In the Ghetto, by David Bax
I went to a suburban high school (mostly white) in a school district with a busing system that brought a number of students out from the city every day (they were mostly black). In a senior year sociology class, the teacher came up with an assignment to address these differences. All the kids from the county (that’s St. Louis speak for suburbs) would write a one page story detailing what they assumed to be a regular day in the life of a kid from the city. Those students from the city would do the same from what they perceived to be our point of view. Each of us would then read our story to the class. Most of the results were pretty bland but a few of the white suburban kids, oh boy. They came up with urban hellscape nightmares that would make Bernard Goetz shake in his boots were they not so unimaginative. Basically, every cliché about the inner city – sirens, drugs, muggings, guns, bullets – was included. That plane of existence – both terrifying and predictable – would appear to be where George Tillman, Jr.’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete takes place.
Skylan Brooks plays Mister (the character’s given name), a young boy living with his addict mother (Jennifer Hudson), if you can call it living. Mister is sent to buy what food he can with an expired benefits card and when his mother does have some cash – which she earns through sex work – she spends it on heroin. In one scene, she takes Mister and another boy, Pete, to a family restaurant. She doesn’t have any money but that’s okay because she finds a guy at the bar to take into the bathroom and fellate while the boys finish their burgers. Did she arrange to meet this guy there? Or is this sort of thing just happening at TGIFriday’s all over the country? It doesn’t matter as long as it rubs in just how dire things are in no uncertain terms.
Lee Daniels’ Precious, another film about a poor, black kid in New York City with a grim life, could attract the same accusation. The difference is that Precious gains its inspiration from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle by providing a crushingly believable look at how bad things could potentially be. Mister and Pete, on the other hand, feels more like the uncompromisingly moralistic and socially conservative Afterschool Specials of the 70s and 80s. For instance, there’s no honesty about the pains and horrors of addiction. Hudson’s character, it’s implied, could easily stop using and start being a great mother but she’s just too selfish.
That’s only the beginning, though. Soon, the story finds Mister and Pete left to fend for themselves over the course of a summer with a diminishing supply of food and, eventually, no electricity. From here, the film vacillates, unable to decide if it’s a grim examination of the American poor who live one breath away from destitution or if it’s a cute tale of rambunctious and resourceful kids.
Even when Tillman and screenwriter Michael Starrbury make the right choice, they do so fruitlessly. Mister and Pete repeatedly comes to the brink of storybook conveniences that would save our protagonists and then allows reality to plow through and squash the hope. Confoundingly, though, there are so many storybook conveniences getting us the these points that any moment of honesty is a drop in the ocean.
There’s a slight hesitation to damning a film like The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. After all, don’t we need more films about these neglected members of society? Not when they play out like the imaginings of someone who’s never been anywhere near this world, we don’t.