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Understanding Inequality Through Film

April 1st, 2020

Article by Isabella Steinhauer

Artwork by Zofia Przytocka 

Living in the world that we do, it can be difficult to digest the complexities of the global issues that seep into our headlines, the books we read, and the everyday interactions that shape our understanding of the world. For as long as ever, art has been a medium to make sense of the world around us - to force consciousness into the minds of the people and in many cases, promote empathy, humility, and even activism for a more just world. While all forms of art are equally important in this regard, film has always been a powerful force in holding a mirror up to society and reflecting reality through personal anecdotes, metaphors, and imagery; capturing truth and re-igniting awareness of relativity.


In recent years, one of the most prominent themes in film has revolved around inequality and class. On a global scale, social and economic inequality is ubiquitous, crippling, and unequivocally convoluted. For nearly everyone, (except billionaires, of course) it is the world’s most pressing issue that governments and world leaders are being demanded to take action on. To say the absolute least, the road to implementing comprehensive solutions has been bumpy and slow. Making matters worse, political divides have manipulated this humanitarian issue into a larger culture war of morality and justification for one’s status or actions. Peeling back the layers of these debates, philosophical conundrums are often raised in questions such as what is right or wrong, or what deserved or undeserved, based on one’s given circumstances, character traits, or environment. More so, these debates bleed into ideas of what is under one’s control, and in turn, what one is responsible for.  


Storytellers and filmmakers have jumped at the opportunity to grapple with such arguments by piecing together stories that give viewers their own opportunity to contemplate their moral judgement of individuals and situations that their lives may never collide with. While such morally conflicting topics are important to stir into public discussion through film, there are also risks if such stories are not handled with absolute care. For example, if a film lacks humility and empathy, an understanding of the experience and humanity of those who are the most vulnerable could be skewed or lost all together. This could end up reaffirming and perpetuating problematic thought processes of unequal and classist systems, specifically among those who are the most privileged in global societies. On the other hand, if a film’s message is constructed with deep empathy, it has the power to push beyond the notion that the audience should feel pity - the power to push beyond the idea that they’re simply just witnesses from afar, totally separate from the experiences taking place in the film. With utmost care, these films instill presence and immersion with the story instead, as if the viewers themselves are standing alongside the character in the film, experiencing the joys and strife of those experiences first hand.


When viewing a film that covers heavy topics relevant to current social contexts, it is extremely important to consider the final decision maker’s role as a responsibility; a responsibility to properly empathize. The final decisions that establish a film’s outcome and message are ultimately left up to the director. When watching a movie, the artist should always be analyzed along with, if not more than, the art itself. An effective strategy to identify how cognizant a director is and how well they are able to empathize with the subject matter, is to pay attention to the granular details of the film - the silent messages tucked between the lines. It is within these blades that the director projects their moral judgement and constructs their sharpest influence. It is in these details where they can ignite viewers’ compassion and a viewing experience of total immersion.


The past year had a lot to offer in film, especially for socially relevant topics relating to socio-economic inequality and classist systems. Of these films, two particularly come to mind based on how they made me feel and critically think about the issue on a global scale. Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘Parasite’ shook me so deeply to my core, that there were moments that had me physically shaking. There is no film in history that could possibly cover inequality and class divisions more eloquently, especially in the fine details. ‘Parasite’ not only changed history as the first non-English film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, but also on how to properly teach empathy and understanding. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this taught in social studies classes in years to come. On the other hand, Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’ couldn’t have invoked a more opposite experience to that of ‘Parasite.’ Beyond its lifelessly depressing screenplay and incoherent direction, which constructed an overall messy and futile message, it was the ignorance in the details that showed how unqualified Phillips was to be covering such a heavy topic. 


To dive deeper into how these two films differed so drastically in how they covered socio-economic equality and class, I will discuss a specific detail from each film that I believe epitomized each director’s ability to empathize with the topic. Considering each director’s ability to empathize properly is essential to better understanding their moral judgement, and the potential impact their film could have on driving change or countering it. 


Let’s start with ‘Joker’, the story of the iconic American comic-book villain and his passage towards his evil demise. Along this journey, we follow Arthur Fleck (aka Joker), a socially outcasted man who suffers from a mental illness. Above all, Arthur is poor and his struggling financial status further exacerbates the problems he is facing in his life. The way in which Arthur’s identity is represented lays the foundation for the key issues with ‘Joker’. From start to finish, the overall impression is that the viewer should feel pity and despair for Arthur, as if he ‘did not deserve’ the circumstances that shaped his life and ultimately led to his violence; as if his actions to act out violently were justified. Of course, no one deserves harsh circumstances in life, but it is how Arthur is placed in the context of society, specifically pertaining to class inequality and race, that raises moral inconsistencies in his position and of Todd  Phillip’s judgement. 


Building off of this idea of ‘deserved and not deserved’, we can observe a silent, yet key detail of the film, cohering to the choices of who Arthur kills, why he kills them, and how the film portrays the victims’ deaths. By paying attention to the details, we can see that Arthur chooses to kill two types of people: white men that are in a higher social or economic class than him and black women that are at the same economic standing as him. The New York Times article, The Real Threat of ‘Joker’ is Hiding in Plain Sight, also noticed this detail, noting that these killings create the sense that Arthur kills white men because he cannot access their status and that he kills black women because they are below him and he can assert power over them. Pushing further, it is also key to analyze how Phillips’ chooses to display these violent scenes - killing the white men in a dramatic and violent fashion, while killing the black women silently, not even showing them on screen. This creates the sense that the killings of the white men are significant, because they hold power in society. In turn, it creates the sense the killings of the black women are insignificant, unworthy of the screen time. 


