The End of Poverty? Directed by Philippe Diaz. Burbank, CA: Cinema Libre Studio, 2008. 106 minutes.

Debtors’ Prisons: Life Inside America’s For-Profit Justice System. Directed by James Burns. New York: Vice Video Group, 2016. 25 minutes.

Free Lunch Society. Directed by Christian Tod. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 2017. 92 minutes.

Reviewed by Vivyan C. Adair, Taveeshi Singh, and Stina Soderling

Capitalism 101

For over twenty years, our department has offered a seminar called Feminist Perspectives on Class at Hamilton College, a small “elite” liberal arts institution in Central New York. Students come to our class with little understanding of the operations of socioeconomic class and even less exposure to either historical or theoretical understandings of poverty and privilege. They do, however, come with a healthy suspicion about inequality and the current economic order. One of our primary goals, then, is to provide students with a framework of readings and films that help them understand that the regulation of bodies is both complex and intimately connected to histories of oppression, state-sanctioned exploitation, the reification of power, and resistance.1 The documentary films The End of Poverty?, Debtors' Prisons: Life Inside America’s For-Profit Justice System, and Free Lunch Society attempt to articulate these pivotal connections, with varying degrees of success.

Making a compelling argument against globalization and rampant corporate imperialism in The End of Poverty?, filmmaker Philippe Diaz connects brutal histories of colonization with the legacy, perpetuation, and expansion of Western capitalism and exposes the ways in which the gears of capitalism are greased by human toil and tears. This film adequately ties colonization, capitalism, and privatization with analysis of obscene wealth and power gaps. It is also effective in linking the voices of those who have suffered, with the consensus of academics and experts bearing witness to deprivations experienced by the global South imposed by the nations of the global North that have “accumulated more than 80 percent of the world’s resources for only 20 percent of the world’s population.”2

When we screened The End of Poverty? in Feminist Perspectives on Class in fall 2020, students critiqued its reductive focus on the labor market and its concomitant lack of specific gender analysis. Yet students also noted that when analyzed with additional texts, they were able to make many pivotal connections. As one reflected, “This film forced me to view exploited labor and exploited bodies as the backbone of the American economy.”4 Pedagogically, our cautionary note is to use The End of Poverty? if, and only if, you and your students are able to do the heavy lifting of contextualizing the film with a rigorous and nuanced series of readings, theories, and critiques. If you can do so, it will be well worth the hours of viewing, discussion, and analysis the film demands.

Drawing on examples of the notorious use of court, police, and other municipal fines in the metropolitan St. Louis, MO, area and by a private parole firm in Atlanta, GA, Debtors’ Prisons provides an incisive but sensationalized look at incarceration due to indebtedness. The film takes a clear stance that this incarceration is unjust; unfortunately, it lacks an analysis of the broader penal and economic systems of which “debtors’ prisons” are only one aspect. Thus, while Debtors’ Prisons could be useful in teaching, it also requires significant framing in a feminist classroom.

While the experiences of the people featured are unique and tragic in their own right, they are also fully entangled in larger structures; pointing to these structures is at the core of feminist teaching. Students also need guidance thinking through the gendered, racialized, and classed components of the debt economy and the prison-industrial complex. There is a plethora of sources that could be helpful here. We have had great success teaching the work of Angela Davis—such as Are Prisons Obsolete? and “Feminism and Abolition”—as well as Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.5 In framing the narrative of debt, we recommend using excerpts from David Graeber’s monumental Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In this book, Graeber denaturalizes the concept of “debt” and in doing so also questions the assumption that humans inherently relate to each other in a transactional fashion.3 For upper-level courses, we suggest pairing this documentary with Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, a brilliant study of how structures of debt and incarceration are central to the current economic system, which provides the intersectional analysis of race, class, and gender that is missing from Debtors’ Prisons.6

The documentary Free Lunch Society makes the case for universal basic income (UBI)—a social security program through which every citizen receives a set amount of money from the government at regular intervals—as a feasible solution to the crisis of poverty. The film explores the notion of decoupling work from wages as a way of creating a more equitable economic system. However, the appeal of this liberatory idea is dampened by the film’s significant analytical and representational shortcomings, so we alert instructors who choose to teach with this film to proceed with caution.

