LEARNING GUIDE TO:
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS
SUBJECTS — U.S./1945 - 1991 & Biography;Age: 12+; MPAA Rating -- PG-13 for some language; Drama; 2006; 117 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.
Description: In this movie, an African-American man, abandoned by his father as an infant, vows that he will always be present in the life of his child. Caught in a perfect storm of bad luck, he becomes homeless. However, he manages to take care of his son while pursuing a highly competitive, unpaid internship as a stockbroker. The film was "inspired by" events in the life of Christopher Gardner, who was once homeless. He is now a wealthy stockbroker, as well as a proud father.
This movie is highly engaging. The story is well written, the production values are high, and Will Smith's acting is simply magnificent.
Benefits of the Movie: "The Pursuit of Happyness" shows a homeless African-American father taking responsibility for his child while succeeding as a stockbroker. It also has excellent messages about the importance of keeping your cool in the face of incredible disappointment and provocation. Time after time, we watch as a the protagonist masters his emotions and comes up gracious and smiling after being dealt a serious blow. As a result, he is often able to go back to the people involved and create an opportunity for himself.
However, almost everything else about this movie is, in some way, problematic, including its messages about living out your dream and the benefits of hard work. Pointing out the problems and discussing them will lead to valuable lessons about:
(1) the liberties with the facts that can be taken by filmmakers in a movie "inspired by a true story";
(2) how the movie makers, in search of a dramatic story line, ignored Mr. Gardner's most important achievement, which was surviving physical abuse by his stepfather to become a caring and nurturing human being;
(3) the victimization of the homeless by criminals; the homeless are at great risk of being assaulted and robbed, but this never made it into the movie;
(4) how movies can gloss over troubling ethical questions raised by the true story [during the period that Mr. Gardner pursued the internship program his girlfriend had disappeared and taken his son; Mr. Gardner looked for them but couldn't find them; after he had passed the broker's exam and was working as a stockbroker, the girlfriend suddenly appeared and dropped off the boy; Mr. Gardner could have worked for another broker and earned enough money to put a roof over his son's head but Mr. Gardner wanted to spend his time building his own clientele because this would allow him the chance to become rich faster than if he worked for someone else; working to build his own client base meant that Mr. Gardner wouldn't be able to afford a place to live for a year or two; faced with a choice of providing a home for his son and putting off his dream of getting rich or being homeless for almost a year while he tried to build his own client base, Mr. Gardner chose to subject his son to the dangers of homelessness; in other words, he put his own interests ahead of his child's safety]; and
(5) how "feel good" movies often feature Cinderella stories of extraordinary good fortune which, given the economic structure of our society, are unrealistic for all but one in a million [in other words, what does the rags to riches story shown in this movie say to a culturally deprived black or hispanic young person growing up in a central city ghetto who has been socially promoted from one grade to the next and who is not a proficient reader?].
TeachWithMovies.com has prepared an 18-page handout, Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie),which provides fascinating information on the life of Chris Gardner and the many life lessons that can be derived from his story. It is designed as a reading exercise that will interest students. With the handout and the Discussion Questions in this Learning Guide, "The Pursuit of Happyness" can become an excellent learning experience.
Possible Problems: SUBSTANTIAL. See the Benefits section above. However, with the supplementary materials provided by this Learning Guide, each of these problems can be turned into a benefit.
There is a moderate amount of profanity in the film.
Parenting Points: After watching the movie, suggest that you and your child "find out what really happened" by reading TWM's student handout: Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie). Then talk about some interesting incidents in Mr. Gardner's life and go over a few of the Discussion Questions. Begin with Discussion Question #2
TWM suggests showing the movie when a substitute will be handling the class or at a natural break in the curriculum. The handout Homelessness in America -- The Facts, The Causes and a Call to Action (2.5 pages) should be assigned as homework before the movie is shown. The Short Quiz on Homelessness can be given any time after the class has read the handout.
The handout Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie) should be distributed and assigned as homework after the class has finished watching the film. Teachers should review the vocabulary and terms that students might not know before assigning the handout. See "Building Vocabulary" and "Cultural and Geographic References . . . ". Consider assigning additional work with the handout such as outlining it, highlighting it, writing a short essay, or making a list of vocabulary words the kids don't know with the definitions they have looked up.
