Movie Review: Class Divide

HBO's Class Divide screening and Q&A event with producer Credit: Dionne Nicole Smith

HBO’s Class Divide screening and Q&A event with producer Daphne Pinkerson and one of the film’s subjects Hyisheem Calier at the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago, IL. Photo credit: Dionne Nicole Smith

One of the most blatant and unacknowledged problems facing my hometown of Chicago is gentrification. I’ve seen ethnic and low-income neighborhoods slowly and rapidly turn into hot spots for the privileged and higher earning folks, who are mostly – let’s face it – white people. It “betters” communities and then pushes people out of their homes in order to cater to people who can earn and spend more. While the improvements come with less crime and other positive attributes, it also is sometimes at the cost of culture and what makes that neighborhood unique and special to a certain community.

In the new HBO documentary, Class Divide, director Marc Levin and producer Daphne Pinkerson explore the widening inequality gap between the wealthy and poor in West Chelsea, a neighborhood in New York City. Centering on the perspective of the young people in neighborhood from both sides of this deep economic divide, the documentary offers thought-provoking and fascinating insight on what it means to have it all or nothing at all in a constantly evolving place like New York City.

One of the first people we meet is Rosa, a precocious eight-year-old who lives in the Elliott-Chelsea housing projects. She admires Beyoncé, isn’t afraid to speak her mind – and makes sure you know that – and dreams of going to a school like the one across the street. Said school is Avenues: The World School, an elite private school that opened in 2012. The kids who go there have parents who are part of New York’s 1%, and with a tuition of $40,000 per year, that comes as no surprise. What does come as a surprise is that in a community where the unemployment rate is at 50%, a school such as this one is nestled so close to low-income housing. Like one Elliott-Chelsea housing resident says it’s “like a tease and a smack in the face.”

It’s an awkward and unfair situation for the young people who live in the projects and even for the students who go to Avenues. The documentary talks to both groups of kids for their perspectives on how their two vastly different worlds are separated by one street. For the Avenues students, there is a lot of guilt accompanying their feelings, which frankly acknowledges their privilege. For the young people of Elliott-Chelsea, there are everyday struggles, maybe a little resentment, but also a ton of hope that life can improve for them. Class Divide doubles down on these perspectives, showing that in many ways the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but then again, sometimes it is.

The film backs up their interviews with facts and even gives us background on Chelsea’s biggest attraction, and pretty much the catalyst on the neighborhood’s gentrification problem: The High Line. However, in the end, this is very much a human story, and the kids of this film from both sides of the divide make an impression, whether you can directly relate to them or not. As Rosa says, “My family is poor because we live in the projects. I don’t have what I want, necessarily, but I do have people that I love.”

Even as both groups of kids make their way into their future, there is hope that they can integrate and do it together. Class Divide shines an important light on our country’s gentrification problem, but also pushes forward the necessity of integration in order to accomplish a better, more diverse and fairer future.

Class Divide debuts on Monday, October 3rd at 8pm EST on HBO.

Gabrielle is 27 years old and lives in Chicago. She enjoys writing about film, TV, and books, but occasionally writes about music as well. In addition to writing for, she also the editor-in-chief and a co-founder. In her spare time, she’s either watching more movies and shows or reading more books, while continuously checking Twitter, which she may or may not be addicted to… Feel free to email her your thoughts, ideas and questions.

    Did you think this film pushed forward the necessity of integration? This film seemed to be simply a compare/contrast documentary. But the comparison was not
    even apples to apples. On the public housing side, they
    interviewed entire families and dug into many complexities of their
    lives. On the Avenues School side, they mostly focused on the teen aged
    students, and their fancy toys at school. There was no clear thesis. Class Divide
    made no political statements and alluded to no solutions. It missed
    so many opportunities by touching on some tiny bit of a story
    (immigration status, public education, union organizing, suicide and
    race to name just a few).
    Other than documenting the history of the
    neighborhood, there was no socio-political context for WHY this extreme
    gentrification is so persistent. Without an advocacy slant, it the film
    almost seems to be saying “Yup! This is how it is and that’s that. But,
    look! The low-income people are gonna be okay because their families are
    so tight and happy to just have each other. And the young wealthy kids
    know they have to carry the ‘burden’ of their guilt as they navigate a future that is *slightly* less secure than their parents.”

    • BabalooMandel

      Sounds like my kind of documentary.