Conservatives love to blame the poor for their own poverty, as if we’re all born in a vacuum, some of us are just lazy and / or stupid, and it’s sheer coincidence that those who end up on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder so often happen to be those who were born there. In the conservative worldview of rational men and women making carefully calculated, economic decisions on a level playing field, any reference to invisible factors such as institutionalized racism is dismissed as an excuse; if there’s no Klansman or Nazi standing in the road, there’s no racism, rightwing apologists for the status quo like Rush Limbaugh or Larry Elders would have you think.
The conservatives are wrong, not just ideologically but empirically. A legion of urban historians like Kenneth Jackson and Thomas Sugrue and sociologists like William Julius Wilson have made well-documented cases that the so-called “underclass” developed not out of individual ineptitude, but out of social engineering. Consider the “urban renewal” movement that leveled black communities to make way for freeways and business expansion, thereby rounding up the displaced and herding them into grim, high-density housing projects in marginal locations that stunted entrepreneurial or employment opportunities. Consider the government-sponsored “white flight” to the suburbs after World War II that left inner cities to rot. Or Reagan-era policies that cut public education budgets at the same time they gave law enforcement a fiscal injection that pushed bodies like the LAPD into the institutional equivalent of ‘roid rage; the result being the incarceration of an entire generation of young black men in a meaningless war on drugs. Poverty is not and never has been explainable as simply the result of widespread individual shortcomings.
That said, the case against blaming the victim is a difficult one to make when a book like Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto relies on dense information, nuanced analysis, and a few hundred pages to make the above case, while someone like Limbaugh relies on lowest-common-denominator scapegoating that can be conveyed in one vastly oversimplified sentence. It’s precisely because of this imbalance of effort put into the arguments that Tod Lending’s Legacy makes such a valuable contribution to the debate. Whereas Hirsch’s magnificent book describes the geopolitics of poverty in mid-20th-century Chicago at great length, Lending makes an analogous but more visceral point with the first shot of Legacy: as helicopter-bound cameras swoop around the Henry Horner housing projects west of downtown Chicago, the city itself looms in the distant backdrop as a separate world entirely. The reality here is one of garbage-strewn empty lots, the deindustrialized remnants of an era long past, and a literal separation of people that is symbolically but effectively reinforced by the railroad tracks and freeways that demarcate the borders of the ghetto. Anyone who can truly look at this social reality and still claim that the children raised here have access to the same opportunities or psychic space as the cozy denizens of the north shore or the suburbs is simply dishonest.
Lending strives not for an abstract portrayal of the ghetto, though; instead, he focuses on three generations of African American women and their struggles to escape the projects. Dorothy, the matriarch, has spent a quarter-century trapped in public housing. We don’t get her back story, but it’s inscribed on her face, weathered by a hard life but resilient in its dignity. Dorothy’s daughters, Alaissa and Wanda, have yet to break the cycle of poverty. Both gave birth to children at early ages, dropped out of high school, and found nowhere to turn but to public aid; for Wanda, these difficulties have been compounded by a lengthy crack addiction that has sometimes reduced her to prostituting herself for a fix. Finally we see Alaissa’s daughter Nickcole, a smart, studious high school student who is determined to use education to help her escape the ghetto.
Lending follows these four women over the second half of the ‘90s, charting both their successes and their failures. At the center of their experiences is the death of Wanda’s son Terrell, shot by another black teenager in 1994 at the age of 14 in a tragically violent response to a minor social offense. It is Terrell’s death that jars the women from a passive acceptance of their lives, and Lending follows Dorothy’s efforts to leave the projects, Alaissa and Wanda’s attempts to find stable jobs, and Nickcole’s pursuit of higher education.