Overall, Phillips’ moral judgement and inability to empathize / reflect on experiences of socio-economic inequality, class, and racial disparities in America is dangerous due to the influence that is left on the audience. Whether the viewer realizes it or not, particularly if they are not self-aware of their racial or class privilege, they may be unconsciously asking questions such as: 1.) Are we supposed to feel bad for Arthur because he cannot obtain the same socio-economic status as the rich white men or men that make fun of him? 2.) Are we supposed to feel bad for Arthur because he holds the same socio-economic status as black women? Through ‘Joker’ Phillips displays his moral judgement of what Arthur deserves as a white man. By portraying the killings of the white men in a visually shocking manner, he empowers Arthur’s character because he believes that Arthur should be in the same socio-economic position as the men he kills. The killing of the black women is portrayed silently and non visualized, because Phillips does view them as of equal significance in their racial, social, and economic status to the white men. The fact that Phillips does not show their deaths on screen also distances Arthur’s character from them, deflecting focus from his responsibility for them. Just as white people in America have deflected responsibility for the injustices against black people throughout history and present day. This does not challenge assumptions, force people to check their privilege, or promote change. It promotes arrogant privilege and poor moral judgement.


While it is in the granular details that Phillips exposes his irresponsibility to cover socio-economic inequality and class divisions in ‘Joker’, it is in the soft spoken details of ‘Parasite’ that director Bong Joon-Ho does quite the opposite. In his genre-bending tragicomedy, Bong critically examines systematic class divisions in which people of lower socio-economic status are unable to break free from their forced reliance on the rich and powerful. Taking place in Seoul, South Korea, ‘Parasite’ follows the Kim’s, a poor family that slowly manipulates their way into job opportunities working for a very wealthy family, the Parks. The film uses comedy to ease the audience into the characters’ lives, but as the plot thickens, viewers are whipped on an emotional rollercoaster. The film exposes the reality of living in a world intrinsically designed to harm the most vulnerable and the heartbreaking sacrifices that must be made to get by and survive.


While there are plenty of masterfully thought-out details planted throughout ‘Parasite’, one of the final scenes of the film particularly displays how immense disparity can exist in everyday situations. When the Park family decides to return home early from their camping trip due to the sudden rain storm, the young son is devastated. To appease their son, the Parks allow him to sleep in the tent in the comfort of their backyard, as the pouring rain continues to fall. When the father asks, “Will the tent leak?”, the mother replies, “We ordered it from the U.S. It will be fine.” As they sleep on the couch, able to keep an eye on their son through their massively gorgeous window into the backyard, there is not a worry that crosses their mind. 


Meanwhile, the Kim family lay quietly - tucked under the coffee table, holding their breaths after the previous fiasco that ensued. As they lay motionless, they overhear Mr. Park talking to his wife about how Mr. Kim stays in his place as a submissive, lower position than himself. Then Mr. Park switches gears, discussing that the smell of Mr. Kim crosses a line, describing his disgust with the smell as an old radish, the scent of boiling a rag - the scent of people on the subway. Silently listening to this rich, powerful man discuss his repulsion, as his two children lay listening alongside him, Mr. Kim gently lifts up his shirt to sniff himself. After being humiliated, the Kims finally find their chance to escape from their hiding spot, returning home to find that their basement apartment (called Banjiha in Korean)  has been completely flooded by the sudden rainstorm - their home destroyed. With nothing left to salvage, they spend the night sleeping in a school gymnasium with the hundreds of other poor families affected.


Through these scenes, viewers are fully immersed - laying right beside the Kims underneath the table. The pain and embarrassment leaves one feeling as if they are in a room full of people, screaming at the top of their lungs, yet no one hears them; they are invisible. At the same time, as the Park son sleeps comfortably in his tent as the rain falls down, the Kims lose everything to their name. Bong’s use of the details of the Park son’s tent and Mr. Kim’s scent manifests in the larger experience of what it means to exist on the side of inequality that lacks resources. He displays how harshly an impact can be felt based on one’s resources, how something as simple as smell can cement one to their social status, and how those on the more privileged end of inequality are able to pick and choose what they decide to see and what they choose to ignore of those below them. As viewers, we watch as the Parks pity the Kims with detest, without ever making an effort to know them, or even care to know them.


In order to understand the full scope of disparity that exists between the Kims and the Parks, one must be able to experience both sides of the perspective. While the film is mainly focused on the Kims, the majority of the film takes place in the Parks’ home - where the viewers are able to get to know the family through the Kims’ eyes while also experiencing the Parks’ evolving perception of the Kims. This allows viewers to develop a deep sense of empathy of the experience of the Kims, but also an intricate understanding of what the Park family is unable to see or empathize with themselves; thus, forcing audiences to examine their own assumptions and privilege. Bong’s moral judgement shows that it is only in understanding both sides that one can see the true disparities that exist between the classes. He also shows that these disparities are massive of course, but are also often rocked by the slightest changes in day-to-day life, and the finest details in each individual existence. 


As each of us consider our position in society and examine our outlook on the world, we can look to these two films and their directors. They shed light on why it is so important to be attentive to the details, attentive to who is shaping the narrative of the stories that appear on screen; the stories that have the power to influence millions of people. Are those that are calling the shots checking their privilege, challenging their assumptions, and empathizing with the subjects at the heart of their story? Do they recognize their position and are they mindful of their moral judgement? Of their power? Are we as individuals, as societies, able to grow from the messages? 

Spanish Version coming soon...

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