Les Miz: Class themes in Oscar nominees #2

The poverty in the Les Miserables movie seems more realistic than most poverty portrayed in fiction in one crucial aspect: the way desperately poor people in Les Miz are preyed upon.

Fantine is deceived and ripped off by the Thénardiers, who try to extort as much money as possible from fostering her daughter. Then as soon as she loses her job, the sharks start circling her. She agrees to sell one tooth, but the tooth-buyer forcibly extracts a second one. She is mocked by the other prostitutes for trying to pick and choose who she will sell sex to, and then is raped anyway.

Fantine’s story brought back a memory from when I was a tenant organizer in the early 1990s. At one big apartment complex, the landlord increased the rent to an amount that was 70% to 110% of the low-income tenants’ incomes – an immediate crisis of affordability. The word of these families’ desperate situation must have spread quickly throughout Springfield, MA, because within two weeks, long black cars with tinted windows were spotted circling the complex. They began driving up just when the school bus brought the high school students home, and some teenagers were approached and solicited for drug-running or prostitution. Members of the tenant group tried to get the police to come patrol the complex more, and parents without jobs started meeting the school bus. They didn’t seem surprised that organized crime had taken notice of their desperation, but as an organizer from a professional-middle-class background, I was surprised.

Usually fictional poverty looks more like the Cratchits’ small home in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – a shabby simplicity not so different from where an anti-materialist young adult might choose to live to keep a low carbon footprint. Such sugar-coated fictional portrayals contribute to a myth that poverty in the US is not particularly painful.

But the worst aspects of poverty are not small rooms or missing consumer goods, but a lack of options and a vulnerability to predators and creeps of all kinds. For one person I know, the low point of her childhood poverty story was when her parents had to remain doubled up with relatives even after they knew her uncle was molesting her. It’s this kind of trapped and exploited situation that Les Miz describes accurately.

Similarly, the lack of “papers” that keeps Jean Valjean from getting a job after his release from prison mirrors a frequent predicament in the US, not only for ex-prisoners, but for many undocumented immigrants as well. Strong, smart and willing to work hard – that’s not sufficient to succeed when bureaucracy walls you out.

Les Miz’s Inspector Javert personifies the believers in meritocracy, so common in the US today, in denial about the structural causes of poverty. His crisis comes when he realizes that not everyone at the bottom of society deserves to be there due to their own wrongdoing. The moviemakers clearly intend to make parallels between France in 1832 and the US in 2013, in order to provoke in us that same kind of moral awakening.

I’ve heard and read an awful lot of criticism of Les Miz, and while I understand some critiques (it’s true that there are so many extreme close-ups that you become familiar with the nose pores of all the leads; and a better singer should have been cast as Valjean), might it also be that some viewers are uncomfortable with the film because they don’t want to look extreme poverty in the face?

Betsy Leondar-Wright is the Program Director of Class Action and the editor of the Classism Exposed blog.

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