Select the Discussion Questions that will be helpful to the class. Media Literacy questions 2, 3 and 4 as well as Homelessness Questions 1 - 5 serve well before students read "Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie)". The remaining Discussion Questions are designed for use after the class has read the longer handout. A number of essay topics are also suggested. See Assignments, Projects and Activities.
The True Story That Inspired the Movie
Right before he started the internship at Dean Witter, Chris Gardner's girlfriend (they weren't married) disappeared and took their son with her. His efforts to find his son were fruitless. Dean Witter paid its interns $1000 a month. With that money, Mr. Gardner was able to rent a room in a boarding house. Therefore, when he had to prepare for the broker's exam, Chris Gardner had a secure place to sleep and a quiet place to study. In addition, he didn't have to take care of a young child.
Mr. Gardner did very well on the broker's exam and was hired by Dean Witter. At that point he had a choice. He could work for an established broker in the office at a salary large enough to support himself at a reasonable level. Any prospective clients developed with his telephone calls would be referred to his employer. Perhaps Mr. Gardner would be allowed to take over a few small deals. Working for an established broker would give him more money right away but he would have to put off building his own set of clients. The alternative was for Mr. Gardner to work on his own from the beginning, using the telephone to build his business. This would give him less money for the first year or two (only about $1200 a month). However, if things went well, in a year or two, or three, he would make more money from his own set of clients than he would have made if he had started out working for an established broker. In addition, if Mr. Gardner tried to build his own set of clients from nothing, his success would depend entirely on his own efforts. Mr. Gardner chose to work on his own and make very little money right away with the hope of making a lot more money in a few years.
One Friday night, several weeks after Mr. Gardner had started working as a broker trying to build up his own business, his former girlfriend appeared at the boarding house. She was tired of being a single mother. (She had trained to be a dentist and was trying to get established in that field.) She gave Mr. Gardner their 19-month-old son (Little Chris), the child's stroller, a very large duffle bag filled with the child's possessions and lots of disposable diapers. The former girlfriend told Mr. Gardner what Little Chris ate, that he was to have no sweets, and then she left. The boarding house didn't allow children. Mr. Gardner and his son were now homeless. Chris Gardner had no one he could call and ask for money. Nor did he feel that he could ask his friends for a place to stay with a 19-month-old child.
Over the weekend, Mr. Gardner found day care for his son ($400 a month) and they lived in a $25-a-night motel. $400 a month for day care and $750 a month for a motel would eat up almost all of his $1200 a month income. There'd be no money for food, diapers, or anything else. The only way for Chris to afford a place to live was to start working for another broker. He'd have to postpone his plan to focus on developing his own group of clients. Over the next several days Chris made a fateful decision: he and his son would be homeless for the next year or so until his own business at Dean Witter gave him enough money to rent an apartment. He would not work for someone else to put a roof over his son's head. (Since landlords usually require hefty security deposits and first and last months rent, this meant that Mr. Gardner would have hundreds of dollars in savings while he and his son were still homeless.) Mr. Gardner made a conscious decision that he would not postpone his chance to become rich. As a result, he and his son were homeless for approximately one year.
What does a two-year-old child need? He needs at least one parent, food, dry diapers, safety, and stability. Rich or poor doesn't mean anything to a toddler if he has these basics. Being homeless is a risky proposition. Homeless people are more likely to be assaulted and killed than people sleeping at home in their beds. Homeless people are exposed to the elements and can become ill. Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Little Chris was for his father to have been seriously injured in an assault or killed. Being a parent means putting your child's interests before your own, especially when issues of safety are concerned. In deciding to be homeless rather than pursuing the slower track to success that would have provided him with enough money to put a roof over his son's head, Chris Gardner violated a basic principle of good parenting.
This Guide is designed to be used in conjunction with TWM's handouts for students entitled Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie) (18 pages) and Homelessness in America -- The Facts, the Causes and a Call to Action (2.5 pages). TWM has also prepared a Short Quiz on Homelessness, and an Answer Key to the test and the discussion questions.
An end noted version of "Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie)" showing all citations for statements and quotations in the handout can be found at Episodes Handout with End Notes.
A more complete description of the True Story can be found in TWM's student handout: Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie).
This section in a printer friendly form can be found at The True Story That Inspired the Movie.
