy tale in realist drag,” and, for the reasons I’ve discussed, I think she had it exactly right.

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