Review: Film encourages civic action   
By Chuck Berg. Wed, Jun 7, 2006
LAWRENCE -- More that 300 people gathered at Liberty Hall on Monday night for a special screening of "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," Robert Greenwald's searing new documentary that asks why Wal-Mart spends so much money in TV ads trying to persuade us that it cares about its employees and our families and communities.

Building its well-argued case largely through interviews of workers, managers and businessmen, Greenwald's film cuts across traditional labor-management and political divides to ultimately exhort Americans to take positive civic action to stall Wal-Mart's economic shock-and-awe tactics.

In this David vs. Goliath tale, Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's dynamic chief executive officer, is the silver-tongued heavy. He confidently reports on Wal-Mart's dedication to its employees (or "associates"), the purported benefits accruing to communities granting Wal-Mart tax breaks, and Wal-Mart's efforts to improve the environment.

While perhaps persuasive in a TV interview or a Wal-Mart pep rally staged for stockholders, Scott comes up short as Greenwald's other sources, including workers and former Wal-Mart managers, begin to tell their own dark and disturbing stories.

Although such Wal-Mart misdeeds as wage discrimination against women and minorities have been reported in a legion of news articles, it is quite another thing to have a mother tell us that she can't afford Wal-Mart's own insurance for her family.

The directness of the film medium in putting viewers face-to-face with a small-town Republican store owner and his family forced out of business by Wal-Mart is powerful. So, too, the revelation by a former Wal-Mart manager of how he was trained to systematically shortchange workers so as to reduce the payroll. As the interviews with ordinary Americans pile up, the echo of Scott's encomiums to himself and his outfit twist slowly.

Greenwald's camera also captures some of the faces of Wal-Mart's Chinese connection. Most moving is the story of a young Chinese woman whose nonlivable wage and seven-day work week hardly match up to the specter of a mighty Chinese Dragon. Clearly, exploiting labor is a global phenomenon.

Is Greenwald's film one-sided? Yes, but so too are presidential news briefings. Indeed, spirited political discourse is the lifeblood of our democracy. On Monday, as the diverse audience spilled out from Liberty Hall onto Massachusetts Street, conversations generated by the film continued on into the night.

For that, we have Films for Action to thank, the brainchild of Tim Hjersted and Matt Toplikar, both of Lawrence. Dedicated to using film as a springboard to creating positive change at the local level, Films for Action couldn't have had a more effective debut.

Chuck Berg is a professor at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at [email protected].