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Too Close to The Line: The Poverty Epidemic

by Page Leggett

Too Close to The Line: The Poverty Epidemic

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November 6, 2012

Linda Midgett has crossed the line. The local, Emmy Award-winning executive producer of such fare as FBI: Criminal Pursuit and Gangland has gone from making big-budget television crime docudramas to making The Line, an all-too-real documentary about Americans living at, near, or below poverty level. Her recent productions have been designed to entertain. Her newest film is designed to change our national mindset.

Sojourners,  a Christian social justice organization, approached Midgett in February about the documentary project. “They said, ‘We want to do a film about poverty,’” Midgett recalls. “That’s basically all the project was at that point – an idea. It was a little overwhelming.”

But Sojourners already had assembled a formidable group of funding partners that included the McArthur Foundation, Oxfam, Bread for the World, and World Vision. That kind of funding power meant the project was going to happen – and quickly. It was up to Midgett to shape it and bring it to life.

She began by talking to Sojourners CEO, Jim Wallis about what audience he wanted to reach. Midgett says they were interested in a young demographic – people in their 20s and 30s who, she says, “maybe hadn’t thought much about the politics involved in poverty before.”

“We wanted to make audiences think about how their choices in the voting booth affect people living in poverty,” she says.

Your vote counts

The movie premiered Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C., and simultaneous screenings were held across the country to coincide with the debut. Sojourners has a relationship with The Huffington Post and the popular political site also made it available – at no cost – on their website. You still can stream the short (40 minutes) film for free.

Was the film’s release timed to coincide with the presidential election? “Very much,” says Midgett, although she’s careful to add, “The film itself is not political. We hope the film encourages people to think about issues of poverty when they vote. Beyond that, we also wanted to push both presidential candidates to make poverty a part of their platforms.”

To that end, the film already has succeeded. Midgett says both the Obama and Romney campaigns have issued statements addressing poverty. She and others involved with the film hope the issue will continue to “impact our consciousness as a society.”

For the film, Midgett decided to focus on four people living in poverty.

Finding people willing to speak about their experience on camera wasn’t easy. “There’s a lot of shame associated with being poor,” she says. “No one with young children was willing to be featured.”

One of the four people she found who was willing to share his story - and quite openly - is James. She found him through restaurateur Jim Noble, owner of Rooster’s (uptown and SouthPark locations) and the innovative The King’s Kitchen, a nonprofit restaurant whose staff is made up of people transitioning from homelessness.

“I was aware of the work Jim Noble has done,” Midgett says. “He’s a great example of how one individual can make a difference in a creative way. You don’t think of the restaurant industry as a place where people living in poverty can be given a chance to get out of that situation. Jim Noble brought me James.”

Defying stereotypes

And what a find James was. “He’s just a lovely person,” says Midgett. “He loves to work. He defies all the stereotypes about poor people.”

Midgett says one of the ugliest stereotypes is that poor people are lazy. “We hear people say that poor people just aren’t motivated to change,” she says. She invites them to get to know James, who is so eager to work that he shows up to King’s Kitchen an hour before his shift.

Midgett describes James as homeless through no fault of his own. But, thanks to his job at The King’s Kitchen, he’s moved out of the homeless shelter and into his own apartment. He recently even received a promotion at work.

While Midgett found James locally, the film’s funding partners helped find the other working poor featured in the movie, including a former banker in wealthy DuPage County, Ill., who now has to get groceries for his family at a local food pantry.

Midgett learned a lot from his story – primarily that poverty is a real and growing problem in the suburbs. Poverty is growing at a faster rate in the suburbs than in urban areas. One in four children in this country – the richest on earth – lives in poverty. Nearly half of all Americans live in poverty or barely above the poverty line. “I was stunned at the statistics,” she says. “This experience was very eye-opening for me.”

The former banker, who used to make six figures before the financial collapse, and a Gulf Coast commercial fisherman (another subject of the film) both are living in poverty because of external circumstances. A job loss, an oil spill, a natural disaster, a sudden traumatic injury or illness – any of these could lead any of us to the same devastating economic condition.

The federal definition of poverty is a family of four living on around $23,000 a year or an individual living on around $11,000 a year. “Everyone I interviewed fell below that threshold, though,” says Midgett. “They thought that seemed like a lot of money.”

She also encountered people making more than the “official” definition of poverty who are, nevertheless, impoverished. “There are people making $35,000 who are on the verge of losing their homes.”

Midgett also was startled by how poverty looks today. “There are people living at the poverty line who don’t look like they are,” she says. “If you were to drive by their suburban house, you wouldn’t think there was such a struggle going on inside.”

Hidden poverty

Midgett calls it “hidden poverty” and says if you’re thinking poverty just exists in the inner city – as many of us do – your definition is outdated. She interviewed Chicago pastor, Rev. Julian Deshazier of University Church in Hyde Park, who contends, “We need a new language to discuss poverty.” He says our old ways of viewing it don’t match the current reality. That’s a sound bite Midgett had to leave on the cutting-room floor, but she says it’s an idea that informs much of the movie.

Midgett also learned during the course of making this film that, even though the economy shows signs of improving, many people living in poverty have been at what she calls “rock bottom” for so long that it will take them years to climb out. “The longer you live in poverty, the longer it will take you to get out,” she says.

Midgett says the film is designed to raise awareness of the plight of the poor, but it has a lot of artistic merit, as well. The Line’s unflinching approach, honest storytelling, and compelling subjects all work together to draw an audience in and make us feel there is very little that separates “us” from “them.” She credits Charlotte cameraman Steve Saxon with much of the film’s look. “Steve found line imagery in a lot of unexpected places,” says Midgett. “Fences, window panes, gates, railroad tracks and more... some of it is very subtle, but it all works and drives the point home.”

The film’s music also was chosen very carefully to appeal to a broad cross-section of people. “It features everything from Moby to rap to a Christian group named Gungor,” says Midgett.

Despite the grim reality of the subject matter, Midgett says working on The Line was an enjoyable experience. “I’m usually an executive producer, so I’m overseeing other producers,” she says. “I generally have to take a macro view. But, I was the producer of The Line, so I got to travel, meet people, and interview them. This kind of storytelling is one of the things that attracted me to producing 20 years ago.”

And the storytelling here is especially compelling. Midgett takes an honest look at a tough and growing problem and shows us the humanity in her subjects. The story of Gulf Coast fisherman Ronald is especially hard-hitting. He was self-sufficient and made a living off the land, but that was before two hurricanes and an oil spill made making even a modest living impossible. Although there is no pity in her approach, Midgett seems to be reminding us, “There but for the grace of God...”

Midgett has gained fame - and an Emmy - for her work.  Her versatility – from gritty television documentaries like Gangland for the History Channel to the reality show Starting Over on NBC – keeps her busy and constantly challenged. Next she’s taking on an adventurous ride through third-world countries. She and Charlotte-based motorcycle journalist Neale Bayly will head to Peru in January to begin filming a special for the SPEED channel. It’s a project Midgett developed and raised the money for.

Until then, she’s hoping people see The Line. In addition to being available online, Sojourners will send a free DVD to anyone hosting a screening for five or more people. And she has another hope for the movie: “I want people to have compassion for others who find themselves in this position,” she says. “We like to think, ‘They’ve done something wrong that’s allowed this to happen.’ That’s simply not true. We’ve got to open our hearts and come up with a solution.”


This piece is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, 
a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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Tags: Linda Midgett, Page Leggett, documentary, film, poverty, CAJA, Charlotte

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