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2020 Milwaukee Film Festival: “AMERICA’S SOCIALIST EXPERIMENT”

Posted on Oct 28, 2020 by | 0 comments

America's Socialist Experiment

AMERICA’S SOCIALIST EXPERIMENT is a film about Milwaukee political history. Or, to paraphrase Alice Cooper, did you know that Milwaukee had three Socialist mayors? It’s one of the features of the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival and certainly belongs in the Cream City Cinema program.

Directed by Milwaukee documentary filmmaker Steve Boettcher and narrated by stalwart Wisconsin reporter Mike Gousha, AMERICA’S SOCIALIST EXPERIMENT is a quick look at a period of political history that was unique to Milwaukee. There’s a lot of talking heads here, political commentator Charlie Sykes, Milwaukee historian John Gurda, former MLB commissioner Bud Selig, relatives and friends of the families of the Socialist mayors, and former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist among them, but no real axes to grind. It’s basically your standard PBS special.

That’s no surprise. One of the things that everyone seems to agree upon is that Milwaukee’s Socialist mayors weren’t radical firebrands trying to take over private industry but a bunch of boring, good government types. They had more practical objectives. Clean up Milwaukee’s rivers and streams through a robust sewer program. Inoculate people against diseases. Enact a Worker’s Compensation law. Build parks and reclaim the lakefront from rich landowners. Work to raise wages of the working people and give them some productive things to do in their time off involving the arts, parks, etc. And do it all without a hint of corruption and within an efficient balanced budget approach.

It hardly sounds radical today when we take a lot of these things for granted. That makes AMERICA’S SOCIALIST EXPERIMENT both informative and relevant. Still, like Milwaukee’s Socialist mayors, the program doesn’t generate much excitement. There’s little focus on what went wrong. The Garden Homes experiment gets little play. And you won’t know that such a thing as redlining was present in Milwaukee just based on this program. At times you’d think that all social ills were expunged under Socialist mayors, and we know that isn’t true.

AMERICA’S SOCIALIST EXPERIMENT ends up playing it pretty safe. It’s a good introduction to the history, but it seldom dives very deep. Perhaps because it’s clearly made for PBS, it aims for the non-confrontational middle, for better or worse.

AMERICA’S SOCIALIST EXPERIMENT is streaming throughout the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival which runs from October 15 to 29, 2020. Tickets to individual films and passes to the festival as a whole can be purchased via Milwaukee Film.

Robert Reineke
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