In the lead up to the 87th Annual Oscars ceremony, 134 documentaries were submitted for consideration by the Academy. Only 5 were nominated. Amongst the 129 near misses, was a list of films illuminating interesting aspects of poverty in America. Here are seven of the better ones:
1) American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. The story of Grace Lee Boggs in many ways parallels the evolution of black America. This may seem somewhat odd because she is Chinese American but as Detroit-based advocates, she and her husband played an important role in the 1960s black power movement. As the economy changed and blue color work disappeared, Boggs began helping her beloved city overcome challenges related to crime, poverty and urban decay.
The filmmakers explore the inner workings of Boggs, now in her 90's. She touches upon her role as a woman in the movement -- for a long time, she was passive and assumed her own work to be of lesser value than her husband's. The film also wrestles with such questions as how Boggs remains dedicated to the cause over a period of decades and maintains a surety in her mission and actions.
2) The Overnighters. The inner workings of those dedicated to a cause are also a central focus of The Overnighters. Jay Reinke is a small town minister who opens his church to men from across the country, providing them with shelter as they seek work in nearby oil fields. After some unexpected twists and turns, the filmmakers captured a compelling story of a non-profit worker -- not of an artificial saint-like caricature, but of a realistic and imperfect human being with complicated motivations and his own inner demons to conquer.
Also featured prominently are a host of men affected by an economy with limited opportunities for those with less than a college education and/or a criminal record. Some travel long distances from home, expose themselves to workplace dangers and live in far from ideal circumstances just to feed themselves and their families.
3) Food Chains. Speaking of workers who go to great lengths to create a future for themselves and their families, Food Chains depicts the struggles of Latino farmworkers in Florida. Enduring exploitation that resembles and traces back to the enslavement of African Americans, the farmworkers only earn an average income of $12,000 per year and face horrible working conditions that include an 80 percent sexual harassment rate for women.
Resiliency is a key word that defines not only the workers' ability to keep working but also their efforts to try to change the system. The film focuses on a hunger strike designed to get those at the top of the food chain, the big retail supermarkets, to pay just a penny more per pound of tomatoes so the workers can earn better wages. Although an overwhelmingly reasonable demand, the retailer responses suggest that this task is impossible. In the end, however, the underdog movement does experience some triumphs.
4) We Could Be King. Any discussion of underdog stories eventually turns to the world of sports. In We Could Be King, a high school football team endeavors to beat the odds and win a championship amidst school budget cuts that endanger sports programs and the forced merger of two rival schools. Filmed in Philadelphia, the students experience many of the challenges associated with being poor and black in America.
One player struggles to be heard, to have someone understand what he's going through while balancing the need to just suck it up and move forward. Another deals with weighty juvenile justice and family issues. The off-the-field assistance by the coaches demonstrates the simple value of having caring adults to talk to and lean on.
5) Rich Hill. The white male teenagers in Rich Hill quite possibly don't have the same sorts of adult support available to those in We Could Be King. By not forcing a narrative and simply trying to depict their existence, the filmmakers captured an interesting story about how differing young people respond to stressors tied to living in poverty -- one teen is determinedly optimistic and loving, another struggles with anger and a third seems to withdraw and develops precarious connections to school.
Their parents are managing some weighty issues, including homelessness, unemployment, addiction, imprisonment and possibly hopelessness and depression. It becomes clear that what affects the parents, affects the children, pointing to a need for supports that help both generations.
6) The Evolution of a Criminal. In another story of how the financial stressors of the parent are visited upon the child, a young filmmaker reflects on his previous youthful incarceration. As a teen, Darius was filled with concern as he watched his parents constantly struggle to make ends meet. He eventually decides to help out by taking part in an armed robbery. In making this documentary as an adult, he decides to confront his criminal past and apologize to his victims.
By becoming a student at NYU film school, Darius overcame the odds attached to most juvenile offenders and gets his life back on track.
7) Underwater Dreams. Overcoming the odds, check. But being like Darius and getting around some systemic barriers to a higher education is not an easy task for the young people in Underwater Dreams. In the film, a small group of undocumented students originally from Mexico are attending a high poverty high school when they decide to enter an underwater robotics competition. They defy expectations and win against a group of mostly college teams, including the renowned MIT.
What happens to them after this astounding victory speaks volumes about the impact of failed immigration reform and the function of class in our society. Arguably the students with underwater dreams were equally, or far more, talented than those from MIT (they achieved in spite of tremendous hardships as opposed to achieving while possessing every advantage). Nevertheless, their life outcomes were far different from the MIT students, to their detriment but also to America's.