The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Did 'The Soloist' mock L.A.'s skid row homeless?

May 14, 2009 | 12:38 pm

It's a wonder anyone in Hollywood even bothers making movies about social issues anymore, considering the abuse filmmakers have to endure from social activists after their film arrives in theaters. A perfect example would be "The Soloist," which most moviegoers avoided, no doubt in part because it appeared to actually deal with the grim issues of homelessness in Los Angeles. But for educator-activist Linda Milazzo, the movie, which dramatized the real-life relationship between L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), was little more than "an orgiastic assault on the poor and the mentally ill." In her post in the Huffington Post, Milazzo got herself incredibly worked up over the fact that "The Soloist" doesn't accurately reflect the vibrant community that is skid row.

As a soft-headed lefty, I really wanted to give Milazzo the benefit of the doubt, since she has clearly spent years doing important work in the homeless community. But I suspect that my conservative pals will have a field day working her piece over, which actually criticizes the film for "a cartoon-like portrayal of the people of Skid Row that displays none of their individuality, humanity or humor.... Instead of showing the hearts of the inhabitants and telling a few of their tales, the film portrayed them as a Fellini-eque monolith--a tainted Gomorrah teeming with decadence and dereliction."


She pins the blame on the film's director, Joe Wright, whom Milazzo dings for being a clueless Brit best known for period Jane Austen dramas. In short, what could a well-bred foreigner possibly know about the tragedy of L.A.'s homeless? Although Wright actually spent 10 days on skid row before even agreeing to do the film, she's having none of it, mocking his commitment to reality, saying "Somehow I'm expected to believe that in ten days Britisher Wright languished on Skid Row he miraculously 'got' the community ... and understood mental illness and poverty well enough to honestly portray the 500 residents he hired as extras."

According to her logic, Danny Boyle (an Irishman) should've been disqualified from directing "Slumdog Millionaire"--how could he possibly understand the poverty and misery of India's underclass? And for that matter, I guess Ken Loach should've stayed home in London instead of coming to L.A. to make "Bread and Roses," his stirring film about the Los Angeles janitors strike. And John Schlesinger should never have bothered coming across the pond to capture the seedy underbelly of New York's Bowery in "Midnight Cowboy." I could go on and on, but happily, Wright is willing to stick up for himself, writing a response post (also at Huffington Post) that demonstrates that he is quite able to defend his intentions.

He reminds her that he only took "The Soloist" job on the condition that he could employ members of the homeless community as extras, actors and consultants on the film. He says the scenes set on skid row are simply "their portrayal of their lives." As such, he writes:

"Linda Milazzo is attacking the very people she is claiming to protect ideologically. I believe that the writer and I are on the same page and fighting for the same cause.... So why wage war on your own side if not to simply get attention? It seems a lot of middle-class people like to appropriate the homeless as their own."

In any language, there's only one term for Wright's riposte: Touche.

Photo of Jamie Foxx in "The Soloist" from DreamWorks Pictures