Review: ‘The Big Scary ‘S’ Word’ makes a case for socialism but fails to engage

Women with baby carriages lead a protest in the  documentary “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.”
Protesters in an archival photo from the documentary “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.”
(Greenwich Entertainment)

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The “S” in Yael Bridge’s docu-essay “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” stands for “socialism,” a term that gets tossed around a lot these days, but which — according to Bridge’s film, anyway — the average American doesn’t really understand. To clarify the meaning, Bridge retells some of U.S. history from a socialist perspective, arguing that some of our widely celebrated social advances — like the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of labor — suggest that this is essentially a socialist nation.

Bridge makes a compelling case. However, when it comes to these kinds of “issue docs,” which have clear points to make about matters of public policy, the question isn’t just whether they’re persuasive but also if they’re engaging — regardless of whether the viewer is inclined to buy what the filmmaker is selling — and there, “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” doesn’t quite pass muster.

The film’s primary weakness is an overstuffed, quasi-comprehensive approach that covers a lot of ground mostly by skimming the surface. About half of the film consists of summarizing socialism’s track record as an overt political ideology in America and looking back at various organized protest movements and specific candidates for public office. Bridge peppers those stretches with commentary by intellectuals such as Cornel West and Naomi Klein and footage of political leaders including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; the filmmaker introduces some contemporary relevance by following a few people bringing the principles of collective action to today.


All these pieces are well-polished, and some deliver fascinating factoids. But the history sections, by design, zip across decades, trying to cram in so much — including, by the end, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic — that viewers might as well be reading Wikipedia pages.

The most genuinely original material here is in the modern vignettes, which spotlight an Oklahoma teacher whose union went on strike and a left-leaning Virginia veteran who wins a seat in the state legislature. These stories get crowded out by all the surrounding historical context, but they’re vital in the way they show how some socialist ideals have broad support.

Most of “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” is about the past. But like a lot of calls to action, the film is most effective when it focuses on what’s happening now.

'The Big Scary ‘S’ Word'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 3 in limited release, including Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle, Claremont; also on VOD