Whose Tale Gets Told? The Whitewashing of Homelessness and Mobility

Homeless street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) in Trading Places (1983)
Arguing that mobility has to be understood intersectionally, Pamela Robertson Wojcik shows how Hollywood genres about tramps, hitchhikers, and "street people" overwhelmingly privilege white characters even as film and television have started to pay more attention to female homelessness.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Media, Precarity and the Home.” To read the introduction and other posts in the series, click here.]

Thinking about the various ways in which mobilities have been represented across what I have referred to as the “long arc of genres of precarity,” in my last post I noted a “tension in the American imaginary between viewing homelessness as, on the one hand, deviance, or threat, and, on the other, as freedom and independence” related to “how mobility is defined through privilege and precarity.” In order to consider questions of privilege — who can choose to be domiciled, who can choose to be unhomed — views of mobility also need to be understood intersectionally, via not only class but also gender, sexuality, race, nationality, abilities, etc.

In my larger work on the figure of the tramp, for example, I cite Michelle Granshaw’s argument that early comic tramps in 1870s vaudeville performed equally in blackface or as “stage Irish,” which often entailed whiteface; and that both were recognizable through similar characters, costume, and comedy that conflated negative stereotypes of tramps with the racial and national stereotypes, marking the tramps’ presumed reluctance to work, laziness, lack of personal hygiene, and ineptitude as racially and/or nationally determined 1Michelle Granshaw, “Inventing the Tramp: The Early Comic on the Variety Stage,” Theatre History Studies 38 (2019): 202; see also Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America (Reaktion Books, 2001), 134-135.. However, as the decade progressed, Granshaw claims that comic tramps were less frequently performed in blackface and became increasingly Irish, which indicated the dominant culture’s “limited ability to imagine freedom of mobility for Black Americans” and implicitly tied whiteness to mobility 2Granshaw, 200..

Beggars of Life (William Wellman, 1928)

In the American tramp films I analyze, spanning the decades between the start of cinema and the Second World War, I found that Black tramps were hardly ever represented and when they were, as in Beggars of Life (Wellman, 1928), they existed largely to shore up the white characters. That film introduces a Black tramp, Black Mose (Blue Washington) in a scene at a hobo jungle, or encampment. Gently tending to an ill white tramp, Black Mose says, “Lay still white boy, you guine be ok.” When the tramps are chased from the camp, he carries the white tramp to the train. Later, when the tramps are chased again, this time off a train, he carries the white man again. As Louise Brooks’s female tramp is in double danger, both from the police on a murder charge and from a vicious tramp who plans to rape her, Black Mose helps her and the Boy (Richard Arlen) find a shack to hide out and then goes to forage food for the sick man. Later, after the sick white tramp dies, and the menacing tramp Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) has been converted to goodness by seeing the love between the Girl and Boy, Black Mose supports Oklahoma Red. He helps him divert police attention away from the lovers, and gets arrested while doing it.

The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Later representations of homelessness in American film also tend to privilege white homelessness.  Think of the spate of films about “street people” in the late 1980s and early 1990s that center white characters in narratives of homelessness, sometimes casting white men as misrecognized shamanists, and occasionally coupling white actors with Black actors who serve largely to authenticate white experience.  Films such as Trading Places (Landis, 1983), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Mazursky, 1986), Ironweed (Babenco, 1987) The Fisher King (Gilliam, 1991), Life Stinks (Brooks, 1991), Curly Sue (Hughes, 1991), The Saint of Fort Washington (Hunter, 1993) feature, respectively, Dan Ackroyd paired with Eddie Murphy; Nick Nolte; Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep; Robin Williams; Mel Brooks; Jim Belushi; and Matt Dillon paired with Danny Glover. A decade past this cycle, Will Smith’s performance in The Pursuit of Happiness (Muccino, 2006) is the exception that proves the rule, with the Black homeless man garnering sympathy largely because he is exceptional – a perfect father successfully competing with young white homed men for a job as a stockbroker.

On top of these racial elisions, as Elaine Abelson reminds us, “poverty is gendered in specific ways at different times”.3Elaine S. Abelson, “‘Women Who Have No Men to Work for Them:’ Gender and Homelessness in the Great Depression,” Feminist Studies 29, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 106. While this film cycle builds sympathy for the homeless by centering white men, more recent films and TV shows such as Wendy and Lucy (Reichardt, 2008), Rosie (Breathnach, 2018), Nomadland (Zhao, 2020), Herself (Lloyd, 2020), and Maid (2021–) do so by focusing on white women, and especially young white mothers. This focus on women serves as a corrective to decades in which female homelessness was largely invisible, but it ignores Black and brown homelessness to suggest that only white homelessness “matters.”

