Families and Big Pharma

Sweet Girl, a 2021 film released on Netflix in late August, dramatizes power relations between Big Pharma and families. One party gains. The other loses against a backdrop of stunts galore that some critics praised while damning the film’s clichéd storyline. Clichéd is not my adjective of choice. Depoliticized better captures my view of the film.

In the opening of Sweet Girl, we see how and why a for-profit corporation mistreats people. Medication that a terminally ill mother and wife needs to live becomes unavailable to her. She and her family suffer needlessly. Why?

The film’s narrative, which is heavy on fight scenes between victims and their victimizers, suggests that the greed of a Pharma CEO is the answer. He is a kind of useful idiot, a money-thirsty villain that director Brian Andrew Mendoza and writers Philip Eisner and Gregg Hurwitz want us to hate.

Hating on Pharma CEOs is necessary. That is where the film stops. In that respect, Sweet Girl reminds me a bit of a previous film that dramatizes power relations between corporations in the medical-industrial complex and working class people who suffer from the for-profit system.

John Q is a 2002 film starring Denzel Washington as a character whose nine-year-old son needs a life-saving surgery that capitalist health care denies him. The Washington character like Jason Momoa and Isabela Merced, as father and daughter, respectively, in Sweet Girl, resort to physical means to battle back against corporate power. Movement politics is absent. That is, working class people organizing and mobilizing for policies and politics that meet their everyday needs, of which health care is high on the list.

The 1998 film Bulworth, starring Warren Beatty, delivers a rhetorical attack on corporate power over health care. According to the late Roger Ebert, “Beatty zeroes in on the myth that government is wasteful and industry is efficient by claiming that government runs Medicare for a fourth of the overhead raked off by insurance companies for equivalent health care. But why don’t we have national health care like every other First World country? Because of insurance payoffs, Bulworth is only too happy to explain.”

Examples from this decade are easy to find. California Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, backed single-payer health care campaigning for office. Once elected, he dropped single-payer like a hot potato.

The system that creates medical-industrial complex CEOs is the problem. If we fail to name the system, we miss identifying the problem.

It is a little like looking at the California wildfires and pushing for better containment. That is of course essential but incomplete. We deserve a critique that spotlights the underlying cause of droughts and wildfires, fossil fuel capitalism.

Corporate payoffs to an elected lawmaker are part of the plot in Sweet Girl. These payoffs feint at a systemic critique to improve viewers’ grasp of how and why Americans in need of life-saving health care and medicine suffer on a routine basis.

As a coronavirus pandemic of the delta variant tears through the US populace, which lacks universal health care, I see a cinematic opportunity wasted. It did not have to be this way.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com