Did you know that Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx had a correspondence; that Helen Keller was a socialist, as was Francis Bellamy, who authored the Pledge of Allegiance; that North Dakota practices public banking; and that in the 1840s in Ripon, Wisconsin, socialists founded the Republican Party?
The information above and much more is offered in a stimulating new documentary currently on the festival circuit, The Big Scary “S” Word, which ends with a young participant at a political conference declaring in revelation, “Together we can accomplish anything.” The 88-minute film, directed by Yael Bridge, dashes through an overview of socialism in American history, the wreck of capitalism, and the current rise in socialism as a political movement. The ambitious film leaves sympathetic viewers reinforced and hopeful.
The title, “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word,” is ever so gently tongue-in-cheek, like a title for a children’s story. We go into it knowing the “S” word won’t really be so scary in the end. The film works ably to make the case that socialism is not at odds with democracy or being American, and argues that the values and goals of socialism, and the word itself, have long been a part of American life.
The film also suggests that capitalism is not a given economic system for the United States, and that capitalism is ultimately a destructive force for humans and the planet. A short section on worker-owned cooperatives offers a counterpoint and an example of socialism in action. That’s a lot on the less-than-an-hour-and-a-half-plate of this documentary.
The Big Scary “S” Word moves quickly and engagingly, interspersing lots of archival photographs and films with interviews, recent television clips, and even animated artwork.
No single narrator tells the story, but a host of notable scholars and politicians add persuasive commentary. The filmmaker culls from these interviews to weave together the script that ranges all the way from the pre-agriculture era to the current COVID response.
John Nichols, author of the 2011 book The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism, provides the spine of the historical overview in the film. Some of the many other historians and scholars interviewed are Richard Wolff of the University of Massachusetts, Cornel West of Harvard University, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton University, Aims McGuiness of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (now at University of California, Santa Cruz), and Columbia University Professor Eric Foner. Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Seattle City Council’s Kshama Sawant, among others, represent voices from contemporary politics. Authors Naomi Klein and Eric Blanc add commentary, too.
Threading through the chronological review of the role socialism has played in American history are two stories of contemporary Americans in their thirties. One is Stephanie Price, an elementary school teacher and single mother in Oklahoma City who gets involved in a 2018 strike to increase school funding. Her state had made drastic cuts in education spending. She, like many teachers, uses some of her own money for classroom supplies. After costs of living, including child care, her salary barely meets her needs. So when a strike is called, she joins in. Her involvement leads her deeper into politics than she has ever before gone. She attends state legislative sessions, a socialist conference, and then runs for—and wins—office in her teachers’ union. Stephanie challenges stereotypes about who might be a socialist. Her story also reinforces the idea that Americans under forty are generally less tainted with fear of the “S” word than older folks.
The other main character is Lee J. Carter, a Democratic Representative in the Virginia House of Delegates who identifies as a socialist. When we first meet him, Carter, in his thirties, a former Marine, is a Lyft driver supplementing his income. He explains that after a work-related injury, the inadequacy of the worker’s compensation system motivated him to get involved with politics. He’s an excellent narrator for the film, because we follow him for over a year after he’s elected. Through his eyes we get a view into how his efforts to craft and pass legislation designed to help people are stymied by the influence of corporate lobbyists. In one example, Carter presents and then loses a bill to protect workers from being fired if after an injury they file for worker’s compensation. Despite these obstacles, Carter continues in politics, wins re-election, stays positive, and serves as a role model for his generation.
You might want to have yourself an at-home Yael Bridge fest. The Big Scary “S” Word’s director and producer, Yael Bridge, also produced the documentary Saving Capitalism (2017), available on Netflix, which follows economist and author Robert Reich on his book/lecture tour around the United States. Another interesting documentary she produced, Left on Purpose (2015), available on Amazon Prime, follows a filmmaker’s relationship with his subject, former Yippie activist Mayer Vishner, who makes clear that he wants to commit suicide.
This reviewer hopes The Big Scary “S” Word will find distribution, be made widely accessible, and get super popular by word of mouth. Even better would be if this 88-minute film serves as an introduction to a series with many episodes, so that the topics covered can more completely be explored, explained, and defended.
Overall, The Big Scary “S” Word carries a lot of weight in its scope and promise, and reminds me of the book from the 1930s, The Little Engine that Could. A small train carrying goods for children gets help from another small train to climb a high hill after more powerful trains refuse her, and she forges on over like a champion, famously chanting “I think I can.”
Audrey Wells, a former longtime resident of Urbana-Champaign, is a retired educator and freelance writer.