HBO Documentary Films: CLASS DIVIDE

Doc-logo2Overview: The thought-provoking documentary Class Divide is a timely look at the widening divide between the “haves” and “have nots.” Young people on both sides of the gap offer unique and honest insights that challenge common perceptions about inequality today.

In the final part of their trilogy about economic forces affecting ordinary people, director Marc Levin and producer Daphne Pinkerson (HBO’s Schmatta: Docs_ClassDivideScreening-300x200Rags to Riches to Rags and Hard Times: Lost on Long Island) explore the effects of hyper-gentrification and rising economic disparity in one New York City neighborhood, which can be seen as a microcosm of the socioeconomic imbalances across the country, and the world. The film bears witness to the profound effects of gentrification and stagnant class mobility on young people who share a West Chelsea community — yet live in very different worlds — as they try to navigate this rapidly changing landscape.


Expectations: Out here in the rural wooded lands I don’t really give much thought to the divide that exists, but I’m sure it is quite palpable in the inner city. HBO Films’ SHOW ME AS HERO clearly illustrated that and so did the trailer for this documentary.

Having seen both of the previous documentaries in this trilogy (and even reviewing the one) I am sure CLASS DIVIDE will be a well-constructed lesson on the social class struggle and possibly even stir some thoughts of my own on the topic. I’ll let you know. Here is the trailer:


Gut Reaction: The locale that is the West Chelsea area of New York City is a quick microcosm of the whole class experience and the big city lifestyle. The filmmakers really got into the neighborhood and got a diverse group of people to talk to the camera and both sides of the economic strata. That fact made this documentary really work. The situation is this: on one side of the street are low-income housing units and growing all around them is upscale businesses, townhouses, complexes and the state-of-the-art Avenues school. Included in the landscape is an old elevated train line now converted into a long stretched community park. The projects and their residence are feeling the squeeze.

It would have been quite boring if talking heads sat back and talked to the camera on this scene. Though there are city officials, housing authorities and school administrators offering up sound bites about the economic disparity of the area most of the time the camera is down on the ground & out on the streets with the inhabitants of the West Chelsea area. The camera is quite fair in Docs_ClassDivide-300x185giving us a look at both sides of the street. We go into the Avenues school with the privileged children and head into the halls of the low-income housing across the thoroughfare. The camera gets close to students at lunch and players out in the projects playground. No angle is missed to give a complete picture.

There are some standout personalities that help drive the issues home. 8-year old Rosa from the poor side of the street holds court quite amusedly, yet in her cute-as-a-button way speaks some real adult truths for one her age. Across the way at the private school is Yasemin (pictured, far left) who reaches out across the class divide to talk to Juwan (pictured far right). That meeting propels the documentary into a different direction in its latter half as both walks-of-life sit and try to understand each other. All those testimonies and recorded interactions make this a far more interesting film than it could have been and that made for quite an interesting observation of the economic disparity that is prevalent in the U. S.  


Bonus: We found a quick Q & A here with documentarian Marc Levin (seen in picture with Pinkerson). Here is a portion of what was said:

Q: As a New Yorker, why did you choose this particular neighborhood for CLASS DIVIDE? Did you set out make a film about issues of gentrification and inequality, or did the story present itself to you?


Marc Levin: I have seen the neighborhood transform in front of my eyes, especially the last 10 years. I have often thought of making a film about it, but it wasn’t until we visited a number of other cities looking for stories about income inequality and gentrification and then returned to New York, sitting on the High Line with the producer Daphne Pinkerson, watching tourists taking photos in front of the empty frame looking out to 26th Street and 10th Avenue, that it crystallized. The story’s all right here in our backyard. Right on this corner.


Q: In working with the kids in the film, what surprised you most about their attitudes?


ML: What surprised me most about kids from both sides of the street was how articulate and insightful they were. What was also surprising is that both the privileged and the low-income kids shared a common concern—neither were secure about where they fit in the future. The kids from Avenues knew they were competing with kids from China, India, Russia and Korea. They felt the pressure of the global competition, and were concerned it would be tougher for them to do as well as their parents. The low-income kids were well aware of the dismantling of the social safety net. They know that Section 8 housing, welfare, and job training programs are all on the chopping block, so they are worried about their opportunities and what is going to happen to their families.


In Conclusion: What really turns this film around is the talk with the many young people seen it and the chronicled steps taken by them, in some small ways, to close the gap between the “have” and ‘have nots.” It is an important dialog and one recognized by the youths as such. Will it ever solve the ills? Of course not but it is a first step for just one neighborhood in the big scheme of things. Whatever becomes of it is unknown, but those one both sides of the street will be okay no matter what as the film leaves us with that positive notion. In the end CLASS DIVIDE is a well thought out examination of the class issue in America.     



Next: On Monday, November 14 HBO will debut UNDERFIRE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF PFC. TONY VACCARO which chronicles the life of a man who played two risky roles in World War II: a combat infantryman on the front lines and a war photographer.


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