Racial privilege also demarcates the horizon of possibility in relation to mobilities. In my analysis of hitchhiking films, I found two major cycles of films, one midcentury film noir cycle about white male hitchhikers and a late 1960s and early 1970s one about young white female runaways. These filmic representations in some ways register the fact that brown and Black hitchhikers were far less common than white ones. Mia Bay has detailed how automobility or “traveling while Black” has been contoured by racism from the Reconstruction Era forward, let alone in today’s dangerous context of police anti-Black violence, and this makes it harder for Black hitchhikers to get rides.4Mia Bay, Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2021). As Black drivers were constrained in myriad ways, Black and other minority hitchhikers could not rely upon finding rides from non-white drivers. White drivers were still the majority of car owners and dominated the roads. Black hitchhikers were much less likely to secure a ride from a white driver, and, when they did, were still subject to the racial hierarchy of the South – possibly offered rides in the back of a truck, but not in car of white driver. Black riders were also vulnerable on the road to attacks by the Ku Klux Klan, and harassment by police. Further, the media portrayed Black hitchhikers less sympathetically than whites and paid heightened attention to criminality among non-white hitchhikers, promulgating a “concerted effort to keep drivers, assumed to be white, from offering lifts to racial minorities.”5Jack Reid, Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 27, 40-41.

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

More than reflecting an historical imbalance in the relative proportion of white to Black hitchhikers, however, filmic representations reinforce the association between whiteness and mobility. In noir films such as Detour (Ulmer, 1945) or The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino, 1953), male hitchhikers are placed in opposition to postwar ideals of hegemonic masculinity associated with marriage, domesticity, suburban life, breadwinning, and middle-class white-collar professional work. Hitchhikers exemplify subordinate masculinities who are repressed in the cultural imaginary such as the working class and transients, and/or they are linked to psychopathology and crime that not only runs counter to, but also threatens hegemonic masculinity. As Eric Lott has argued, film noir can be seen as, in part, a reaction formation to racial unrest, “a sort of whiteface dream-work of social anxieties with explicitly racial sources, condensed on film into the criminal undertakings of abjected whites.”6Eric Lott, “The Whiteness of Film Noir,” American Literary History 9, no. 3 (1997): 551. The white hitchhikers conjure “dark” fears about subordinate masculinities, but redirect fears about race onto white men perceived as, at best, drifters, and at worst, sociopaths. Registering even their relative privilege, however, the white male hitchhikers are able to secure rides, even as the FBI launched a major campaign against hitchhiking. This campaign consisted of numerous articles by J. Edgar Hoover and an illustrated advertisement, “Death in Disguise,” that featured a clean-cut young white man standing by the side of the road as a car with a family slowed to pick him up, a skeleton’s head super-imposed over the image. “Don’t pick up trouble,” the ad warned. Suggesting that picking up hitchhikers was a “gamble” and “risk,” the ad played on uncertainty about appearances: “Is he a happy vacationer or an escaping criminal – a pleasant companion or a sex maniac – a friendly traveler or a vicious murderer?”  In this campaign, it is the “disguise” of whiteness that renders the hitchhiker illegible, his racial privilege obscuring his criminal intentions.

Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker (Ted Post, 1979)

In the 1970s, a separate robust film cycle focuses on white female hitchhikers. It includes made-for-TV movies such as Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring (Sargent, 1971) and, mainstream Hollywood films like Breezy (Eastwood, 1973) and Ginger in the Morning (Wiles, 1974), and exploitation pics such as The Hitchhikers (Sebastians, 1972) and Teenage Hitchhikers (Sedley, 1974). Like the film noir cycle, these films privilege whiteness, but they differ from the noirs in their attention to specifically young women, especially teen runaways, dovetailing with a moral panic about teen runaways and hitchhiking girls.  Most contemporary analyses — whether pro or con female hitchhiking — view young women’s hitchhiking as a feminist political act seeking freedom from traditional sex and gender roles. At the same time, however, the discourse on female runaways from 1967 forward strongly views them as subject to sexual exploitation, trafficking, and prostitution. Male drivers assumed that female hitchhikers were open to sexual advances due to “sexism, long-held assumptions about lone women on the road, and misguided interpretations of hippie free love.”7Reid, 146 The famous slogan “Gas, Ass, or Grass: Nobody Rides for Free” marks a common currency for hitchhiking hippies; and, while both gay cruising and gay sexual abuse exist on the road, the exchange of “ass,” or sexual favors for rides, stereotypically targets women hitchers. These films sympathetically portray the female runaway’s subjectivity and link her reasons for being on the road to not only the generational divide but, often, sexual abuse and/or sexual oppression at home; yet the films also underscore both the risks of sexual assault and perceptions of the hitchhiker as sexually available, recognizing sexual harassment and rape to be the unconditional currency of the road. In part conjuring countercultural ideals of freedom and adventure, these films nonetheless show that the freedom of the female hitchhiker is constrained and contradictory.

Of course, these examples all emanate from Hollywood and are not representative of all figurations of homelessness and mobility. We could consider tales of migrancy, refugees, child soldiers and many other forms of displacement. However, these brief examples serve to indicate that while poverty, homelessness and mobilities are, of course, experienced by broad swaths of people, at the level of representation we tend to focus on only certain populations at different times. If we consider how filmic representations shape our perceptions of homelessness and mobility, we need to consider not only how cinema negotiates and transfigures our desires, fears, and anxieties around homelessness and mobility, but also what gets elided, erased, and distorted. 

Notes[+]

Wojick, Pamela Robertson. "Whose Tale Gets Told? The Whitewashing of Homelessness and Mobility." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, no. 5 (November 2021)
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