TWM is assuming that the brokers would have paid their assistants a living wage, enough for food, an apartment, and day care. Mr. Gardner declined several requests for an interview.
THE FACTS, THE CAUSES, A CALL TO ACTION
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH):
There is a core of chronic homelessness but there is also a large turnover of people who are homeless for several months and who are then able to find homes. Central cities have more homeless people than rural/suburban areas, possibly because there are more shelters in cities and housing is more affordable in rural/suburban areas.(HUD February 2007 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (HUD AHAR) pages iii, iv, vi, 21 - 24 & 32 and NCH: Who is Homeless? Fact Sheet #3 page 2 & 3.)
The homeless are convenient targets for criminals and are victimized more frequently than the general population. In one study in California, 66% of homeless people interviewed reported that they had been the victim of a crime within the last year. 75% of those crimes were assaults or robberies. (Attorney General, State of California, Special Report to the California Legislature on Crimes Committed Against Homeless Persons p. 5. Data is from 2001.) The homeless who are not sheltered are at risk for becoming ill due to exposure to the elements.
WHO BECOMES HOMELESS AND WHY?
Poverty: Poverty is the most important risk factor for homelessness. Without the means to pay for the most basic of necessities, poor people begin to live paycheck-to-paycheck with no way to accumulate any savings. "Being poor means being an illness, an accident or a paycheck away from living on the streets," writes the NCH. But poverty isn't just about not having money - it's about the underlying causes that push people into poverty: unemployment, lack of education and training, low-paying jobs, inadequate public assistance, and lack of health insurance. NCH: Why Are People Homeless? Fact Sheet #1 pp. 1, 3, & 6.
A person's rent should typically cost about 30% of his or her earnings (leaving money for food, clothing, education, and other necessities); however, "in every state, more than [30% of earnings at] the minimum wage is required to afford a one or two-bedroom apartment". Then where do minimum-wage earners with families live? All too often they are forced into homeless shelters or they live on the streets. In some cities, anywhere from 13% to 26% of people in "homeless situations" are employed. Ibid p. 2.
16% of the U.S. population is without health insurance (about 47 million people) and many more are under-insured. 70% of the uninsured live in families in which at least one family member works full-time. With the skyrocketing costs of even the most basic medical services, an unexpected illness or injury can wipe out someone's savings and consume their earnings. Health Insurance Coverage from the National Coalition on Health Care; NCH: Health Care and Homelessness -- Fact Sheet #8 page 1.
Welfare has been steadily declining. Female-headed families and working families that leave the welfare system are at the highest risk for homelessness of any group. The NCH states, "Although more families are moving from welfare to work, many of them are faring poorly due to low wages and inadequate work support." NCH: Why Are People Homeless? Fact Sheet #1 page 3.
Domestic violence: Battered women and victims of domestic abuse often face bleak options: stay in the abusive relationship or become homeless. In fact, 50% of all women and children who are homeless have fled domestic violence. Ibid page 6.
Mental illness: 16% of the adult homeless suffer from mental illness. Id. page 6.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse: Alcohol abuse is a problem for almost half of all single adult homeless, while drug abuse is a problem for almost one-third. A Comprehensive Approach to Substance Abuse and Homelessness, page 1; National Health Care for the Homeless Council
Status as a Veteran: Veterans are very highly represented among the homeless.
Because there are several different causes of homelessness, there isn't one over-arching program that will help all of the homeless. The NCH believes that relief will come from "a concerted effort to ensure jobs that pay a living wage, adequate support for those who cannot work, affordable housing, and access to health care." NCH: Why Are People Homeless? Fact Sheet #1 page 7.
WHAT WE CAN DO TO HELP HOMELESS PEOPLE
Regardless of our age, income, or talents, we can help the homeless. We could volunteer at a shelter like Glide Memorial or at a food bank or some other agency that helps homeless people. Most likely there's one not too far away. Those who want to be more active can organize a food drive at school or work with a local shelter or soup kitchen to arrange for days when students can come and volunteer. Our imaginations and our willingness to help are the only limits on what we can do. For more ideas and suggestions see, NCH Fact Sheet #19: How YOU Can Help End Homelessness.
"The Pursuit of Happyness" tells us that homelessness isn't a problem for "other" people; it's a problem for "real" people. It's important to remember The Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. What if you or members of your family were without a place to sleep and there was no one to help you?
