As its popularity soars, the secret sauce of socialism is explored in this never pedantic, feel-good film manifesto that will make you want to step out of the theater and own the means of production. The Perfect Movie for Labor Day weekend opens in Los Angeles.
Stand-up-and-cheer from director/producer Yael Bridge The Scary Big “S” Word is one of the must-watch movies of 2020 and deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. As a producer, Bridge was co-nominated for the Emmy for 2017 Non-Fiction Film save capitalism featuring former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. Bridge’s latest work goes more to the left, arguing that instead of saving the capitalist system it should be replaced by – as Warren Beatty put it in the 1998 film Bulworth—“that swear word… socialism!”
His upbeat documentary opens comically with a montage of blue-collar workers and other workers trying to define what socialism is, like the song “Get Happy”, with the lyrics “Shout Hallelujah…Get ready for the Judgment Day” , play. The Scary Big “S” Word explains why and how socialism has become such an inconvenient and taboo term in the lexicon of American public discourse. Notorious redbaiters such as Senator Joe McCarthy, HUAC, Reagan, Pence and Trump are spotted. CNN recently profiled Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America (as was the late Ed Asner) on an hour-long show and never asked AOC about socialism.
But Bridge dares to go where MSM hacks are afraid to go. Without getting bogged down in doctrinaire nitpicking and infighting, Bridge’s film explains the basics of this largely misunderstood philosophy, as well as the history of socialism, primarily in the United States.
It doesn’t just do this through the proven talking head technique with a series of original interviews, intercut with archival footage and news clips, which are cinematic standards for documentaries. But Bridge also creatively uses some animation (per Phlea TV) and, more importantly, dramatizes class struggle, putting human faces on ordinary working-class people becoming socialists.
The Scary Big “S” Word does so by following Stephanie Price, a woman of color and single mother, who is a teacher at a beleaguered Oklahoma public school. As the documentary unfolds, Stephanie grows up, and throughout the film she is seen participating in a teachers’ strike, attending sessions at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City in the gallery with hundreds fellow educators, go to a socialist conference and run for and become vice-president of her local union.
Another daily follower of the gospel of socialism is ex-Marine Lee Carter, an IT specialist who was injured on the job and, after being baffled by the bureaucracy of workers’ compensation, decided to seek a position to right the government’s wrongs. The 30-year-old redhead veteran ran against Republican House Majority Whip in Virginia in 2017 and won that seat in the Dominion State House of Delegates. Carter campaigned as a Democrat and was supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, to which he belongs. As an openly socialist politician, the veteran fights for pro-worker legislation and is baited by his colleagues, like a delegate throwing a hammer and sickle behind his back while Carter speaks at a legislative hearing. In 2019, he is running for re-election backed by the individual who is arguably more responsible than anyone for making “socialism” respectable again in contemporary America, Senator Bernie Sanders, who appears on screen at various moments in historical and current music videos.
In an effort to debunk stereotypes of socialism as an “alien” ideology advocated by elite East Coast academics, the film cleverly casts salt of the earth Price and Carter as its proletarian protagonists. However, The Scary Big “S” Word indeed includes interviews apparently conducted specifically for this project with many luminaries of the American left, including academics. And in doing so, to Bridge’s credit, the documentary presents a range of socialist viewpoints, from social democrats to communists.
These intellectuals discuss the ethical philosophy of socialism. As Eric Foner, venerable historian and professor at Columbia University, notes, “Most socialists start with a critique of inequality and the premise that it is…essential to the nature of capitalism and if you want to create more justice and more equality, you will have to change the system. Seattle City Councilman Kshama Sawant decries a global system where “five individuals own more wealth than 3.5 billion people.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton, “envisions socialism…as the majority of people having a democratic say and control over the direction of this country.” Madison-based journalist John Nichols echoes this sentiment: “Socialism is really at its core the ultimate expression of democracy. (The film never deals with the question of whether the ruling class can be voted out of power or whether revolution is necessary.)
For those who define socialism simply as government intervention in the economy, the public bank of North Dakota is cited as an example. Worker-owned businesses such as Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperative Laundry are examined, and workplace democracy is advocated by Marxist economist Professor Richard Wolff of the New School in New York. When Wolff, author of 2019 Understanding Socialismdiscusses socialist New Deal policies such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, minimum wage laws and employment programs, the film deftly cuts comedian Jimmy Durante performing in a vintage campaign spot, noir and white FDR-for-President.
Contrary to the “reds under the beds” propaganda that automatically ties socialism to Stalinism, Harvard professor Cornel West proclaims, “Socialism is as American as apple pie!” The documentary includes a section on Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs and elected Socialists, including SP mayors of Milwaukee, brothers Carl and Frank Zeidler (the latter’s daughter, Anita – who died at a Labor Day in 2018 – appears). Eric Foner (whose father and uncle were blacklisted for alleged ties to the American Communist Party) enriches our knowledge of socialism and the United States, noting for example Marx’s correspondence with President Lincoln during the civil war. Nicholas, author of The “S” word, a brief history of an American tradition…Socialismremarkably enough claims that in 1854 the Republican Party was created by socialists in a school in Wisconsin (don’t tell The Donald!).
The 82-minute documentary quickly covers a lot of ground: Occupy Wall Street; the pandemic (ER nurse John Pearson says “our health care system is not designed to provide health care as a primary objective, but it is designed to make money for industry”); the Black Lives Matter protests; and what this new face of socialism, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, calls in an MSNBC clip “our greatest existential threat…climate change.” Author Naomi Klein and Sawant, a member of the self-proclaimed Marxist revolutionary organization Socialist Alternative, also speak out against the impact of capitalism on global warming.
The documentary ends with Lee winning a second term in the Virginia legislature, where he passes minimum wage legislation, and Stephanie Price speaking at Chicago’s “Socialism 2018” conference, voicing the film’s radical creed. “collective power…together we can achieve anything!” to a standing ovation. Bridge, who served as production manager at Inequality Media for Robert Reich’s nonpartisan digital media company, has created a documentary on a deep subject that is absorbing, thought-provoking, entertaining and uplifting. At the end of The big scary “S” Word, viewers are likely to ask: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? And: What do we workers have to lose but our chains and a world to gain?! This is the perfect documentary to watch on Labor Day weekend!
LA viewers can unite and watch The Scary Big “S” Word at: Big Scary S Word – Laemmle.com. Director Yael Bridge is in Los Angeles for the Labor Day previews. Pre-order link: itunes, AppleTV. For more information, see: The Big Scary “S” Word (socialismmovie.com). The trailer is visible here.