Our kind of people -- or maybe not

Documentary began with the basics

September 23, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Start simple.

That's the strategy Peabody Award-winning filmmakers Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker say they used to capture one of the most elusive concepts and least understood realities in our lives: social class in America.

"That was our challenge: to figure out how you get Americans to confront an issue that a lot of people don't have anything to say about -- or, at least, think they don't have anything to say about," Alvarez said in a telephone interview last week.

"At first, we didn't really know what to do at all. Then we said, 'Let's do the incredibly basic thing of cutting out some pictures from magazines, putting them on a black background, taking them out on the street and asking people about them.' And it worked so well it became the very first thing you see in the film," said Kolker, referring to the opening of People Like Us: Social Class in America, the groundbreaking documentary that premieres tonight at 9 on PBS.

It's a wise opening, elegant in its simplicity and instantly making the point that we do have very definite ideas on social class and do categorize people often in highly negative ways on the basis on them. It's typical of the sure-handed, straightforward and totally engaging method of storytelling here.

The very first thing we see in the film is a snapshot of an older man in plaid Bermuda shorts and a white T-shirt standing in front of a screen door. As the photograph fills the screen, we hear man-and-woman-on-the-street voices saying, "He looks lower-class, definitely. ... Blue-collar, yeah, the plaid shorts. ... Lower-middle-class. Something about the screen door behind him. ... Pitiful. Lower class?"

The pattern is repeated with a snapshot of a man and a woman of about the same age. The man is in a polo shirt and slacks, while the woman is wearing a simple black dress and pearls. The voices identify them as "upper-class," making up narratives about their affluent and successful lives.

"And it illustrated a point that we always felt," Alvarez said. "You know, everybody always says, 'Oh, class is the great taboo that nobody wants to talk about in America.' Well, that's true on a certain level. But, also, contrariwise, everybody has a real well-developed sense of social class. It's like a social antenna. In our proposal [seeking funding] for the film, we call it the Edith Wharton Effect. It's the idea, you know, that you can walk into a group of people and kind of instantly figure out if you belong there."

Belonging in Baltimore

Alvarez said that's especially true in Baltimore -- a city featured in the film.

"Are they from South Baltimore? Are they from the county? What part of the county are they from? People have a pretty good sense about that, and that, of course, flies in the face of the idea that there is no class system," he said.

While the two-hour film takes viewers from Santa Monica and Beverly Hills to Appalachia, the Hamptons and Burlington, Vt., Kolker and Alvarez single out a scene near the end that takes place in a corner tavern in East Baltimore as one of the most important. It features a group of patronizing young suburbanites on a self-described "dive-bar crawl."

"I don't think there's another scene in the film where you actually see two classes interacting," Alvarez said.

"We had tried throughout our research to find some point of confluence where classes actually mixed in a kind of meaningful way," Kolker added.

"And it just shows to go you that, first of all, we didn't find it except in that one scene in Baltimore. And, second of all, it shows you what a segregated society we are by class. If there is one salient point -- you know, when people say, 'Well what'd you learn from this show?' -- that would probably be it.

"We are so segregated. Obviously by race, but we know about that. We are segregated by class even within races and ethnic groups," Kolker concluded, referring to another segment of the film, titled "Bourgeois Blues," set in Charlotte, N.C., that deals in-depth with intense social stratification within the African-American community.

Evenhandedness

In the end, perhaps, the greatest victory of the film is its even-handedness in dealing with a topic jam-packed with value judgments that are taught to us from childhood.

"That was another great challenge; we did not want to appear to be judgmental. We did not want to kind of do exactly what many people do when they talk about class, which is to essentially create a hierarchy," Kolker said.

"As proud as we are of the film, I think the most interesting thing is what happens when people turn the film off -- the discussions that ensue," Alvarez said.

"We found that with test screenings that people start talking about, you know, 'Oh, yeah, my wife's family,' and there's this big split in class. Or, 'I remember growing up and not having as much as the kids down the street, and this brought that back to me. ...'

"I think it's one of these things where, after you watch this show, whatever you think, you're never, ever going to say that America's a classless society."

" We are segregated by class even within races and ethnic groups."

Andrew Kolker,

filmmaker

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