George Orwell’s seminal 1945 novel Animal Farm contained many memorable lines, but one stands out among all the others:
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Orwell’s key concept in that line, equality, is one that is on more people’s minds now than at any time in recent history. Though Animal Farm itself was an allegorical story reflecting the Russian Revolution of 1917, the pages echo similar struggles faced by modern Americans. Inequality – economic inequality, specifically – has become an overbearing and dominant topic in the public sphere.
Prior to the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, income inequality was a topic of discussion relegated to small circles. But with the rise of Occupy Wall Street, and the hammering of the “99% versus the 1%” mantra into the public psyche, the masses are more aware of economic turmoil now than at any time in the recent past.
Though largely ignored at first, Occupy Wall Street – which took root in the literal shadows of the world’s mightiest financial institutions in downtown Manhattan – has made inequality and economic distress a known issue to business leaders and politicians. Some have responded. Others have ignored it. But the anger of the middle and lower classes is being felt, as we’re seeing with the rise of some surprising faces in the race for the presidency.
So, how does Jacob Kornbluth enter the picture? He fits the profile of an Occupy protester, but he’s proven to be much more than that; he’s an award-winning film director, who has inadvertently become an invaluable chess piece in the fight to end economic disparity. Kornbluth is the director of Inequality For All, a film he made with political economist and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. The film digs deep into the inequality puzzle, and follows Reich as he addresses the roots of the worsening inequality crisis, and discusses potential solutions.
Kornbluth was kind enough to have a lengthy discussion with The Cheat Sheet, detailing his ascent from a rural, poor town in Michigan to becoming an award-winning filmmaker – sharing the red carpet with his partner in crime, Robert Reich, and famous faces like Aaron Sorkin.
Here’s what he had to say.
(Very) Humble Beginnings
The Cheat Sheet: Where are you from, and what were you circumstances like growing up?
Jacob Kornbluth: I was born in New York City to two public school teachers – relatively broke and unemployed school teachers. I lived in a neighborhood called Washington Heights in New York City, which is above Harlem, and at the time was one of the main entry points for crack cocaine and break-dancing in America. My father had a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and brain damaged when I was 6, and he died when I was 11. Somewhere in the middle there, we moved to rural Michigan, where my mom was from.
So, we went from the inner-city to a small farm town in rural Michigan. My mom didn’t really go back to work, she was a substitute teacher. We lived on this small farm in this small town where she had grown up, and we didn’t have much money. We lived in the Rust Belt, in Ottawa Lake, Michigan. Some people had some jobs in auto plants in Toledo and Detroit, and some people were farmers. My graduating class from high school had 44 kids.
As far as I know, I was the only one out of my graduating class who went to a four-year college, at least right away. But I went to Michigan State – I was a National Merit finalist, and got a scholarship. Then, my mom passed away when I was 18. So, I grew up without much, in sort of rough urban and rural areas, and then, at 18, being an orphan.
TCS: Where did you go to school, and how did they ultimately determine your path?
Kornbluth: I graduated summa cum laude, but I had virtually no job skills. I hadn’t even thought about work. I hadn’t grown up in a family that had prepared me in any way for getting a job. I had a difficult time. I thought I was going to write a novel – I had big aspirations, but no way to make money. I had always been an achiever academically, but didn’t have the financial skills to make it in the world.
I was very attuned to this difference. I felt that I had the brains “to hang,” but didn’t have the resources. I felt that I could get in the door, but couldn’t achieve.
When I got out of school, I found that this story of who has what, who’s making the money, and where it’s going, and the advantages that accrue to people who have money was something I really thought about. But I was also not very motivated to be political.
I wanted to tell stories – that was always my way to cope with this stuff.
Kornblluth (center), with Robert Redford (left), and his brother | Gabe Palacio/ImageDirect/Getty Images
TCS: What happened after you left college?
Kornbluth: It’s kind of funny – when I got out of school, I ended up driving west, just sort of flailing around and looking for a job. After not having a job for months, and almost running out of money, I applied to Double Rainbow, the ice cream company, to be an ice cream scooper. I was a valedictorian, and summa cum laude at Michigan State, and I went into the interview and the guy told me I “wasn’t Double Rainbow material.”
At the time, I thought it was funny, but pretty depressing.
I had studied interpersonal communications, which, to me, looks at the way people lie. I suppose if you’re an angry kid, and you feel that people are full of shit, that this would be a good thing for you to study. But it doesn’t have any practical application that I can think of – other than what I turned it into, which was becoming a film maker.
Check out the trailer for Inequality For All:
Meeting Robert Reich, and Launching a Career
TCS: How did you parlay your early frustrations into a successful career in film?
Kornbluth: I wound up getting a job as a P.A. in the film industry. I took a look around at the film industry, and saw other people that seemed to me, in some way, unemployable in straight jobs, and here was a way they could make a living. So, it felt like I had found my tribe on film sets.
I shot up pretty quickly, and ended up making my first film (Haiku Tunnel) – it came out on September 11, 2001. I was 28 years old, and they said it was the worst day to release a film since Pearl Harbor was attacked. That film premiered at Sundance, and that landed me on some other films, so I kind of bounced around.
