Inequality: the movie. This time it’s personal

It is a good sign that a political issue has achieved “meme” status when it becomes the subject of a film. Michael Moore got to the heart of US school shootings with Bowling for Columbine, Al Gore put climate change centre stage with An Inconvenient Truth and the complex financial transactions that almost plunged the word into an economic depression got full public exposure thanks to the Big Short.

Finally poverty and particularly the gaping inequality between the richest and poorest in western societies are - not before time - getting their place on the red carpet.

The Divide looks in almost painful detail at the struggles that families at the bottom of the wealth pyramid have to go through to make ends meet and the sacrifices the “squeezed middle” will make to ensure to stop themselves from slipping back.

Established filmmaker Katharine Round uses seven people - five Americans and two Brits - to give a very personal take on the reality of daily life in two of the richest and most sophisticated countries on the planet.

Although the film is only 70 minutes long, the camera takes its time to allow the subjects to talk in minute detail about the everyday strains and stresses of living on or close to the breadline.

Rochelle on Tyneside races through the day to see the elderly people she helps as a care worker but cannot always get home in time to put her children to bed. She maintains large personal loans to keep her kids fed and clothed.

Janet in Louisiana joined Walmart after the corporation effectively put her video store out of business but after a brief honeymoon at the firm has to make do with irregular shifts as part of a corporate efficiency drive.

She may not be able to meet her mortgage payments and takes her issue to a meeting of shareholders. She tells them that it “ain’t right” that the CEO earns 1,000 times as much as the average worker. They cheered; so did I.

Meanwhile Wall Street psychologist Alden is working so hard to fund his family’s move into a gated community that he never gets to see his children before they go to sleep. When he had back surgery he was back in work the next day.

Fellow gated community resident Jen in California resents being looked down on for driving the same car she has done rather than a decade - rather than spend $10,000 souping up a golf cart. No really. She recalls how a neighbour saw her doing her own gardening and remarked: “Only poor people sweep their own leaves.”

Although the majority of the film is taken up with the subjects’ sometimes harrowing stories, it is interspersed with significant events during the administrations of Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Tony Blair and Barack Obama.

The cleverest juxtaposition is to hear Bush extolling the financial innovation to create “5 million minority homeowners ” and - post-subprime mortgage crash - condemning those who made a “reckless decision to buy a home they could not afford”.

The Divide doesn’t offer policy solutions but that’s not a filmmaker’s jobs; that’s a politician’s responsibility

But most amusing insight comes from Jeremy Paxman asking a visibly baffled Blair whether someone could earn too much money.  “You mean we should cap their income? Why? What’s the point?” In other news Blair is now reported to earn £250,000 for speaking at an event.

Like the Big Short, the film includes cutaways to experts, including academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett - whose best-selling book The Spirit Level was the inspiration for Round - as well as former bankers who have seen the light.

Perhaps the only criticism is that it features 70-year-old US venture capitalist Richard Berman as counsel for the defence offering a dismal justification of the status quo as being necessary to encourage him to work “15 to 20 hours a day to get rich”. The film was never meant to be a Today programme-style debate so it seems unnecessary to include a straw man opposition voice.

But the overall effect is powerful exactly because it is not rigorously and tediously argued using technical language and graphs. The only such inclusion is in the titles sequence at the end that points out that in the UK the 1,000 richest people own more wealth than the poorest 40%; while in the US the top 0.1% owns the same wealth as the bottom 90%.

The film’s power comes from the open access that the seven subjects have kindly - and quite generously - given Round to allow them to show what life is like on the wrong side of the divide. It doesn’t offer policy solutions but that’s not a filmmaker’s jobs; that’s a politician’s responsibility but one that the current cadres on both sides of the Atlantic are shirking.

Disclaimer’s contributors have tried to keep the focus on inequality in their writing such as with this review of Sir Anthony Atkinson’s book Inequality and on the wider issues facing society and debates rising up on the British political agenda.

No doubt other media, economists, think tanks, politicians and campaigners will continue to bang the inequality drum too. The hope is that The Divide contains enough to turn the popular tide against the complacency that allows such obscene gaps in wealth, health and happiness to continue.

The Divide is in selected cinemas from 22 April and on general release from 31 May. 

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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