Reich documentary is an unforgiving look at a divided nation

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In November 2011, when Occupy Cal was at its peak, professor Robert Reich spoke to a crowd of thousands gathered on Sproul Plaza. Tensions ran high, and passions flared. Speakers took the stage, offering insight and hope, echoing the protesters’ anger.

Standing on Mario Savio Steps, Reich urged the crowd to continue the fight and to take a moral stand against the growing wealth gap in America.

“We are losing the moral foundation stone on which this country and our democracy are built,” Reich said. “The time for apathy is over.”

If Reich’s speech did not move you to abandon apathy and adopt indignation at the current state of the American political system, then his newest film, “Inequality for All,” surely will. Reich’s film, a collaboration with filmmaker and director Jacob Kornbluth, is a captivating and candid effort to explain the origins, future and criteria for solving the economic-disparity crisis that has been brewing for years.

In many ways, “Inequality for All” is a culmination of Reich’s lifelong campaign to steer the economy in a more egalitarian direction, kick big money out of politics and shrink the growing wealth gap between the richest and the poorest Americans. Reich’s film is a must-see for any person in this country who is at all interested in politics or economics and is looking for an answer to the questions, “What in the world is going on with the American political and economic systems?” and, “What will it take to fix them?”

There are few people more qualified than Reich to make a film about economic inequality. Having served as the director of the policy planning staff at the Federal Trade Commission under President Jimmy Carter and as Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, Reich has a comprehensive resume. He was a Rhodes scholar alongside Clinton, he taught at Harvard and is currently a UC Berkeley professor, teaching a class on economic inequality titled “Wealth and Poverty.”

Reich has continued a long career past his tenure in Washington, campaigning for changes to our economic system aimed at myriad goals, namely shrinking the wealth gap and moving big money out of politics. What makes Reich so credible in his film, however, is the fact that he is so clearly outraged at our political system yet so staunchly believes in the feasibility of fixing it — but “probably not anytime soon,” he told he Daily Cal via email.

Reich’s indignation is understandable, and the statistics he presents are truly shocking. “Today, the richest 400 Americans,” Reich explains, “have more wealth than the bottom 150 million of us, put together.”

Reich narrates most of the film, sometimes speaking directly to the camera, making “Inequality for All” an opportunity for the masses to virtually enroll in his class. When Reich is not speaking, he is interviewing and interacting with a wide range of Americans.

These profiles lend a face to the two sides of the wealth gap — the millions of financially troubled Americans and the 400 richest who have more wealth than the rest of the country combined.

Reich’s first characters are an unemployed father-turned-Cal-student and a mother who works at a Costco, struggling to put food on their table for their children. They have moved out of the condominium they purchased and into a friend’s home. If Reich’s arguments and assessment of our economic condition doesn’t move you, then watching a mother cry as she describes her struggle to feed her family certainly will.

Rhetoric and description can only go so far; there is no comparable replacement for placing a face to a statistic. Reich and Kornbluth know that.

But it is important to remember that “Inequality for All” is less a comprehensive analysis of our economic situation and much more of an opinion piece expressing Reich’s point of view. While all documentaries are biased in some way, Reich’s film could profit from giving some voice to what may be called “the other side of the aisle.” There is no denying that Reich is progressive and liberal-minded, but if his film is truly going to act as the definitive answer to the American economic crisis, then it should, at the very least, shed some light on another point of view.

But what Reich’s film lacks in ideological plurality it makes up for in candidness and humor. He is surprisingly hilarious — a much needed foil to the plethora of bad news Reich leaves us with. Standing at barely five feet tall, he jokes about his small stature, sometimes comparing his short height to the size of his Mini Cooper. He admits to being  picked on as a child  — an experience that encouraged him to work to protect those who are economically vulnerable and might have nobody to protect them. He is also brutally honest, and he intentionally avoids sugarcoating the severity of the crisis.

“Inequality for All” will leave you with a bittersweet taste. Reich’s assessment of the American economic crisis is severe, but his belief in his students and their potential to solve the problems is convincing and promising. Whatever the outcome of this movement may be and whatever the next hurdle our economy may face, “Inequality for All” leaves no doubt that Reich will continue to fight to remedy this crisis. Reich’s film is a good starting point for those who consider themselves “liberal” and are interested in public affairs, but it is by no means the end-all-be-all solution.