If Robert Reich and Jacob Kornbluth needed a reminder of why they made the documentary “Inequality for All,” which enjoyed its Los Angeles Film Festival premiere at an outdoor screening at the California Plaza downtown on Saturday night, they could’ve only walked a few blocks down the street to Skid Row. Suzette Shaw, a middle-aged woman who currently lives there, saved them the trip when she stepped up to the mic during the post-screening Q & A.
“I am now the former middle class,” Shaw remarked in introducing herself, before making an impassioned and eloquent statement about those like herself who are educated and worked hard until the economic crisis left her unemployed and homeless. As Reich, the former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, responded, it’s a description that he’s heard far too many times in recent years.
“If you read what the press has to say about the American economy right now, all you read about is that the economy is rebounding. All they’re paying attention to is the stock market,” said the political economist. “The poor are poorer than they were when the recovery began. The top 10 percent are doing better. The top one percent continues to do far better, but if you look at this economy as a group of people, we’re still in the throes of an economic crisis and the worst thing we can do is become complacent and say well, everything is fine once again. No. We’ve got to remind ourselves of the homeless and the children and so many middle class people who are actually falling through the cracks as we sit here.”
While the time Reich and “Inequality for All” director Kornbluth were onstage taking questions wasn’t ill-spent, it was clear that the two didn’t want audiences to sit still when it comes to the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in America. Their film, which was inspired by the lectures Reich gives as a professor at UC Berkeley, traces the erosion of the American middle class over the past three decades during which time the U.S. economy has doubled in size and looks for ways to bridge the great current divide. However, the opportunity to accurately present Reich’s ideas in film form meant freeing the discussion about income disparity from the political parameters that have long defined it, looking at other Americans as humans rather than statistics.
“I hate boxes,” said Kornbluth, a director perhaps best known for his 2001 comedy “Haiku Tunnel” and making his first documentary here. “I hate being put in one myself. I make fiction films and now my first documentary and I hate that I have to be in these categories. As a kid, I resisted the notion of heroes because I wanted to question and have the complexity of humanity laid out all the time, but this felt to me like an attempt not to put anything into a box and starting a discussion I felt wasn’t happening.”
Yet it was one that Kornbluth said has been present throughout his own life as the son of a single mother who raised her three kids on less than $15,000 a year.
“I was always kind of aware of who was getting what and how the money was getting spread around the community,” Kornbluth told the crowd at LAFF. “But it hit me around 2008 that as the economy was crashing, the story of my life and people around my age when we look back on it from 20 years from now is going to be of this widening economic divide. I was frustrated by what was happening about the economy, I needed a cohesive narrative that put it all together and made sense of all the anxiety me and my friends were feeling.”
Kornbluth joked that when his pals finally saw the film, they raised an eyebrow at his use of Dolly Parton’s song “9 to 5” since “they’re working so long and so hard now that the idea of a 9 to 5 job feels almost like a vacation at this point.” The filmmaker can certainly identify since he and Reich plan to work overtime in getting “Inequality for All” out into the public in the weeks leading up to the film’s release later this year. When asked if there might be a sequel, Kornbluth said that he sees the film as “the focal point of a larger movement” and that he plans to continue working with Reich and would like to see “Inequality for All” shown in schools. For Reich’s part, he’s already been heartened by the response he’s received during the film’s festival run.
“I’ve been speaking and teaching for many, many years and written 13 books about this subject,” remarked Reich, who said with a laugh that his books are “the kind of books once you put them down you can’t pick them up.” “But I had no idea what film was as a medium and I have just absolutely been blown away by the impact that this film has had on people as we’ve shown it at various festivals around the country.”
He added that even those closest to him are getting something new out of it.
“My son Sam, who is part of the film industry, saw the film and said to me, “Dad, this is the first time I’ve ever understood what you’ve been up to.”