Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Big Scary "S" Word (2020) Film Review
The Big Scary "S" Word
Reviewed by: Jane Fae
The Big Scary “S” Word is a worthy but frustrating poke at the role of socialism in US politics. It starts from the fact that a recent survey shows a majority of Americans now claiming to be socialist or in some sense pro-socialist. It goes on to the way in which politicians on the Right are keen to use socialism as a slur with which to beat any opponent even slightly to the left of where they believe the US consensus to sit. And it includes a bit of vox pop from folks declaiming that Socialism is un-American.
Then there is some analysis and a lot of examples of how, despite the rejection of an official Socialist party at the polls, American history is a patchwork of all manner of socialist initiatives.
But whether it is Theodore Roosevelt coming up with an agenda to the left of Bernie Sanders, or workers co-ops, or public works schemes under the New Deal, it is badged as reform, support for the common people, or just good common sense. Anything, so long as it is not seen as socialist.
The problem is, as those who are actual socialists, or who understand the socialist analysis, are concerned: the real issues are systemic. Put in place a great initiative today, tomorrow, next year and big business will push back. It will keep pushing, until the good that was done is undone. So why bother in the first place?
The short answer is, unless you change the system, there is little point in putting in place any positive, progressive initiatives. As documentaries go, this is interesting enough. It reminds us that the US is, deep down, much more radical than its popular reputation suggests. It highlights the ways in which individuals have tried to make a difference, as well as how business fought back. There is also, in its “Socialism v Capitalism 101” opener an interesting divergence from what might be expected in a more Euro-centric work.
That is the focus on capitalism as being based on ownership of land and property (as opposed to quite the focus on labour and surplus value more traditional socialist narratives follow). A sign, perhaps that US socialism owes rather more to Henry George in its evolution than to Karl Marx. So, all in all, a worthy film, an interesting film, from director Yael Bridge, who has a long track record of making films about the left and has garnered two award nominations along the way for same. Also, though, pretty toothless. A little like the book on which it is likely based: The “S” Word, by John Nichols.
Nichols pops up throughout the film to critique US answers to various issues, calling for more radicalism, more systemic thinking. Yet in the end, his own analysis is pretty much a pick’n’mix approach to reform: a bit socialist, a bit libertarian. Covid makes an appearance. As does climate change. Overall, though, it is more pink, from a European perspective, than red. As for red in tooth and claw? You must be joking.
So, for me, a double disappointment. The political analysis is messy, mushy, soft. Pretty much what you would expect from a US analysis of socialism. It also fails to provide all that much insight into why socialism has not cut through in the USA. McCarthyism? Tick. The Cold War? Tick.
But is that it? I can’t help feeling there ought to be more.Reviewed on: 30 Oct 2020