Dollars and Incensed

Capital in the Twenty-First Century Should Get You Mad


Covering the history of wealth and power inside of two hours, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is like injecting upsetting nonfiction heroin into your eyeball.

Clearly, if America needs anything right now, it’s more stuff to be mad at and worried about!

If you’ve finished the appetizer that is our ongoing pandemic and would like a side of economic injustice to go with the entrée of racial inequity America is maybe/kinda/sorta ready to finally eat, chow down on Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The new doc takes Thomas Piketty’s book about the history of global wealth and power, boils it in a cinematic spoon, and injects it straight into your eyeballs. It does not feel good! But feeling good is so “pre-2016” anyway.

Director Justin Pemberton’s documentary is, by and large, yet another salad of talking head interviews drizzled with the dressing of kitschy pop songs, “provocative” clip montages, and more information than any human can hope to hold in their head for longer than a few hours. It’s almost as though books were invented for a reason…

That said, if you’ve got a notepad, you can jot down some perfect anecdotes to dispute bullshit arguments about how taxation represents unfair wealth redistribution and how social mobility is still a thing. Some of the experts really “get it,” when it comes to presentation in a film. Instead of opining with the same droll oration as would be expected at an academic conference panel, a few smarty-pantses downright captivate.

British professor Kate Williams, wearing a splash of vibrant red and poised in front of a window with smoke billowing behind her, intones like some kind of wildly magical history sorceress. She describes the dominance of the aristocracy with a narrative flair that feels like Galadriel recounting how Sauron lost his jewelry. For his part, psychology and social behavior professor Paul Piff uses an experiment with the board game Monopoly to show that the privilege associated with inherited wealth rots people’s souls.

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For those who keep even fleetingly abreast of inequity, none of this is particularly new. Rich people have always exploited the system, save for maybe a fleeting moment in the 1950s, which is when all of our elected leaders were raised. This is why they believe in a hunky-dory, googly-eyed version of capitalism that existed for like five minutes when it was okay to nickname a child “The Beaver.” However, if you haven’t been swigging what Bernie Sanders has been pouring, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is probably a better primer on economic issues than, say, browsing Twitter.

The biggest hole in the film is a failure to fully, deeply explore racial issues tied to capitalistic inequality. Including a Black economist, historian, or sociologist would seem to be appropriate, given how explicitly race and class are tied together. It’s hard to cover the entirety of the concept of wealth in under two hours, but that probably deserved more screen time than a montage set to Lourde’s “Royals.”

Ultimately, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an effectively enraging distillation of complex economic jibber jabber that can only help further educate us rubes as we continue our somewhat voluntary exploitation. Are we having fun yet?!

Grade = B+


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