Lights, Camera, Altruism: Philanthropy at the Movies

The Academy Awards are once again upon us, with all their accompanying glitz, glamour and controversy, and it has got me thinking: where Oscarsare all the films about philanthropy or the lives of great philanthropists? This is a particularly pertinent question for me, as I have just published a book that looks at the history of philanthropy in the UK and the role of philanthropy today (Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain), which includes a number of anecdotes and case studies about intriguing philanthropists of the past (some of which you can read for free here), so I am keenly aware of how many great stories are out there. But despite that, I really struggle to think of examples of philanthropy getting meaningful attention at the movies.


V0006712 John Howard bringing water and fresh air into a prison in or Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images John Howard bringing water and fresh air into a prison in order to improve the conditions for the inmates. Watercolour. Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

John Howard bringing water and fresh air into a prison in order to improve the conditions for the inmates

Where is the period drama about the life of prison reformer John Howard, the “curmudgeonly Indiana Jones of philanthropy” (©me) whose dedication was so intense that he snuck aboard a plague ship bound for Venice so that he would be taken into quarantine and thus able to investigate the conditions in the plague prison? Or the biopic of Angela Burdett-Coutts: one of the great female philanthropists, who partnered with Charles Dickens to address the poverty in Victorian London and was so popular during her lifetime that it is reported that 30,000 people lined up to walk past her coffin when she died?



Or what about an issues-based movie set in early the 20th century US, about the battle between Congress and the towering industrialist philanthropists of the age like JD Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, which was prompted by concerns about the influence of “big philanthropy”? It wouldn’t exactly be difficult to make such a film relevant to many of the big issues in philanthropy today, when donors like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are attracting fairly intense scrutiny and scepticism of their own.



But so far, there is pretty much nothing. As far as I can think, philanthropy only ever appears as a convenient plot device rather than a proper subject for exploration. This might be as a way of trying to lend credibility toIron Man a character with seemingly infinite financial resources but also large amounts of spare time (e.g. Forrest Gump; Little Orphan Annie (via Daddy Warbucks); Batman, X-Men’s Charles Xavier, or Iron Man’s Tony Stark). It can also be used as a handy indicator that someone wealthy is up to no good, presumably because they are hiding their true nature behind a veneer of altruism (this is a favourite ploy when depicting comic book supervillains e.g. Lex Luthor, Green Goblin, Ozymandias in Watchmen). And somewhere in-between philanthropy as a clear indicator of either goodness or evil is the more ambiguous archetype of the eccentric millionaire whose motivations are inscrutable and whose actions may lead to both good and bad outcomes (e.g. Jurassic Park’s John Hammond, Willy Wonka, S.R. Hadden in Contact).



Satricial cartoon of JD Rockefeller

So, is it possible to get away from the idea that philanthropy is just a plot device, and get filmmakers to take it seriously as a historical and cultural phenomenon worthy of putting centre stage? Well, there are in fact some intriguing signs that this might be about to happen. Swedish director Lasse Hallström has been lined up to direct a movie based on the life of JD Rockefeller. Similarly, Brian Cox (the Scottish actor rather than the Mancunian physicist) has apparently bought the rights to David Nasaw’s biography of Andrew Carnegie, with a view to producing either a film or a miniseries based on his life.



The suggestion that that Carnegie story might be made as a miniseries rather than a film raises an intriguing possibility: in this “golden age” of television, in which cable channels like HBO are able to command the sort of budgets previously only available to movie-makers, and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are providing a new outlet for innovative and bold programme-making, is TV a better bet for getting philanthropy in front of a mainstream audience? Having recently watched the six-part HBO drama Show Me a Hero (written by The Wire’s David Simon) which centres on the intricacies of a dispute over housing policy in upstate New York in the 1980s and yet manages to be utterly riveting, I can definitely see how the Congress vs Big Philanthropy idea suggested above could play out as a brilliant box-set drama.



As an aside, I learned in the course of doing a bit of research for this piece that there was actually a short-lived miniseries in 2008 called The Philanthropist, starring James Purefoy and Neve Campbell. From the synopsis and episode guide, it sounds pretty amazing (and I’m not sure whether I mean that in an ironic or unironic way). Combine that with the statements from the head of the production company, who said “The Philanthropist is a riveting project whose central themes of generosity, its display of ‘muscular charity’ and fighting for what is right have universal appeal”, and you surely have some must-watch TV. Sadly the show was cancelled after only 8 episodes, and is now only available as a US-region DVD. As an ironic postscript, a group of fans tried to get the show back on the air by setting up a non-profit called “Save The Philanthropist Through Charity”, although sadly their efforts failed.



Away from the screen, there is plenty of conspicuous philanthropy in the film industry. The stereotype of the Hollywood star getting involved Paul_Newman_1954with good causes is well established, albeit often met with a hefty dose of cynicism. But some have manged to rise above this cynicism and establish themselves as significant philanthropists: for example, Paul Newman and Jackie Chan have rightly been celebrated for the size and depth of their philanthropic efforts as well as their many films.



Another interesting development has been the emergence of movie-making as a focus of philanthropy. In particular, the eBay founder and mega-philanthropist Jeff Skoll has, among his many other projects, set up a film production company called Participant Productions which focuses on “creating entertainment that inspires and accelerates social change”. Participant has applied this approach in funding a wide range of movies, starting out with the 2005 Oscar-winning documentary Murderball about the US wheelchair rugby team, and taking in further films including Good Night and Good Luck, The Kite Runner and Lincoln. To what degree all these films actual further the cause of social change is probably a valid question (other Participant-funded films, for example, include The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I would struggle to see as advancing the human condition in any meaningful way…) However, the idea of harnessing the power of storytelling through films as a tool for philanthropy is certainly an intriguing one.



The conclusion seems to be that philanthropy sometimes plays an important role in the film industry, but this is not really reflected in the depiction of philanthropy itself on screen. On the assumption that there is always a place for good stories, this seems like a real missed opportunity, as there are certainly some great stories to be told about philanthropy. On that note, if any Hollywood producers happen to be reading this, and are looking to option a recently-published book about philanthropy that includes a host of colourful anecdotes, my door is always open…


Rhodri Davies

One response to “Lights, Camera, Altruism: Philanthropy at the Movies

  1. I enjoyed this article and agree with many of the points made here, especially that philanthropy is not adequately depicted on screen. There have been a few gems over the years including Polly Ana, It’s a Wonderful Life, Seven Pounds and a few others. My educational documentary What is Philanthropy? will be available soon and I hope it will permeate the higher education and general public markets. Thanks for writing this and helping raise awareness to this issue

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