Last week’s release of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price — not, for the most part, in movie theaters, but rather in “churches, family businesses, schools, living rooms, community centers, and parking lots,” as the film’s website puts it — marks a high-water moment in leftist media-based organizing.
Director/producer Robert Greenwald adopted a similar strategy last year with his Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, but that work never scored the 7,000-plus play dates the new film claimed for its premiere week. The sort of distribution Greenwald has conceived and effected here is truly what’s revolutionary about Wal-Mart, positing a whole new way of reaching audiences. Cutting out the theater means one of two things (or, in this case, both): that sufficient theaters can’t be booked for the film to reach its intended audience, or that the film’s impact is not likely to be diminished too much by a less than full-scale setting.
A grand setting has been essential to the impact of many other politically committed documentaries. But the record-breaking commercial success of Fahrenheit 9/11, for instance, ultimately meant little in terms of its intent when George Bush took the 2004 election. And the relative success of such recent strong and progressively intended documentaries as The Weather Underground, The Corporation, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room served largely to stoke the embers of a radical movement that once seemed extinguished. These films all laid claim to greater artistic vision and aspiration than Wal-Mart, which is intended not as a film so much as an organizing tool.
There’s little point, then, in dwelling on its deficiencies as a work of even political art or propaganda: the overly cued, emotion-triggering soundtrack; the somewhat scattershot editing; the made-for-TV, attention-deficit-based attack. Greenwald talks to bitter current and ex-employees, and uses footage of corporate head Lee Scott’s speeches to represent the company’s views. There’s no interjection by a narrator, just thoughts and stories countered with Wal-Martian images — footage gathered throughout the U.S. and in other parts of the world. Wal-Mart is not a work for the ages, it’s a work for the moment. And that moment, the filmmakers hope, began last week.
There’s not much question — and many viewers won’t need this film to confirm — that Wal-Mart is a malignant force in American and world society. The list of its corporate crimes, direct and indirect, are well adumbrated by Greenwald: the devastation of downtowns and small businesses in its wake; the conscious and severe exploitation of workers (called, in language we’ve come to accept but that George Orwell might have anticipated, “associates”); the flagrant disregard of community and environmental standards and concepts; the creation and maintenance of overseas sweatshops; the economic blackmailing of American communities to give the corporation huge tax breaks; the virtually systematic discrimination against women and minorities within the company; the obscene profiteering of its corporate founders and officers; the downright pathological union-busting; the callow disregard of customers’ safety. (An opposing perspective is being shopped around in the new Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Makes Some People C-R-A-Z-Y.)
To say, as some have, that Wal-Mart “just does capitalism better” is to call for a Marxist revolution, though that is seldom the intent of those who say it. As it is, Wal-Mart functions as a perfect metaphor for the ills of capitalist and consumerist society, its unprecedented success the ironic proof, it would seem, of the system’s corruption.
Is it for better or for worse that Greenwald in no way broadens the scope of his argument to the rest of the culture of greed? The film’s sole references to other corporations are to note Bill Gates’ charitable generosity in favorable comparison to the Walton family’s astonishing stinginess, and to note the company’s superiority in growth rate to the troubled Kmart and others. Wal-Mart is intended to overthrow not an economic system but an economic emperor, and it closes with a triumphant recapitulation of the municipalities, towns, and counties that have refused to offer tax breaks or stopped stores from opening. Defeating this onerous giant can be and has been done, the video assures us, focusing on two divergent communities that succeeded — predominantly white, upper-middle-class Chandler, Ariz., and predominantly black, working-class Inglewood, Calif. — and referring us to websites dedicated to the fight.
The real reviews of Wal-Mart won’t be in ’til we find out how much its screenings eventually stop the ogre from growing. But if Wal-Mart itself is halted, won’t there be another despot in its place? What do we know of the labor and other practices of Target, Kohl’s, and all the other Wal-Mart wannabes? This video’s signature “Evil Smiley” figure, a take-off on Wal-Mart’s smiley face, is a far cry from “Workers of the world, unite!” But in fact, there’s likely more reason than ever for workers of the world to unite, since the global economy now entangles the have-nots of all nations in a worldwide web the likes of which IWW’s founders could never have imagined.
Of course, a thorough overhaul of the economic system is well beyond the apparent intent of this movie and its director, and of the working poor it champions, for whom a great victory would be gained with merely a livable wage and decent working conditions. But could these 7,000-plus screenings be the harbinger of something larger? Marx posited the inevitable downfall of capitalism, perhaps anticipating the concept of ecocide, if not foretelling immediate world history. Could it be that resistance to Wal-Mart is the first peal of a nearly inconceivably distant death knell?