Socialism doc ‘The Big Scary “S” Word’ an overly simplistic primer

The flawed film is unlikely to sway opinions

Brad Keefe
“The Big Scary ‘S’ Word”

The word “socialism” has long been a convenient bogeyman for politicians on the right.

I’ve always loved the irony of Republicans who appeal to their older voters by vowing to fight socialism while simultaneously promising they’ll protect Medicare and Social Security benefits. Tell me you don’t understand socialism without telling me you don’t understand socialism.

Conversely, young people in the United States have increasingly favorable views of socialism.

The documentary “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” will probably not do much to close this generational gap. It serves as an often overly simplistic primer on socialist movements in the U.S., a bit of Socialism 101 that seems too geared toward preaching to the choir.

The movie’s title comes from an interview with Lee Carter, a then-member of the Virginia House of Delegates who was elected as a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. He shares a campaign flyer from his opponent that shows Carter’s face next to Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and other famous socialists and communists.

“It’s from another era entirely,” Carter says. “I was born in ’87. I don’t remember the Berlin wall falling, so the ‘red scare’ — anybody who uses the big scary ‘s’ word is automatically Stalin — it just doesn’t work anymore.”

In the world of this documentary, this is true.

Director Yael Bridge incorporates interviews (some original, some stock) with some big names in the modern movement: Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cornel West and Naomi Klein, among others. More compelling are the interviews with everyday people, as well as the case the film builds that we as a society need to seriously consider new perspectives on growing issues of economic inequality.

“S Word” is meant to be a primer that destigmatizes socialist ideas, and it’s effective in that regard. It also runs a brisk 82 minutes and features some compelling visualizations for a low-budget doc with Kickstarter support.

But the film runs the risk of oversimplifying solutions by showing small-scale examples of socialist principles at work, not to mention the challenges of real life. After all, there are real dangers to embracing a magic-wand approach that pretends replacing flawed systems is easy work that can be done overnight.

Not mentioned in the documentary but worth noting: Lee Carter ran a long-shot campaign in the Virginia gubernatorial primary. He got 3 percent of the vote... and also lost his primary to hold his seat in the House of Delegates. (His resulting Twitter tantrum is a great example of what not to do when you’re trying to build coalitions for change.)

The audience for this documentary will find it affirms their beliefs. The question is, how many minds will it actually change.

“The Big Scary ‘S’ Word”

Now playing at the Gateway Film Center and on-demand

2 stars out of 5