Having a large homeless population is not inevitable. By working together, learning about the causes of homelessness, and thinking creatively, we can provide housing for all of our people.
For English Language Arts classes, distribute TWM's Film Study Worksheet. Teachers can modify the worksheet to fit the needs of each class. Ask students to fill out the worksheet as they watch the film or at the film's end.
Are you concerned that time will be wasted if you are absent from class? Worry no more . . . Check out TeachWithMovies' Set-Up-the-Sub.
Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.
Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.
Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Featured Actors: Will Smith as Chris Gardner, Thandie Newton as Linda and Jaden Christopher Syre Smith as Christopher.
Director: Gabriele Muccino.
1. See Questions Suitable for Any Film.
2. There is something not quite realistic about what's shown in the movie. What is it?
3. Mr. Gardner deserves praise for his decision to keep his son with him. However, the story told by the movie sidesteps the questionable ethical decision made by Mr. Gardner to try to become wealthy as fast as he could even though it meant subjecting himself and his son to the very real risks involved in being homeless. Little Chris was definitely a stakeholder in his father's decision. What does his father's decision to become homeless look like from Little Chris' point of view?
4. Why did the screenwriters change the story?
One critic of this movie said that "The Pursuit of Happyness" and films like it " . . . assuage the guilt of the privileged . . . and send the message that we who have 'made it' into the middle and upper classes are there simply because of our superior virtue and intelligence. It is far more flattering to attribute our wealth to superior character and abilities, . . . than to factor in inequitable tax codes, unequal access to health care, discriminatory education, slave-wages, international trade agreements and inheritance laws that protect privileged races and classes." The Stories We Tell: films like 'Pursuit of Happyness' assuage the guilt of the privileged by Jeremy V. Cruz, America, April 30, 2007. Do you agree or disagree?
For other questions relating to media literacy, see Homelessness, Question #s 1 & 2.
1. Is it true that most people who live in poverty don't work hard and don't apply themselves?
2. How is the version of homelessness in the movie different than what the homeless really experience?
3. There are some developed countries in which there are fewer homeless people than in the U.S. Why are there so many homeless people in the U.S.?
4. Is there any excuse for a society to fail to provide enough shelters for homeless children or for veterans? Is there any excuse for a country to fail to provide enough shelters for all of its homeless citizens?
5. Has this movie changed your view of the homeless?
Short Quiz on Homelessness:
1. In 2005 approximately how many people were homeless in the U.S., both sheltered and unsheltered?
2. On an average night in 2005, what percent of the homeless were not able to find a place to sleep in a shelter?
3. What percent and approximate number of homeless people in the U.S. were children under the age of 18 in 2005? Of that number, how many are under the age of five?
4. What are the main risks of being homeless?
5. What is the role played by the high cost of health care and lack of adequate health insurance in forcing people into homelessness?
6. How much should a family spend on housing if they are to have enough money left over for food, clothing, education, and other necessities?
The answer to the following question counts for four points.
7. List the five different types of people who are at risk for becoming homeless.
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
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These questions assume some knowledge of the true story which inspired the movie. See Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie) (18 pages) or The True Story That Inspired the Movie (2.5 pages). The former includes incidents throughout Mr. Gardner's life and a description of Mr. Gardner's most impressive achievement.
For a copy of this quiz suitable to be printed and distributed to a class, click here. For an answer key and answers to the discussion questions, see Answers to Discussion Questions and Answer key to Quiz.
Many of the critics didn't appreciate this movie. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called it "A fairy tale in realist drag, 'The Pursuit of Happyness' is the kind of entertainment that goes down smoothly until it gets stuck in your craw." See Climbing Out of the Gutter with a 5 year old in Tow, New York Times Movie Review by Manohla Dargis. Another reviewer wondered "How is it that movies 'inspired by a real story' often feel more fake than those fully embedded in the realm of fiction?" Reelviews - James Bernadelli. These are valid criticisms because the character of Chris Gardner, as portrayed in the movie, is almost superhuman. This Learning Guide turns the criticism into a strength by showing what really happened and demonstrating that the term "inspired by a true story" means that before you take life lessons from a movie you must check out the real facts.
