With all that's happening in Washington and Iraq, a muckraking film about Wal-Mart can seem like an arbitrary diversion. Although it doesn't have the airport paperback sex appeal of Scooter, the blond spy and the war, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price really points to crucial discussions this country ought to be having. In an alternate history of this period, the overriding discussion might have concerned the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor and the evolution of America into a country that, in John Edwards' formulation, values wealth over work. With this Wal-Mart movie, however, the badly neglected topics of penurious wages, middle-class decline and access to health care may once again emerge as politically potent issues.
The film's producer is Robert Greenwald, a pugnacious sort who gives television interviews with his glasses perched up on his bald pate. An old television hand, Greenwald has lately created a cottage industry of advocacy filmmaking with grassroots distribution. His last two films, Uncovered: The War on Iraq and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, were emergency films made at a time when the Bush administration and a compliant media seemed to have an iron grip on American political discourse. (The Independent Weekly and the Institute for Southern Studies co-sponsored screenings of both films.)
Greenwald's new film, on the other hand, emerged from a homelier inspiration. A neighbor told him that he'd been hired at Wal-Mart, but when Greenwald congratulated him on the job and remarked that he would be getting health insurance, the man demurred. The coverage was too expensive, he said, but the managers were helping employees fill out public assistance applications. Greenwald was shocked, and he had an idea for a new film.
Although Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price hasn't been available for review outside of New York and Los Angeles, media reports describe a wide-ranging film that makes full use of a healthy, $1.8 million budget. Described in Salon.com as "grimly mesmerizing," the film introduces us to a repentant former Wal-Mart insider named Weldon Nicholson who describes his 17 years with the company, traveling across the country and purging employees suspected of harboring union sympathies. Nicholson also provides firsthand testimony to the variety of abuses committed in the name of everyday low prices.
In another of the film's major segments, Greenwald's crew travels to China for a firsthand look at the source of all those cheap consumer goods. While Asian sweatshops are common knowledge, Greenwald finds fresh and appalling evidence of the realities of a hyper-efficient global marketplace. According to one reviewer, Greenwald presents factory workers toiling in 19th-century style peonage, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for 30 to 40 cents an hour.
Wal-Mart is a big, fat punching bag, and lately the corporation has shed its homespun Arkansan demeanor for something more up-to-date: a "war room" staffed by veterans of recent presidential campaigns--Democrat and Republican. Spin and public relations are the newest additions to the Wal-Mart arsenal, and in their preemptive attacks on the film, the flacks have already given Greenwald the gift of massive free publicity.
The film has also spurred High Expectations Week Nov. 13-19, with articles about Wal-Mart in a number of local and national magazines and organizing by local and national groups. For more information, go to walmartwatch.com/november.
The Independent Weekly and the Institute for Southern Studies, and a number of other local organizations, are sponsoring showings next week of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.
The list of community screenings was still evolving at press time, but to find out where they are, go online to www.walmartmovie.com. DVD copies of the film also may be purchased at the site.