REVIEW: Class Divide [2016]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 74 minutes | Release Date: 2016 (USA)
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Director(s): Marc Levin

“It was here first”

You won’t get a better depiction of gentrification on film than Marc Levin‘s Class Divide, but I’m not entirely sure that’s enough. The central premise is to show how there can be two worlds separated by nothing more than the width of a street: public housing projects on one side and a $40,000 a year private school on the other. How do the children raised in each find balance and how does that gap get bridged? These were questions I hoped to see answered because we already know the issue as it’s presented all too well. What can the school do to integrate those who call Chelsea, NY home? What can the latter do to expose the silver spoons to a culture their parents are helping to erase?

Unfortunately Levin doesn’t seem interested showing the machinations towards solution. He’s instead positioned himself as a fly on the wall hearing adolescent opinions. Class Divide therefore becomes a collection of superficial sound bytes steeped in ego, entitlement, jealousy, and hope. We hear a mother looking to move her kids closer to Avenues—the aforementioned school—who all but says the neighborhood would be perfect if not for the threat of project kids on the playground. There’s the Dean of said school explaining how they worked out a deal to offer scholarships to local children on or below the poverty line, his altruism subverted by a reality that no such scholarships had been presented during the first two years. He must know half off is still impossible to manage.

White kids talk about their privilege and how they shouldn’t be punished for it (they shouldn’t) yet never question their roles in helping. White guilt is prevalent to the point of Avenues students relaying how they aren’t “the richest kids in school anymore” as though the disparity between them and a Turks And Caicos vacationer is larger than the one between them and the kid living on the block their parents told them to avoid. Black and Hispanic children speak about hard work to move themselves into a position for success despite the odds being stacked against them. And everyone admits they’re too busy judging each other for potentially judging them wrong to simply consider each other as peers on a human level beyond both race and class.

Some kids talk as though they have it all figured out: “this isn’t a racism problem, it’s classism.” But does anyone explain how deeply connected those concepts are? Does anyone point out that classism on this scale and in this situation is inherently racist when money becomes the key factor separating impoverished people of color from predominantly white products of affluence? No. The film holds that thought as the subject’s own truth and as a result does little to find context or an avenue to spark change. Levin enjoys showcasing the architectural renaissance and new High Line Park to expose why gentrification has occurred in Chelsea so rapidly, but spends less than five minutes on the aftermath of locals being displaced in a race for real estate profits.

To focus so intently on the glaring problems without going deeper into how they’re being combated is to more or less declare it a futile exercise. You want to be successful? Adopt a republican mindset to use the free market to your advantage. But what about the luck involved in not getting shot by a random bullet? What about the luck needed for a teacher or parent to provide the motivation away from a destructive spiral downward? On the flip side we see how those with money and advantage are depressed enough to resort to suicide. We watch as the creative liberals so many conservatives hate prove to be the product of having enough money to imagine an artistic career as a viable option. Financial solvency is literally everything.

But at least Yasemin is willing to do something. She’s the shining light in a film full of blights beautiful and ugly alike. She leverages it into an art project—which is a fine way to open up to community engagement programs on a selfish level of utility rather than pure empathy—but she’s honest in her willingness to open herself to the world outside her school’s window. Her interactions with Elliott-Chelsea resident Juwan is inspiring enough to engage a fellow student who seemed entitled beyond repair (Isabella) and does more to approach a solution than a public park could on its own. Just because the High Line is gorgeous, pragmatic, and a “safe place” for children of all socio-economic backgrounds, it’s worthless if the kids don’t interact.

Besides Yasemin and Juwan’s connection, however, nothing Class Divide shows provides promise for a solution. We see young Rosa’s attempts to lift herself out of her impoverished life with a bottomless wealth of optimism, intelligence, and affability fail—her dreams of being a doctor those of someone born in a world where helping others is important and financial stability an escape. We see Hyisheem as an example for kids like Rosa to aspire towards, someone who’s mix of perseverance and luck got him to college to be a social worker. On the flip side are kids struggling to live in the shadows of successful parents, the pressure to be the greatest comparable to the Elliott-Chelsea community’s pressure to simply survive. They’re all isolated; community becomes an empty word.

In the end the documentary tells one truth: so many of our children’s hopes are connected to the parents raising them. We see a father living in a multi-million dollar condo say he wants his kids to walk on whatever street regardless of reputation—a stark contrast to the woman questioning park safety after also tastelessly joking about how her husband needs to make more money. We see an undocumented father seeking every avenue he can to support his family in the hopes that his desire to be an upstanding member of America will provide a path towards becoming a citizen. It’s up to the parents on both sides to instill work ethic and pride whether their kids get everything they want handed to them or not.

But that’s not what the film is about. It’s not about calling one right and another wrong—that’s our job. I commend this sense of objectivity, but also find it dangerous because its neglect to contextualize what kids onscreen say outside of the tiny sphere of their limited education and experiences means some will hear it as truth. To fix one problem is to fix another first. You can’t say it’s one thing and not another despite both going hand-in-hand just because you want to make sure the camera doesn’t think you’re part of the problem. Reality shows that everyone onscreen is exactly that, though. Gentrification doesn’t open people to an “international” world. It steals pieces of one to insulate the wealthy on the backs of the poor.

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