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Income Distribution

The Top 10 Films About Inequality

Research & Commentary
November 18, 2016


Our picks for your holiday movie viewing: a selection of recent and classic comedies, docs, dramas, and sci-fi on our economic divide.

Looking forward to settling in and watching a good movie over the holidays? Take a look at our picks for the top 10 films about inequality over the past 40 years. You’ll find here an eclectic mix of documentaries, dramas, comedies, and sci-fi flicks.

So what inequality films would make your top 10? Feel free to email us your cinematic tips at We’ll be publishing a longer list before the end of the year.

Where to Invade Next (2016)
Directed by Michael Moore51brxcml5l

With humor and wit, Moore leads us on a tour of nations that have lessons to share about how to reduce inequality and provide a dignified life for all. Stops along the way include a chat with Italian factory owners proud of their pro-labor policies and a look at Iceland, where bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crisis actually found themselves sent to the slammer, unlike their peers in the United States.

The Divide (2015)
Directed by Katharine Round

The Divide tells the story of seven individuals striving for a better life in the modern-day US and UK — where the top 0.1 percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Based on the book The Spirit Level by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, the documentary reveals how extreme divides between rich and poor impact virtually every aspect of our lives.

Pride (2014)
Directed by Matthew Warchus, featuring Bill Nighy

British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher took power in 1979 and almost immediately set about slashing taxes on the wealthy, cutting spending on social programs, and attacking the labor unions. Welsh miners would later strike to fight back, and their struggle drew support a band of gay Londoners. This uplifting and at times humorous film tells the tale of their unusual alliance.

Inequality for All (2013)
Directed by Jacob Kornbluth, featuring Robert Reich

Narrated by former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, this documentary examines the widening income inequality in the United States and explores what effects this increasing gap has not only on the U.S. economy but also American democracy. At the heart of the film is a simple question: What is a good society and what role does the widening income gap play in the deterioration of the nation’s economic health?pride

Elysium (2013)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp, featuring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster

In the year 2159, the ultra-rich live aboard a luxurious space station called Elysium, and the rest of humanity lives a hardscrabble existence in Earth’s ruins. His life hanging in the balance, a man named Max (Matt Damon) agrees to undertake a dangerous mission that could create a truly equal society, but Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) vows to preserve the pampered lifestyle of Elysium’s citizens, no matter what the cost.

The Great Gatsby (2013)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio

The economic inequality that figures so centrally in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel has inspired contemporary scholars to coin the phrase “Great Gatsby curve” to describe the relationship between inequality and intergenerational social immobility. Whether this 2013 film version does these themes justice may be debatable. But if you don’t like this cinematic take on Fitzgerald’s masterwork, you can check out the 1949 and 1974 versions.

Margin Call (2011)
Directed by J. C. Chandor, featuring Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons

The story of the beginnings of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, as seen through a 36-hour period at a large Wall Street investment bank. Jeremy Irons plays an obscenely wealthy and out of touch CEO, a character based largely on Lehman’s Dick Fuld. Told the firm is drowning in toxic mortgage-backed securities, he orders Kevin Spacey’s character to dump the junk on unsuspecting parties.

Dark Days (2000)
Directed by Marc Singer

This documentary follows a community of homeless people living in a train tunnel beneath Manhattan. The film depicts a way of life that’s unimaginable to the well-heeled New Yorkers walking the streets above.

Trading Places (1983)
Directed by John Landis, featuring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroydmv5bmtc0odg5njywnv5bml5banbnxkftztcwmdu5mzy0mq-_v1_sx640_sy720_

Upper-crust executive Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and down-and-out hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) are the unknowing victims of a cynical bet by wealthy futures brokers Mortimer (Don Ameche) and Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy). The Duke brothers frame Winthorpe for a crime he didn’t commit, then install the street-smart Valentine in his position. Winthorpe and Valentine eventually uncover the scheme and set out to turn the tables.

Harlan County USA (1976)
Directed by Barbara Kopple

This documentary focuses on labor tensions in the coal-mining industry of rural Kentucky. In 1973, after workers at the Brookside Mine form a union, the mine owners refuse to negotiate a fair contract, then hire armed goons to escort replacement scabs onto the site after workers strike, setting off a prolonged and sometimes violent conflict. This film won Kopple the Oscar for best documentary in 1977.

Other recommended flicks you might want to check out:

  • Citizen Kane (1941), the Orson Welles tale of a publishing magnate who winds up isolated on his own private mountain estate.
  • Salt of the Earth (1954), a drama about mining bosses pitting Mexican-American against their Anglo counterparts.
  • The Grapes of Wrath (1940), the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic about a family fleeing the Dust Bowl after their farm is seized by a bank.
  • Man’s Castle (1933), a Depression-era drama starring Spencer Tracy as a homeless man in New York City.
  • Gandhi (1982), a biopic about the Indian leader who stood up against British rule.
  • Catching the Sun (2015), the stories of entrepreneurs and unemployed workers seeking to capitalize on solar energy and break up the oil industry’s concentrated wealth and power.
  • Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream (2012), Alex Gibney’s look at extreme income concentration and downward mobility.
  • Snowpiercer (2013), an apocalyptic climate change thriller pitting lower-class tail section passengers against elites in the front of a train carrying the last remnants of humanity.
  • Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), Michael Moore’s exploration of corporate greed and the catastrophic effect on American lives.
  • Sullivan’s Travels (1941), a wealthy Hollywood comedy director goes undercover as a penniless man to gain insights for a serious movie about poverty.
  • The Big Short (2015), a comedy drama about a handful of wealthy traders who made a killing by betting on the housing collapse.
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