Viewers of the World, Unite!
As its popularity soars, socialism’s secret sauce is explored in this never pedantic, feel-good movie manifesto that will make you want to own the means of production.
Director/producer Yael Bridge’s stand up and cheer The Big Scary “S” Word is one of 2020’s do-not-miss films and deserves a Best Documentary Academy Award nomination. As a producer, Bridge was Emmy co-nominated for the 2017 nonfiction film Saving Capitalism featuring former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Bridge’s latest work moves further left, asserting that instead of rescuing the capitalist system, it should be replaced by – as Warren Beatty put it in the 1998 movie Bulworth – “that dirty word… socialism!”
Her upbeat documentary drolly opens with a montage of blue collar and other workers trying to define what socialism is, as the song “Get Happy”, with the lyrics “Shout Hallelujah… Get ready for the Judgment Day,” plays. The Big Scary “S” Word explains why and how socialism became such a bugaboo and taboo term in the lexicon of America’s public discourse, and notorious redbaiters such as Senator Joe McCarthy, HUAC, Reagan, Pence and Trump are glimpsed. CNN recently profiled Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a card carrying, dues paying member of Democratic Socialists of America in an hour-long program and never once asked AOC about socialism. (See: No Socialism, Please!: CNN Gives AOC the Corporate Media Treatment – Hollywood Progressive)
But Bridge dares go where MSM hacks fear to go. And without getting bogged down in doctrinaire nitpicking and infighting, Bridge’s film explains the basics of this widely misunderstood philosophy, as well as socialism’s history, primarily in the USA.
It does so not only through the tried-and-true talking head technique with an array of original interviews, intercut with archival footage and news clips, which are cinematic standards for documentaries. But Bridge also creatively uses some animation (by Phlea TV) and more importantly dramatizes class struggle, putting human faces on ordinary working class people who become socialists.
The Big Scary “S” Word does so by following Stephanie Price, a woman of color and single mom, who is a beleaguered public school Oklahoma teacher. As the documentary unfolds Stephanie grows, and throughout the film she is shown participating in a teachers’ strike, attending sessions at the state capitol building in Oklahoma City in the gallery with hundreds of fellow educators, going to a socialist conference and running for and becoming her local union’s vice president.
Another everyday adherent to the gospel of socialism is ex-Marine Lee Carter, an IT specialist who suffered an on-the-job injury, and after being confounded by the workmen’s compensation bureaucracy decided to seek office to right governmental wrongs. The 30-year-old redheaded veteran ran against Virginia’s Republican House Majority whip in 2017 and won that seat in the Dominion State’s House of Delegates. Carter campaigned as a Democrat and was backed by Democratic Socialists of America, which he belongs to. As an openly socialist politician, the veteran fights for pro-worker legislation – and is redbaited by colleagues, such as one Delegate who flashes a hammer and a sickle behind his back while Carter speaks during a legislative hearing. In 2019 he runs for reelection, endorsed by the individual who is arguably more responsible than anybody for making “socialism” respectable again in contemporary America, Senator Bernie Sanders, who appears onscreen at various points in historical and current clips.
In an effort to belie the stereotypes of socialism as a “foreign” ideology advocated by elite East Coast academics, the film cleverly casts the salt of the Earth Price and Carter as its proletarian protagonists. However, The Big Scary “S” Word does indeed include interviews apparently conducted specifically for this project with many of the American Left’s luminaries, including scholars. And in doing so, to Bridge’s credit, the documentary presents a range of socialist viewpoints, from social democrats to communists.
These intellectuals discuss socialism’s ethical philosophy. As venerable historian and Columbia University Professor Eric Foner notes, “Most socialists begin with a critique of inequality and the premise that this is… essential to the nature of capitalism and if you want to create more justice and more equality, you’re going to have to change the system…” Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant denounces 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 heart the ultimate expression of democracy.” (The film never addresses whether the ruling class can be removed from power via voting or if revolution is necessary.)
For those defining socialism simply as government intervention in the economy, the state-owned Bank of North Dakota is held up as an example. Worker-owned enterprises such as Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperative Laundry is examined, and workplace democracy is extolled by Marxian economist Professor Richard Wolff of New York City’s New School. When Wolff, author of 2019’s Understanding Socialism, discusses socialistic New Deal policies such as social security, unemployment insurance, minimum wage laws and jobs programs, the film drolly cuts to comedian Jimmy Durante performing in a vintage, black and white FDR-for-president campaign spot.
Contrary to the “reds-under-the-beds” propaganda that automatically links 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 socialists elected to office, notably Milwaukee’s SP mayors, the brothers Carl and Frank Zeidler (the latter’s daughter, Anita – who died at a 2018 Labor Day event – appears). Eric Foner (whose father and uncle were blacklisted for alleged Communist Party USA ties) enhances our knowledge of socialism and the USA, noting for example Marx’s correspondence with President Lincoln during the Civil War. Nichols, author of The “S” Word, A Short of History of an American Tradition… Socialism, rather remarkably claims that in 1854 theRepublican Party was begun by socialists at a Wisconsin schoolhouse (don’t tell The Donald!).
The 82-minute documentary briskly covers lots of ground: Occupy Wall Street; the pandemic (ER nurse John Pearson says “our healthcare system is not setup to provide healthcare as its primary goal, but it’s setup to make money for the industry”); Black Lives Matter protests; and what that fresh face of socialism, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, calls in an MSNBC clip “our greatest existential threat… climate change.” Author Naomi Klein and Sawant, a member of the self-described Marxist revolutionary organization Socialist Alternative, also denounce capitalism’s impact on global warming. [Plot Spoiler Alert!] The documentary ends with Lee winning a second term to Virginia’s legislature where he passes a minimum wage bill and Stephanie Price speaking at Chicago’s “Socialism 2018” conference, expressing the film’s radical credo of “collective power… together we can accomplish anything!” to a standing ovation. Bridge, who has been Director of Productions at Inequality Media for Robert Reich’s nonpartisan digital media company, has created a documentary about a profound subject that is absorbing, thought-provoking, entertaining and uplifting. By the end of The Big Scary “S” Word viewers are likely to ask themselves: Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? And: What do we workers have to lose but our chains and a world to gain?!