“Sadly, the American dream is dead.”
Those are the words of President Donald Trump on the campaign trail in 2015, and it’s probably one of the few statements the conservative commander-in-chief has made that progressive filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom would agree with.
“It is dead,” says the director of the vital new documentary The Great American Lie, who, as the wife of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, is also the state’s first lady — or as she prefers to be called, first partner. Shocking wealth disparity statistics abound in Jennifer Newsom’s eye-opening film, and she quickly points to one in particular: In 1940, not long after the “anything is possible” ethos of the American Dream was popularized, 90 percent of U.S. children would out-earn their parents. These days, that number’s down to around 50 percent.
“The film really is the answer to the question so many of us are asking, how did we get here?,” explains Newsom. “And its ultimate goal is to inspire us to have a conversation about who we are and what we value and then commit us to reimagining the dream, one that isn't saddled with these limited upside-down values of power only, money only, and rugged individualism, but more feminized or human values of empathy, care, collaboration and community.”
The Great American Lie is the third documentary in a “trifecta” for Newsom, who began her career as an actress with parts in Mad Men and Life before moving behind the camera. Her previous two efforts both debuted at the Sundance Film Festival: 2011’s Miss Representation looked at the underrepresentation of women in power, while 2015’s The Mask You Live In turned the lens on America’s definition of masculinity.
Newsom’s latest film was originally intended as a direct follow-up to The Mask You Live In, but evolved from another gender study to take a broader look at economic inequality and the intersection of gender, race and class as they relate to social mobility in America.
“The American Dream is out of reach for the majority of Americans,” says Newsom. “It’s as bad as it was before the Great Depression and obviously made worse by COVID-19, the way the majority of Americans are experiencing hopelessness and despair and how we've never been more divided.”
For many in underprivileged communities, the American dream is largely unobtainable. Poverty, crime and insufficient educational opportunities have plagued inner-cities since the “White Flight” exodus into the suburbs that began in the 1950s. To paraphrase Ruby De Tie, a middle school principal in Oakland — and one of a several slice-of-life subjects from around the country Newsom features in the film — how can you pull yourself up from your bootstraps when you don’t have any boots?
“My statement related to the American Dream is that we have to wake up to the fact that not everyone's born inside the ballpark, not everyone's born on first base, which was a sort of the assumption with the American Dream, that everyone had this opportunity to fulfill their potential and realize their dreams,” says Newsom. “But some people are born outside of the ballpark.”
America’s wealth gap is growing wider and wider by the year, and the figures are staggering. One statistic highlighted in the film notes that the annual bonuses handed out on Wall Street — just the bonuses — were, at $24 billion, nearly double the total amount of all income paid to American workers earning the minimum wage ($15 billion). CEOs once earned 24 times the average worker, now that figure surpasses 300.
It all adds up for a case of the rich getting richer, with the top 1 percent of earners gaining a larger share of the income, while middle-wage earners stay stagnate and lower-wage earnings decline.
It’s a crisis that Newsom traces back to President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in the ’80s, fueled by a concept of “trickle-down economics.” Says the filmmaker: “You have this intergenerational wealth where every decade, a trillion dollars is being passed down generation after generation, where you're not seeing that with middle income workers or lower income workers.”
With so Americans affected by the wealth gap — arguably upwards of 99 percent — one question becomes, why isn’t there more uproar over these disparities in 2020?
“I think it's our socialization and conditioning,” Newsom says. “You have a two-party system in America where the Republican voice is so strong. I grew up in a conservative household [and the thinking is], ‘If you are not successful, there's something wrong with you. You must be lazy. You're not working hard enough.’ And that exists today in the working class.”
Newsom also thinks Americans are being “distracted from the truth” by media organizations. “If Fox News is not speaking the truth, making this about race or dog whistle politics, instilling fear in people, they can’t think straight,” she says. “None of us can think when we're in fight or flight, living in fear and struggling ourselves. So what's happening is these folks are then blaming others or blaming people of color or women for taking jobs away from them. So then it becomes a race war, or a class war.”
As another interviewee in the film, economic advocate Saru Jayaraman points out, at least two-thirds of Americans favor a federal rise in minimum wage, but the legislators we’ve elected are not following the will of the people.
“It’s the levels and powers of lobbying, and that close proximity to government,” Newsom says. “It’s the whole power-money connection. It’s that cycle, that revolving door between politics, lobbyists and big corporations.”
Newsom is aware that, given her stature in American politics, a film — or at least a film title — like The Great American Lie could bring scrutiny to the First Family of California. But she has a very measured response.
“I think if you're a true lover and believer and patriot and you love your country, you have to speak the truth and communicate what's broken or wrong and try to fix it,” she says. “I think by ignoring the shortcomings, you're almost complicit in perpetuating inequality or inequity, and I'm such a staunch believer in America and America's potential and being this great democracy. And so for me, it was important to share. … We can be better and we need to be better.”
Newsom is hopeful we can be.
“It's really incumbent upon us, I think, to reimagine or re-envision or rewrite [the American Dream] to not be so connected to power, money, and rugged individualism. But really to expand the dream to be more about community, to be more about empathy and recognize that we're in this together. We're only as strong as our weakest link.”
The Great American Lie is now streaming.
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