Bright Lights Film Journal

Divide(d) and Conquer(ed): Notes on Income Inequality in Late-20th- and Early-21st-Century Cinema

Eddie Murphy in Trading Places

“As the divide between rich and poor became more extreme, late 20th-century cinema required a new approach to achieve the same end: portraying the existence of the wealthy elite as a social necessity.”

A bout of nostalgia prompted a re-watching of late ’70s and early-to-mid ’80s films that were staples of my youth. While I missed it as a child, I was struck by a common theme that’s largely absent from 21st-century American cinema: income inequality and class divide.

Many late-20th-century films reflect concerns about the great divergence – a period of socioeconomic change that saw the divide between the rich and poor grow as America’s post-WWII economic boom began to fade. The retreat of progressive tax policies, increasingly rapacious behavior by corporations and financial institutions, powerful unions and health and retirement benefits coupled with technological change threatened the American dream, with the ensuing struggles.

America’s socioeconomic divide has worsened. The gap between the rich and poor is greater than ever, yet class struggle is seemingly absent from 21st-century films.


In both periods, the underlying aim was to perpetuate America’s income divide. Twentieth-century films achieved this by reinforcing the idea of social mobility and thwarting collective action by fostering a sense of apathy toward inequality. As the divide between rich and poor became more extreme, late 20th-century cinema required a new approach to achieve the same end: portraying the existence of the wealthy elite as a social necessity.

We will examine this though five films: Breaking Away, Goonies, Trading Places, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man.

Late-20th-Century Films

In Breaking Away, a group of working-class high school graduates known as the “cutters” struggles to envision a sustainable future as they have frequent run-ins with affluent university students. In Goonies, a group of friends embark on a wild adventure to find One Eyed Willie’s treasure in hopes that it will save their homes from foreclosure as a country club looks to expand. In Trading Places, a commodities broker and a street hustler endure a role reversal orchestrated by two brothers over a one-dollar bet.

Each is built on conflict between rich and poor; the poor assume their perennial role as underdogs and the rich as villains. Breaking Away and Goonies play out against the suburban sprawl of Levittown houses; the villains threaten to undermine the middle-class dream of bright green lawns and white picket fences. By contrast, Trading Places plays out in the heart of the city where big decisions are made – the rich’s territory.

These are Hollywood films; the underdogs win.

Breaking Away ends with a bicycle race in which the cutters beat the university students. Afterwards Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) decides to pursue higher education at the university. Goonies culminates in the discovery of One-Eyed Willie’s treasure, enabling the goonies’ parents to avoid foreclosure on their homes. At the end of Trading Places, Louis Winthrop (Dan Aykroyd) and Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) strike it rich while bankrupting the Duke Brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) in the soft commodities exchange.

Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places

Although the underdogs win, these films perpetuate the income divide in two ways: by reinforcing the dubious idea of social mobility and by creating apathy toward inequality.

Climbing the Social Ladder

Dennis Christopher in Breaking Away

In all three cases the underclass prevails, with the main characters maintaining or improving their positions in society. Dave Stoller goes to university, the goonies’ families get to keep their houses, and Billy Ray Valentine goes from rags to riches. The underlying message is that social mobility is possible. The subtext, however, is that it won’t be easy. In Goonies and Trading Places, social mobility follows far-fetched circumstances – finding a treasure and becoming part of a bizarre social experiment, respectively. Only in Breaking Away – whose tagline is “The movie that tells you exactly what you can do with your high school diploma!” – does change come through hard work. But even Breaking Away shows the limits of social change; only one of the four cutters climbs the social ladder.

Presenting audiences with tales of social mobility against a backdrop of class divide instills the idea that hard work pays off. The message: the viewer too can climb the social ladder.

The Narcotizing Dysfunction

These films also perpetuate inequality through the narcotizing dysfunction, Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton’s theory that as mass media inundates people with news about an issue they become apathetic to it, substituting action on that issue for knowing about it.

Using class divide and income inequality as a common theme brought society to accept inequality as the new norm. Public discourse went from “we should do something about this” to “that’s just the way things are”; people became apathetic.

