‘The Big Scary ‘S’ Word’ Review: Socialism for Beginners

The word “socialism” is often used as a boogeyman to scare voters, with little or no reference to actual substance. Enter Yael Bridge’s “Big Scary ‘S’ Word,” a stuffed compendium of formulations from experts, historical precedents and just-folks testimonials. Hope is not a policy, as the saying goes, so Bridge gamely tries to provide both, fleshing out ideals with examples.

The (crowded) talking heads posit socialism as a democratic and equitable way of running our world. The touchstones include leaders such as Eugene V. Debs, the Milwaukee mayor Frank Zeidler, and yes, Bernie Sanders; as well as empowering endeavors like the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry in Cleveland, Ohio, and the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.

The film’s humble sampling of socialism on the march might be a revelation to viewers accustomed to red-baiting or egghead stereotypes. In Oklahoma, a single-mom schoolteacher joins a strike, while a socialist legislator treads a lonely path in Virginia’s fusty State Assembly, where lobbyists close ranks with well-off politicians.

But it’s just as hard to shake the struggling construction worker who opens the film: To him, it feels like there’s a war on. The man’s off-the-cuff eloquence suggests that Bridge’s dutiful approach could use the boost of companion viewing — perhaps Raoul Peck’s coruscating analysis of imperialism, “Exterminate All the Brutes.” (Cornel West does bring on some fire in declaring that capitalism’s industrial revolutions occurred alongside the labor of the enslaved and the vast displacement of Indigenous peoples.)

With its alternate ideas for addressing urgent societal and economic needs, Bridge’s educational documentary helps envision other ways of getting things done, at a time when there’s ever more that needs doing.

The Big Scary ‘S’ Word
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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