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People Experiencing Homelessness Exploited by So-Called Entrepreneurs

Fistfight between two drunken homeless guysBumfights — A Video Too Far, produced and directed by Bruce Hepton, chronicles the regrettable history of a disgusting phenomenon. The film that started it all was Bumfights: A Cause for Concern (don’t you love the pretense of a social conscience?). Basically, a bunch of affluent teenagers paid some down-and-outers to assault each other and degrade themselves for their prurient camera.

Hepton’s documentary features an interview with Ryan McPherson, who claims the dubious honor of inventing the genre. The former skateboard dude got together with several accomplices and bribed homeless men to perform dangerous stunts, fight each other, and, in the case of Vietnam veteran Donnie Brennan, to have the Bumfights logo tattooed across his forehead. When Brennan’s leg was broken and he ended up in the hospital,
who do you suppose paid the bill, “producer” McPherson, or the taxpayers?

Publicity supplied by Fox News spread the notoriety of Bumfights around the world and spawned a whole subculture, with an endless stream of imitators. Teams of inspired copycats went into the business of inciting and orchestrating violence between and against people experiencing homelessness. In an Australian town with only one homeless person available to persecute, a gang of teenagers tried to get him to participate in their videotaping fun, and burned him to death for refusing.

McPherson and his band of toxic youths made money off their revolting enterprise, then got screwed by some other thug entrepreneur. (Ha ha.) “It’s a disgusting video,” he says, “but you can’t keep it from selling.” What? Yeah, you can, or at some point could have, by not making it in the first place. He says, “It may not be the right thing, but… whatever.” Now, there is some insightful commentary.

The documentary also interviews social workers, journalists and cops who have to deal with the results of the fad started by McPherson. Then it’s back to him again, saying, “There’s no exploitation, it’s just good friendly filming…” With a philosophy that’s way beyond libertarian, he believes that no crime was committed, and these homeless men had opted in. A person might also choose to sell one of their own kidneys, too, but does that mean a civilized society ought to allow it?

McPherson defends his opus as “very truthful.” What’s truthful about inciting alcoholics to do revolting things like pull out their own teeth with pliers? In the old days, when sleazy carnivals traveled from town to town, the show might include a geek, a burnout case who would bite off the head of a live chicken or snake, or do some other gross thing, for a payment of moonshine and a quiet place to drink it. You may have seen a 1947 film called Nightmare Alley, where Tyrone Power portrayed an overly ambitious man who ended up being a sideshow geek. In the years since then, society has apparently made very little progress.

One of the seminal works that sparked the civil rights era was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel which won a National Book Award in 1953. The protagonist, a Southern black youth, is class valedictorian, but before he can claim the scholarship offered by the rich white folks, he is forced to get in the boxing ring and fight another black youth. At least he gets an education out of it, not just a bottle of beer.

Truthful of not, Bumfights upset a lot of people. In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell relates how the National Coalition for the Homeless mobilized protests against many retail outlets that sold the film. A partial victory was achieved, but Bumfights and its numerous imitations are of course available online.

Of the two Bumfights “stars,” Donnie Brennan is still on the streets (and still bearing the forehead tattoo). But the life of Rufus Hannah, formerly known as “the stunt bum,” took a radically different turn, and he went on to publish a book called A Bum Deal. This autobiography is reviewed by Cali Zimmerman, social media guru and Communications Coordinator for PATH Partners, a group of agencies concerned with helping people experiencing homelessness, and others in need, in Southern California. Zimmerman writes,

Co-written with Barry Soper, the man who helped Hannah escape the exploitation of Bumfights and turn his life around, A Bum Deal is a story of confronting personal demons and journeying to recovery.

Zimmerman recounts the story of how Hannah and Soper have met, before the Bumfights film was made, and how when they came into contact again, Soper helped both Hannah and Brennan get legal representation, to try and win some compensation for the permanent injuries they have suffered through cooperating with McPherson’s reprehensible manipulation of their vulnerable state.

Zimmerman says,

With Soper’s help, Hannah has since taken legal action against the creators of Bumfights and has been sober for eight years. He is employed full-time, remarried, has worked to heal his relationship with his children and get his life is back on track.

The review finishes up with some words from Rufus Hannah:

I just hope that somebody can read this and see that it doesn’t matter how low it gets, you can always get up again.

Reactions?

Source: “Bumfights – A Video Too Far,” YouTube.com
Source: “Nightmare Alley,” Dusted Off, 05/04/10
Source: “A Bum Deal: One Formerly Homeless Man’s Journey,” Poverty Insights, 10/21/10
Image by PinkMoose (Anthony Easton), used under its Creative Commons license.