Twenty-First-Century Films

As a smaller portion of America’s wealthy came to control a larger portion of wealth, a new approach to justify the divide emerged in 21st-century film: portraying the rich as selfless do-gooders that keep society glued together. Superhero films, namely the Batman and Iron Man franchises, best convey this idea.

In The Dark Night, billionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) saves Gotham city from the wrath of the Joker (Heath Ledger) as he attempts to end the caped crusader’s fight against crime. In Iron Man, billionaire playboy Tony Stark/Iron Man stops Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) from selling weapons to a group of Afghani terrorists.

Christian Bale and Morgan Freeman in The Dark Knight

Both films portray the rich as heroes who maintain peace in a corrupt, crime-ridden world at their own expense. Batman acts anonymously, as does Iron Man (for most of the first installment), carrying out altruistic crime-fighting operations as they attempt to crush personal demons. The elite use their hard-earned financial resources for the greater good and ask nothing in return.

As Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) says in The Dark Knight: “When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city, and it wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.”

In reality that one man is the one percent.

The Sinew of Society

Two things stand out in The Dark Knight: the antagonist and the Batman impersonators.

The Joker is a faceless villain; he could be anyone. We don’t learn his identity, but one thing is certain: he’s a member of the underclass. Throughout the film the Joker attempts to distort public perception of Batman. Just as society often blames the rich and powerful for the world’s problems, the Joker aims to make Batman (the rich) look like the cause of Gotham’s problems. As viewers we’re meant to sympathize with Batman; what a burden he carries and how little appreciation he gets.

The Scarecrow

Separately, in an early scene Batman saves a group of Batman impersonators from the Scarecrow in a fight in a parking garage. Here the underclass attempted to fill the do-gooder role and failed. Once again Batman (the rich) came to the rescue, saving the underclass from itself.

Together these scenes send a clear message: we need the rich; without them society would fall apart.

An Unstoppable Force

In Iron Man, Tony Stark becomes a do-gooder after being wounded by one of Stark Industries’ missiles in Afghanistan. Stark halts the manufacture of weapons at Stark Industries, but long-time business partner Obadiah Stane believes this could ruin the company and continues selling weapons on the sly. The film culminates in a battle between Stark and Stane; Stane dies.

The message is twofold: the rich are self-regulating and can be counted on to do the right thing; the rich are a force to be reckoned with.

Early on, while introducing Stark Industries’ Freedom Line, Tony Stark says: “A wise man once asked, ‘Is it better to be feared or respected?’ I say, is it too much to ask for both?”

At this point the question is, are the rich even asking anymore?

The Means of Production

Access to the means of production and distribution allows the wealthy to shape the message that cinema delivers.

In the 20th century, access to these means was limited. In most cases, only the elite could gather the resources necessary to make and distribute a film. The underlying message was crafted by the people it was meant to serve.

By contrast, the 21st century saw the decentralization of production and distribution as affordable consumer-grade filmmaking equipment and web-based distribution options emerged. In theory, this should have yielded more films that critique the prevailing hierarchy. It hasn’t.

DIY filmmaking

There are two reasons: a large part of society is so far gone that people have either come to accept the income divide or grown tired of the fight (apathy); the decentralization of production and distribution has seen the proliferation of so much content that only the elite – those with financial resources – have the means to penetrate the noise.

The Chains of Capitalism

Cinema perpetuates the income divide by shaping public perception. The absence of class divide in 21st-century film that struck me upon re-watching late-20th-century films is explained by a shift in tactics; the elite are using new and different means for the same end.

There are, of course, counter-examples. Kelly Reichart’s Wendy & Lucy, for instance, is a fantastic 21st-century film that touches on the inequality issue. Yet films like this are few and far between and often don’t reach the greater public, who would rather be distracted from income inequality than reminded of it.

As Kim Jong Il, former North Korean leader and master propagandist, said in On the Art of Cinema: “In capitalist society the director is shackled by the reactionary government policy of commercializing the cinema and by the capitalists’ money, so that he is a mere worker who obeys the will of the film-making industrialists whether he likes it or not.”

Perhaps this is one occasion “the Supreme Leader” wasn’t far off the mark.