david-wagnerBy David Wagner

Because the new movie “The Soloist” was filmed in part in Los Angeles’ Skid Row/Central City East, and used a number of extras from the area in the film, there was more than the usual anticipation for the opening of a Hollywood flick. Unfortunately, any resemblance to the reality of Skid Row and its residents is lacking.

It is quite a bit through the movie before there are any camera shots of Skid Row at all. Then camera panning near dusk, a crowd of people with vacant looks on their faces and threatening gestures crowd the character of Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr) as he drives to find Nathaniel Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx). In this and several others scenes in the film, the movie presents Skid Row residents a bit like the Zombie-like creatures in the famous horror movie “The Night of the Living Dead.”

Now, no one says that poverty or homelessness is going to be pretty. But why exaggerate so much? Why make these poor people, overwhelmingly African-American, so threatening and appear so devoid of reason and feeling? Unfortunately the question answers itself: classism and racism abound in this flick. I myself am a white college professor, and have spent much time with homeless and poor people in several East Coast cities, as well as have walked through Los Angeles’ Skid Row. I have rarely felt threatened anywhere by homeless people (who are more threatened by others) and rarely witnessed a lack of reason and judgment as the movie portrays. The film I think is assuaging the guilt that some movie goers may have, those who paid their ten dollars, and coming into the movie maybe thinking they should do something about poverty. Now they can sit back, finish their popcorn, and happily go home.

Of course, the entire story is one that is greatly appealing to many middle class audiences. Here is this talented professional (Lopez) who is good enough to find from the mass of nameless and expressionless people, a talented musician (Ayers). He tries like anything to help him, and is often rebuffed by the troubled Ayers. Yes, this story happened, and the characters and friendship of Lopez-Ayers is an interesting one. However, it should not take a Julliard music student to attract attention to homeless or poor people, and it should not only be a superbly talented musician who is deserving of help. It is sort of a Cinderella story- of the one person finding the one poor person who is worthy- and while this is reassuring to many people I suppose; it does nothing positive about the many more thousands of people who are suffering. The truth is there are so many worthy people with many talents and skills out here in Skid Row and in other neighborhoods, and they too need their real stories told, not stereotypes.

David Wagner is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) who has been working with LACAN in recent months.



  1. I have been homeless at several points in my life. Contrary to popular belief, most homeless did not become so out of choice and not because they are lazy, stupid, or immoral. Many homeless people are victims of abuse in the form of neglect and abandonment by their parents or other caregivers. Some of them are simply victims of life’s tragedies, such as hurricanes, fires, or other catastrophes from which they simply don’t have the resources to recover. I invite you to my blog devoted to raising awareness on homelessness: http://www.freethegods.com. There you will find an article I wrote on homelessness and pictures I have taken of homeless people. I always give them a dollar or two for the privilege of photographing them. I am often surprised by their cheerfulness and sense of pride. Often, they will show themselves to have some kind of talent. There is a fine line between genius and insanity.

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