“The health of our democracies, our societies and their people, is truly dependent on greater equality.” So ends The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s seminal text on inequality. Mental and physical health, the authors argue, suffer most in those economies that have the largest relative equality gaps between the richest 20% and the poorest 20%. The text, published in 2009, has influenced much of this decade’s political and sociological thinking, but there is a feeling that its message, in its arch, statistical formulation, has not reached a wide enough audience to enter into everyday consciousness.
Enter director Katharine Round, a self-confessed arithmophile who found herself captivated by what The Sprit Level’s charts and graphs revealed about social inequality in the developed west. As she pored over them, however, she began to look beyond the figures. “It struck me that every point on those graphs represented millions of ordinary lives – the charts had a human meaning beyond a mere statistical correlation.” And so, The Divide came into being – a documentary about the personal, human side of inequality, and the micro side of the macro issues the book covers. As Round herself put it: “I wanted to tell the story through the voice of lived experience – not just statistics, but real people.”
The film follows seven people in the US and UK who are affected by the vast inequality these two nations boast. Most are in unsurprising situations – a care worker who wishes it wasn’t such a constant uphill battle to make ends meet, a KFC server and single mother saddened by the decline of her neighbourhood, and a Wall Street investor convinced that his wealth is fair reward for his superior intellect and capacity for hard work. These vignettes are touching, infuriating and, at times, warmly comic, but they do little to explore the issue of inequality and don’t really touch on the significance of the scale of wealth difference. Indeed, Leah – the aforementioned mother working at KFC – comes across as the film’s main subject, in spite of offering little that relates to its stated objective. This is a tough thing to say, as she’s a brilliant personality – engaging in front of the camera, witty and incredibly moving. You just can’t shake the feeling that these traits captivated the filmmakers a little too much, leading things a little bit astray at times.
Much more interesting, situationally speaking, are relatively well-off psychologist Alden and housewife Jen. Both, in different ways, demonstrate the extraordinary layering of wealth divisions in the US, emphasising that when top-to-bottom inequality is so unutterably massive, even those who would seem infinitely rich to most people around the world still struggle hugely. Alden wakes at 6am every day to exercise (his tame jogging overlaid with his own motivational tripe about ‘pushing the limits’ is by far the film’s funniest moment), then sees patients one after another non-stop, before heading home and more or less straight to bed. The exercise, if it can be called that, is to guard against the dreaded possibility of falling ill – he cannot afford a sick day, and studiously avoids public transport for the same reason. He spends very little time with his family, deciding that the best thing he can do for them is work himself to the bone to provide a certain lifestyle – at one point we join him and his wife as they check out houses in a gated community.
This brings us to Jen, who is living the gated community ‘dream’. This seems a level of opulence beyond the reckoning (or desire) even of most people in the developed world. And yet, she is subjected to constant reminders that her wealth might be enough to have bought a house there, but it is not nearly enough to live the gated community lifestyle – a lifestyle that sees people spend $10,000 on golf carts, which are converted with special kits to look like BMWs. Insulted for driving a car that isn’t brand new, for mowing her own lawn, and for having kids who look different to most of her neighbours’ kids (this isn’t clearly explained – we’re told her kids are blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but the implication is left hanging), Jen is constantly made to feel unwelcome. The coup de grâce comes when she reveals that a group of the richest people in the gated area, which is already guarded 24/7 by an armed security officer, is planning to request a second internal gate, creating their own gated community within a gated community.
It is this seeming insanity – this sense of the futility of social ‘progress’ and the non-existence of social mobility – that really drives home the film’s point about inequality. It is an unsubtle reminder of quite how mind-blowing the scale of inequality is in two countries that are considered wealthy, successful and developed places. Of course, this isn’t the only context we’re given – the seven stories are broken up with illuminating talking heads, including the ever-present Noam Chomsky and, much more enlighteningly, Sir Alan Budd. The latter advised the Thatcher administration on monetary policy, and thus had more than a small hand in setting the neo-liberal economic agenda that fosters and drives inequality to greater and greater extremes to this day. Fascinatingly, and to his immense credit, he offers no attempt to justify this legacy, and instead apologises for the terrible results (not least the elephant in the room – the 2008 financial crisis), which he convincingly claims to be consequences that he, at least, genuinely did not foresee.
Ultimately, The Divide is enraging for all the right reasons. It could be criticised for wandering a little astray at times, but this is simply a result of Round sticking to her guns and telling human stories, not statistical ones. That is not to say the film is devoid of context, but rather that it is pleasingly unfettered by its own agenda. Certainly, it will appeal more to those of a particular political persuasion, but I’m sure those on the other side of the debate would enjoy picking it apa rt almost as much as the rest of us would enjoy agreeing with and learning from it. It might even go so far as to touch a nerve with those too hardened to be convinced by statistics.