Despite sporting very different styles, a pair of HBO documentaries on successive nights each advocate strongly on issues related to inequality. First up, Vice tags along with President Obama on an unprecedented trip to a federal prison by a sitting president, in “Fixing the System,” connecting mass incarceration rates to civil unrest in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore; and Alexandra Pelosi leaves a lot more than her heart in “San Francisco 2.0,” exploring how Silicon Valley tech money is driving lower-class residents out of neighborhoods. Viewed together, they make for a pretty potent one-two punch.
Reported and directed by Vice honcho Shane Smith (hey, rank has its privileges), this “Vice Special Report” does a commendable job of taking the 2.2 million people shoehorned into “disastrously overcrowded” prisons and connecting that back to inequities within the justice system, specifically in its disproportionate incarceration rates for young minority men. Smith then visits with family members on the outside as well as inmates, reflecting the ripple-like effects of jailing so many citizens.
“Nobody ever lost an election because they were too tough on crime,” says Obama, although the argument for reform is perhaps best articulated by his former Attorney General, Eric Holder and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Lest anyone think this is strictly a liberal issue, Smith also talks to conservatives pressing for prison reform, among them Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
Frankly, the showiest part of the special, Obama’s trip to El Reno Prison in Oklahoma, is perhaps the least interesting. Still, it clearly served a purpose in shining a light on the need for reform, although the impediments to undoing the policies of the 1980s and ’90s — including mandatory minimum sentences — remain formidable.
Pelosi, not surprisingly, brings a much lighter touch to her latest film, but it’s still one of her finest recent endeavors, perhaps because the subject matter strikes so close to home for the San Francisco native. Cheekily using a clip from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to herald the “techie invasion,” she proceeds to chronicle how the infusion of wealth related to tech startups is fostering “a new kind of segregation between rich and poor,” as developers eager to cash in on this California gold rush price longtime residents out of their neighborhoods.
Pelosi links what’s happening in the Bay Area — where she cites an “eviction epidemic,” often due to expansion plans, not failure to pay — to the larger issue of income inequality, with former Clinton administration official and Berkeley professor Robert Reich calling San Francisco a microcosm of income inequality. And while one can see that as a standard progressive rant, Pelosi identifies the irony in a city as famously liberal as her hometown becoming the poster child for that disparity.
To her credit, the filmmaker resists the temptation to turn the nouveau riche into a punch line, portraying the ostentatious, perk-laden aspects of their lifestyles as the dark side of progress, even as she incorporates voices of civic leaders and residents to lament what’s happening, all in a rather remarkably compact 40-minute package.
If there’s a principal difference between the two projects, it’s a matter of tone: “Fixing the System,” as the title implies, is essentially a call to action, and at least offers a ray of hope in that regard. “San Francisco 2.0” presents some furtive steps to push back against the invasive reboot, but to quote the movie that opens the film, “They’re here already!”