As a documentarian, Lending shows true craft, pulling the heartstrings without ever resorting to exploitative pathos. His camera lingers on Dorothy’s face as her Nickcole graduates from high school, calmly observing as simple tears of joy give way to more searing tears of painful catharsis. Lending holds the shot long enough for us to realize this is quite possibly the first high school graduation in family history; what is an ordinary event in a middle-class family takes on a more profound meaning here. Likewise when Wanda completes rehab and finds a janitorial job in the projects: it’s thankless, gritty work, surely low-paying and held in low regard by most, but when she explains with pride to the camera, “I’m part of society now”, it’s an unforgettable moment. Lending perfectly captures Wanda’s hunger for responsibility and, in this brief, poignant instant, communicates an entire biography of a woman bereft of opportunities to feel good about her achievements.
If Nickcole’s story is the least compelling simply because she possesses such self-determination that we never really doubt her eventual success, she also provides narration that deals with the most complicated character: her mother, Alaissa. “You don’t even have a dream, on public aid”, Nickcole explains, and we empathize; with several children, no education or skills, and a deeply-instilled lack of self-confidence, Alaissa repeatedly undermines her own efforts to secure a job.
Lending isn’t out to construct martyrs, though, and Legacy approaches Alaissa with honesty, framing her in a light both critical and compassionate. Her missed appointments, tardiness, and other failures that cost her jobs do fall on her own shoulders, but at the same time hers is not the petulance of a spoiled child; it’s the predictable and inexorable defense mechanism of a woman who has long since internalized the belief in her own inferiority. This belief is propagated in the backlash era of the ‘80s and ‘90s by everything from Ronald Reagan’s facile condemnations of “welfare queens” to Vice President Dan Quayle’s quixotic crusade against both the Murphy Brown character and non-fictional single mothers. So convinced is Alaissa that she’s bound to fail, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By and large, things conclude on a positive note, and the ultimate effect of Legacy is twofold. On one hand, it firmly rejects the unrealistic conservative bootstrap theory that poor people simply need to pull themselves up through hard work. How can one do that when one is trapped at home with several children and the government won’t deliver on promises of daycare, as happens to Alaissa? Even Nickcole manages to get into college only through a special assistance program after she performs poorly on a math entrance exam, and without the drug rehab program Wanda undergoes, her case would be hopeless. To the extent that he propagates a political message, Lending does advocate hard work and responsibility, but Legacy makes clear that government assistance programs serve a crucial function for those deprived of access to other resources; individual initiative may be necessary, but it’s not enough.
On the other hand, Lending’s close attention to the family sometimes obscures the larger social backdrop. Terrell’s tragic death indisputably acts as a catalyst in the family’s ascent from poverty, but emotional impact aside, it’s a moot point: Legacy takes place precisely at the historical moment of Bill Clinton’s evisceration of the welfare state under the misleading guise of “welfare reform”. We see this is in the background of some scenes, as Alaissa struggles with a confusing bureaucracy, but to the viewer without pre-existing knowledge it isn’t sufficiently clear that these women have no choice in the matter of finding jobs; it’s that or starvation. This fact makes Legacy‘s happy ending a bit misleading; the reality of welfare reform was that thousands of those purged from public aid simply disappeared into the underdocumented world of the working poor and the informal labor sector. A more overt recognition of these phenomena would give Legacy greater weight in challenging commonplace assumptions about the poor and remind viewers that its storybook ending is less than representative.
At the same time, on a more literal level, these women did improve their conditions. They deserve great credit for this, and those in similar straits also deserve an uplifting and motivating film that celebrates hard-won achievements. Lending never promised to storm the towers, after all.
Docurama has given Legacy a thoughtful release typical of the company’s discerning fare. Director Lending emphasizes in an interview that he specifically sought an inspirational story, in response to the pervasive pathologized view of the ghetto, and an outtake interview with Terrell’s killer reveals a numb, inarticulate young man incapable of acknowledging the consequences of his actions. A where-are-they-now update further emphasizes the uplifting aspects of the story. While it may not offer a radical critique of American social policies, Legacy nonetheless offers a compelling, moving, and humane window into the world of inner-city poverty, one that wisely refrains from blaming the victim by showing the obstacles that face even the most self-motivated inhabitants of the ghetto.