I didn’t really find my footing in the Hollywood world, and ended up meeting my future wife in northern California, and left L.A., where I had been living, and drove up to leave the film industry to reinvent myself. I ended up meeting Robert Reich, who also lives in Berkeley, and we got along instantly. His son runs College Humor, and he told Robert that people weren’t reading books anymore. And that if he wanted to reach young people, video was the way to do it.
So, I found him at this perfect time, when he was looking for a way to get into video, and I was looking for a way to change my trajectory.
Kornbluth (right) and Robert Reich | Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
“We don’t need everybody to wind up with the same amount of stuff. We want an economic system that incentivizes people to take risks, innovate, and achieve. You want to have rewards for that.”
TCS: So, you and Reich set out to tackle inequality?
Kornbluth: We made some short videos, which I posted to YouTube, and the first few got hundreds of thousands of views. I remember thinking “Oh, my God” – I had no idea there would be an audience for this stuff. These videos were useful for people. People needed a way not only to consume the news, but to understand it. My whole life – when I had become aware of economic inequality, and after the crash in 2008, all my friends were worried about their futures and the economy. I kept watching the news and felt that the more I watched, the less I understood.
I found that the story of my life had been this winding, economic divide between what’s now called the “99%” and the 1%, and I wanted to turn it into a movie. But it was a tough sell. How do you make a movie about the economy? It was a hard sell.
Reich has a great sense of humor… and I thought that if I could make a movie with his personality, and that was about the economy. That combination, at least in my mind, would be a unique mixture and be entertaining.
TCS: How did you meet Robert Reich? How does somebody build that relationship?
Kornbluth: My brother Josh and I were trying to make an indie comedy, and we wanted him to play the role of a high-ranking government official. So, we wrote him, and asked. He was curious enough to entertain the idea, and when he and I started discussing the project, I had this feeling that something I said must have caught his attention.
By the end of the meeting, I think he had a sense that he and I could work together.
TCS: How did you develop your filmmaking skills?
Kornbluth: I used to read a lot, thinking that writing books would be my profession. But every time I tried, I got to 120 pages and stopped. It was frustrating. Somebody told me that screenplays were about 120 pages, and that maybe I should try that instead.
In my twenties, I started seeing some of the indie art-house movies … I remember thinking, “Oh my God, there’s so much you can do with movies.” It was like a revelation to me at the time. I thought that it was the storytelling medium of our time. And if you want to be a story teller, visual storytelling is how it happened. When I figured out that I wanted to do it (make movies), I fell into it full-throttle. I watched movies constantly.
I would watch movies two times in a row to see the choices directors were making, and read books about them. Then it became about learning each little piece of it.
From the Screen to the Streets
TCS: What is your take on inequality? Do you think people want handouts, or is more about opportunity?
Kornbluth: Oh yeah, there’s this basic notion that we want equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. We don’t need everybody to wind up with the same amount of stuff. We want an economic system that incentivizes people to take risks, innovate, and achieve. You want to have rewards for that.
But I feel that people think the opportunities are rigged – like, they think that they just want a shot. My mom used to tell me, “You gotta figure out a way to get into the room, they’re not letting you into the room.” That was basically her metaphor for being in rural Michigan – you gotta go somewhere, and get in the room. We were locked out, opportunity-wise.
When people criticize the movement, they sort of say that we want everyone to end up the same. I don’t think anybody … wants this equality of outcome. We just want to make sure that everybody has a shot to make the most of themselves.
Watch one of Kornbluth’s short videos, made with Robert Reich, above.
TCS: Inequality is a hot topic on a national level now, and people are clearly angry. Why is it coming to a head now?
Kornbluth: I think if you chart the historical direction – there’s been this widening economic inequality for the past 40 years – what you would say if you didn’t know anything about it, is that you probably see populist anger on both the destructive side, and the populist reform side. You see a group looking to scapegoat, and looking for someone to blame it on, and you see a group that is passionately driven to reform the system.
Historically, there are examples of similar times. You could see it in America, during the populist era around 1900, you could see it in the movement around The New Deal in the 1930s, and earlier that was the Jacksonian era of the 1830s, where the same thing was happening. I’m generally optimistic that this will work out in a positive way, but there are scary moments, obviously.
TCS: What can the average person do to actually help, given the current economic conditions?
Kornbluth: Vote. But don’t just vote. We get into this habit of, once every four years, pressing a button and feeling like you’ve done something. I feel that the problem has become so extreme that we need a movement of people to rise up and make the political class hear their concerns. Give an hour or two a week, in perpetuity, toward a movement for change. I think now is the time – I hope people take the energy they’re feeling, and channel it toward building a movement.
I absolutely think the biggest challenge to changing things is the fact that so many people feel like the game is rigged, so many people are angry, that if they all knew that everybody else felt the same way they do, they would stand up an do something about it. But everybody’s sitting in their houses, not doing anything.
If we can get over that (cynicism), then we can do something about it.
“We just want to make sure that everybody has a shot.”