"Biutiful" and Vulnerable Communities

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By Olympia Duhart

When I went to see the movie Biutiful, I was especially looking forward to experiencing (at least on film) parts of Barcelona, Spain. My friend Diego, from Barcelona, promised me that once I saw the film I would be eager to visit his stunning city.

He has never been more wrong.

Biutiful, the intense and sometimes disturbing film by Alejandro González Inárritu, is many things. But an advertisement for Barcelona tourism is not one of them.

The film is relentless in its visceral exposure of a naked and desperate city that is plagued with modern-day ills.  In 148 minutes, Biutiful challenges us to consider mental illness, health care failures, racism, homophobia, police brutality, the exploitation of undocumented workers and poverty. Although set abroad in one of the most beautiful European cities, it could be set in almost any city in the world.  The story would almost be undisturbed, for instance, if it were filmed in my own home town – Miami.

Javier Bardem as Uxbal in "Biutiful."

The conflicts that propel the story, frustrate the protagonist and overwhelm the audience are all too common. Uxbal, the 21st century construction of The Bible’s Job portrayed by Javier Bardem, is struggling to balance a life amidst utter chaos. He also is trying very hard to protect his family and though he falters, he never abandons his quest to restore his damaged moral compass. He is a complicated and troubled man who is trying to make some money in the seedy underground business world and navigate several personal trials. His special connection to the after-life is entirely overshadowed by the turmoil of his grueling life here on earth. He has to worry about the police, a mentally ill wife, a dishonest brother, a serious illness and generally surviving life in the ghetto. Bardem has said of his role that it was “the heaviest movie I’ve done in my life and one of the heaviest I will ever do.”

It’s easy to see why.Biutiful refuses to glamorize the difficulties inherent in each of the obstacles blocking Uxbal’s path to redemption. It presents a host of maladies with raw and tragic realities. For example, mental illness is difficult to diagnose, impossible to manage without professional help and likely to disrupt even the most precious love. It is made more dangerous among poor people who cannot afford treatment. Though mental health disorders are now pervasive throughout the United States, many sufferers do not receive treatment. Sometimes cultural bias restrains mentally ill people from accessing the mental health care they need. The results wreck entire families. Uxbal’s trials with his mentally ill wife demonstrate these truths.

For the protagonist himself, a mere delay in diagnostic health care proves costly. The director contrasts the unmistakable physical signs of Uxbal’s declining health with the character’s commitment to secrecy surrounding his disease. In many communities, the culture of silence shrouding serious illness is an on-going issue that contributes to mortality rates; life imitates art in the black community, where women are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer but more likely to be killed by it. There are silent killers, and deaths caused by silence.

Racism and bigotry are as ever-present in Biutiful as they are in real life. Whether manifested in the form of overt violence and epithets or discriminatory micro-aggressions, racism diminishes self-worth. It constitutes an on-going harm for the target, exacting both tangible and intangible tolls. For some people, like those targeted in the movie, it results in the deprivation of civil liberties — an unearned jail stay or a detention without cause.  Others lose an employment opportunity or a well-deserved promotion. Some are simply passed over at a restaurant by a server who refuses to make eye contact. More than twenty years ago, Professor Charles R. Lawrenceargued that racism is so engrained in American history that continues to play a role in our unconscious discriminatory beliefs. More recently, reports from the EEOC evince an increase in discrimination claims in the private sector.

Bigotry also is oppressive beyond the color line. In Biutiful, one character conceals his sexual identity either for fear of family rejection, as a means of auto-oppression, or both. As Don’t Ask Don’t Tell fades into the history books, whether it fades from memory is a different issue as there are still many battles to be fought in the LGBT community. More importantly, as the recent harassment campaigns continue, the need for total equality remains clear. Some young men and women would rather die than deal with the torture inflicted on them by homophobic peers. The recent suicide at Rutgers makes this painfully clear.

The realities of life for an undocumented worker subjected to exploitative practices were some of the most difficult episodes of Biutiful for me to watch.  To see the pronounced disparities between employees with absolutely no bargaining power and employers with nothing to lose dramatically highlighted the inherent inequity of labor dynamics. It was even more unsettling to see the inevitable consequence of a work condition characterized by such inequalities. As in real time, undocumented workers are exploited to their detriment, and sometimes literally worked to death. In Biutiful, even the good intentions of Uxbal are not able to ameliorate the grave conditions forced on workers desperate to earn some type of living.

There also is nothing spared on the film’s depictions of the hardships and hurdles erected by poverty. Even the simplest tasks – preparing breakfast for one’s children –take on crushingly depressing overtones when cast against the backdrop of destitution.  Sadly, it is a reality too many parents know first-hand. In America, more than 15 million children live in families below the federal poverty level. Poverty hits minority children even harder than their white counterparts; poverty rates are highest among black, Latino and Native American children. Poverty places children at higher risk for physical illness, strips them of decent housing, typically disrupts educational access and can contribute to cognitive and psychological impairment.

Despite the weightiness of its subject, Biutiful was critically acclaimed for its subtle direction. The director stood back and let the actors melt into their roles and move gracefully through a rugged story line. The effect was intense, immediate and constant for everyone in the theater. But I was most grateful for the film’s ability to crystallize in a couple of hours social problems we work so hard to ignore. For many people, racism, bigotry and poverty are topics we’d rather not examine. Biutiful forces us to take a hard look at these realities. And it makes it impossible for us to look away.

This film underscores the important work in SALT’s new book on vulnerable communities. Like the film Biutiful, the writers in this collection are determined to highlight the most vulnerable communities among us – those who are often overlooked or ignored.

The book, Vulnerable Populations and Transformative Law Teaching: A Critical Reader, examines the role that the law school curriculum can play in improving conditions for many of the same vulnerable populations depicted in the film. These are people struggling with limited or nonexistent access to health care and mental health treatment, deprived of fair labor laws and decent housing, oppressed in their sexual identity and stripped of their autonomy. These are people with no access and no justice.

But Vulnerable Populations strives to equip law professors and the lawyers they train to confront these issues. Transformative teaching is highlighted as a central component in clarifying the role that legal education can play in remedying society’s biggest problems. This book is filled with rich essays that serve as roadmaps of sorts for legal educators who wish to incorporate issues of race, gender, sexual identity, nationality, disability and poverty into the law school curriculum. The work can be done in the clinic, the classroom, through activism and awareness. The harsh reality of life – often more Biutiful than beautiful – is a picture of the real world we must prepare our students to examine. And improve.