Using concrete examples of UBI programs in the United States (Alaska), Canada (Manitoba), and Namibia (Otjivero), Free Lunch Society argues that UBI is attainable. Less convincing is the film’s characterization of UBI as a universal solution posited to resolve the gross inequalities produced by neoliberal capitalism. Therefore, viewers need more information to make sense of how UBI would alleviate inequality in these geopolitical settings, each with its specific arrangement of labor relations shaped by histories of colonial conquest. This context could be provided with extensive reframing and plenty of class time devoted to debriefing. Pairings such as Cedric J. Robinson’s theory of racial capitalism and Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant ethic situate the historical relationship between race, class, religion, and capitalism.7 And Feminist Freedom Warriors, an online archive of anticapitalist, antiracist, and anti-imperialist genealogies of resistance, could help bring gender into the conversation while also providing contemporary examples of how place-based, intersectional, anticapitalist politics are lived.8

Ultimately, Free Lunch Society’s deracialized and ahistorical use of concepts such as “freedom,” coupled with racist and classist imagery peppered throughout the film, weaken its potential for pedagogical use in the feminist classroom. We do not believe that instructors should shy away from engaging with flawed texts. However, the social, psychological, and emotional costs of screening the film may be too great for students and instructors to bear.

1 See, e.g., Karl Marx, “Absolute and Relative Surplus Value,” in Wealth and Poverty in America: A Reader, ed. Dalton Conley (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003): 21-28; Heidi Hartmann, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union,” Capital and Class 3, no. 2 (1979): 1-33; Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Practice,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 89 (1989): 139-67; Vivyan C. Adair, “Branded with Infamy: Inscriptions of Poverty and Class in America,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27, no. 2 (2001): 451-71 and “The Classed Body in the Sociological Imagination,” Sociology Compass 2, no. 5 (2008): 1655-71. We begin the course by thinking about Marx’s suggestion that at the dawn of industrialization, humans became no more than cogs in the machinery of a process both fueled by and in desperate search of capital. Rather than satisfying human needs, the circulation of money as capital became an end in itself, dependent upon the manipulation of “productive laboring” bodies. Discussing Marx alongside Hartmann’s work helps students understand the dual exploitation of women in a capitalist economy: as low-wage workers generating profit for capitalists as well as in the home where they traditionally both reproduce compliant workers and accrue profit to their husbands. Reading Crenshaw’s work reminds us that oppression and exploitation in both the private and the public sectors operate at the intersection of, and reproduce, racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. And Adair’s essays provide a glimpse of the template that invariably connects ideology, regulatory regimes, and the bodily machinations of race, gender, and class hierarchies.

2 This quote is from The End of Poverty?.

3 Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn: Melville House.

4 Feminist Perspectives on Class, WMNST 314, Hamilton College, Fall 2020.

5 Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories, 2003) and “Feminism and Abolition: Theories and Practices for the Twenty-First Century,” in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016): 91-110; 13th, dir. Ava DuVernay (Los Gatos, CA: Netflix, 2016), 100 minutes; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012).

6 Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2018).

7 Cedric J. Robinson, “Introduction,” in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 2nd. ed., ed. Cedric J. Robinson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000): 1-5; Max Weber, “The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Routledge, 2009): 302-22.

8 Feminist Freedom Warriors, Linda Carty, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Taveeshi Singh, last updated 2021.

Vivyan Adair ( is a professor of women’s and gender studies at Hamilton College, where she teaches and writes about feminist analysis of poverty and its attendant representation in law, policy, media, and literature, in the United States.

Taveeshi Singh ( is a PhD candidate in the interdisciplinary social science program at Syracuse University, where she also teaches in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Taveeshi was previously visiting instructor of women’s and gender studies at Hamilton College, where she taught courses on feminist methodologies, transnational feminisms, militarism and imperialism, and feminism in South Asia. Singh’s current research project examines the relationship between gender, militarism, and coercive labor regimes in India. A second, collaborative research project documents the life and work histories of transnational feminist intellectuals, activists, and artists.

Stina Soderling ( is a visiting assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Hamilton College, where she teaches courses in queer studies and on immigration, colonialism, and neoliberalism. Soderling’s areas of research are rural queer studies, with a focus on the US South, and feminist and anarchist pedagogies.