1. One critic has said that "Often, as I watched the movie and the Chris Gardner character was frustrated time and time again, like when he got the parking ticket for his supervisor's car, or when he couldn't sell a bone density scanner, or when the man at the football game said that Chris was too inexperienced to get his pension fund business, I thought the character would explode. (I would have had trouble keeping my cool in those situations.) The actor allowed you to see the character mastering his frustration and anger to respond to the disappointment in a smiling and gracious manner. He kept his cool and didn't burn his bridges." But there were times when the character of Mr. Gardner, as shown in the movie, did lose his cool and got aggressive with people. What do you think about the ability of this character to keep his cool and be gracious in the face of extreme disappointment and frustration? When did he express his frustration and become angry with people? Does this tell you anything about people in general?
2. Now that you have read about Mr. Gardner's life, what do you think is the most remarkable thing that he accomplished? Do you think it was caring for his son and succeeding at being a stockbroker while he was homeless? Or was it something else?
3. What did you learn from reading about Mr. Gardner?
4. Why is Chris Gardner glad that he didn't kill Freddie Triplett, his abusive step-father?
FATHER/SON -- PARENTING
See Media Literacy Question #3.
5. What did Chris Gardner's mother contribute to his character?
See Media Literacy Question #3.
6. What are some of the risks of homelessness?
See Media Literacy Question #2 and Media Literacy Question #5.
7. What was Chris Gardner's attitude toward work?
8. Does Mr. Gardner's story mean that anybody can become wealthy and that if you don't you're a failure? Should everyone become rich?
ALCOHOL & DRUG ABUSE
9. What was the role of alcohol abuse in Freddie Triplett's life?
10. Doctors and psychologists tell us that alcoholism is a family disease. Apply that to Mr. Triplett's family.
11. An admirable thing about Mr. Gardner was that he consciously decided that he would not continue the cycle of neglect, alcohol abuse and violence that he was subjected to as a child. He calls this "going the other way" from the paths taken by his father and his step-father. Do you know anyone who has done something similar? Can you tell us his or her story?
12. Another admirable thing about Mr. Gardner's life story is that he did something positive in his life that no one expected him to do. Do you know anyone who has done this? Can you tell us their story?
SPOUSAL ABUSE/CHILD ABUSE
13. Describe the usual cycle of a wife beater and how Triplett's treatment of young Chris was different.
14. Why do you think Chris' mother stayed with Triplett?
15. What is the role of education in this story?
AMBITION/MALE ROLE MODEL
16. Do you consider Mr. Gardner to be a male role model? Tell us your reasons, pro and con.
17. Mr. Gardner was ambitious, but was he too ambitious?
The following questions are designed for students who have read Mr. Gardner's autobiography or the student handout Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie)
BUILDING VOCABULARY: This list is from the handout, Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie): adjacent; adolescent; broker; brokerage firm; cold calls; commission; contraband; dysfunctional; fluctuations; ghetto; illiterate; luxuries; moorings; place-ism; posh; racism; regimentation; research assistant; stockbroker; transaction; treacherous undercurrents; welfare.
CULTURAL AND GEOGRAPHIC REFERENCES THAT STUDENTS SHOULD KNOW: black power movement; blue baby operations; Great Migration; Korean War; Malcolm X; Miles Davis; Mississippi River; Picasso; Vivien Thomas; Wall Street. These are referred to in the handout, Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
See Media Literacy Question #3.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
1. What was Mr. Gardner's greatest gift to his son?
See SEL Question #5.
Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.
Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
Bridges to Reading: Mr. Gardner's autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness written with Quincy Troupe, is a great read. It is uplifting and full of life lessons. However, the book contains a few descriptions of Mr. Gardner's sex life and two or three references to drug use. It also has some profanity. Some parents will find these references offensive. (The sex and drugs have been omitted from the handout, Episodes in the Life of Chris Gardner (What's Not in the Movie).) Parents considering recommending the book to their children should read it themselves before giving it to their children to make sure that it's suitable. You'll probably enjoy it thoroughly.
MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: All films listed in the Social-Emotional Learning Index under Parenting.
Links to the Internet:
Assignments, Projects and Activities:
Bibliography for this Guide and for the handout: Mr. Gardner's autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness written with Quincy Troupe as well as
Last updated November 10, 2010.
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