There is no time like the present to make an impassioned plea to erase the misperceptions and forgive the misunderstandings surrounding socialism, an apparently nebulous but really quite straightforward economic model. The basis of understanding it should be simple: Under its tenets, the workers own the business they create and the wealth they accrue. Somehow, history has pockmarked the model and the attendant political movements it has inspired, and so here is The Big Scary ‘S’ Word to provide that impassioned plea of reclaimed understanding. There is nothing particularly special about director Yael Bridge’s documentary, except that it strives to put a human face on the word.

Bridge’s scope is expansive, taking us back to the earliest days of what one might call a “workforce” to show us that the first civilizations only became capitalist with the introduction of (to put it bluntly) greed into the mix. What were once landless groupings of workers who all considered each other equally became hierarchies when accumulated food or currency found itself in the possession of one man in the makeshift village. One can draw a straight line from such a system to the feudalism of later periods, then to the slave trade that dominated so much of semi-modern history, and now to the economy that favors the wealthy above the laborer.

The argument made by the interview subjects — ranging from prominent philosophy professor Cornel West to historian Eric Foner, whose primary area of study has been the early history of the Republican Party in the United States — is in favor of socialism, which would (theoretically, in the case of the currently capitalist America) return the wealth to the workers who technically earn it. That’s a noble argument, indeed, and through tireless historical anecdotes, the film certainly makes it with a level of passion that is to be commended. Still, these anecdotes are well-known and commonly provided, and through no fault of its own, the film has been let down by its makers, who simply reiterate these points.

The film is at its best in those times when it does manage to put its arguments into a specific context, rather than a broad one. We meet people whose lives might be made better by a fairer attitude toward their labor, their livelihood and their pursuit of happiness as citizens of this country. Stephanie Price is a full-time teacher and single mother, whose struggle to put food on the table and to provide school supplies has led her to getting a second job. Lee Carter was a rideshare driver with Lyft until a horrible injury left him with months of recovery to regain the ability to walk. Price played a part in a statewide strike when teachers across Oklahoma became fed up with their situation. Carter ran against an incumbent Republican challenger and won — on a directly socialist platform, no less.

Unintentionally, the documentary exposes the problem of actively attempting to implement socialism as an economic model in a country that, by and large, will not accept it with the outcomes of these stories: Price’s fight for funding ends when the strikes do so prematurely, and Carter’s tenure in his position flails when Republicans refuse to pass any of the bills he proposes. It comes, says one interview subject, from a Cold War sensibility of equating “socialist” with “totalitarian.” Perhaps one day the understanding will be widespread, but until then, all the The Big Scary ‘S’ Word can do is bleat feebly into the wind with banal arguments, nonspecific examples and artless style.

Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

The film is let down by its makers, who simply reiterate the same talking points.
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