Tuesday, August 03, 2021

"Super-size Me 2: Holy Chicken": review

2016's "Super-size Me 2: Holy Chicken" once again features Morgan Spurlock (who made "Super-size Me" in 2004) on a tear. This time, instead of experimenting on himself, he tackles a particular aspect of fast food: chicken sandwiches. In this documentary, Spurlock has several goals: (1) to become a chicken farmer, (2) to start a fast-food restaurant of his own, and (3) to learn more about the chicken business in general. The whole process is fairly enlightening.

Spurlock is not deaf to the irony that his previous documentary pointed an accusatory finger at the fast-food industry, and now he's joining the industry's ranks by creating a chain of his own. He embraces this seeming contradiction because, as we see toward the end of the film, his fast-food place is devoted to exposing the psychological tricks used by the massive chicken industry to get you to believe you're eating a healthier alternative to regular burgers. The walls of his restaurant are covered with words describing how chickens are actually raised, what passes for "free range," how Big Chicken (like Big Tobacco, Big Oil, and Big Pharma) exploits chicken farmers by forcing farm-equipment upgrades that keep farmers in perpetual debt, and what physical techniques are used inside a restaurant to convince you that what you're eating is somehow the real deal (e.g., painting grill marks onto pieces of fried chicken to make you think the chicken has actually been grilled). Spurlock names his fast-food chain "Holy Chicken!" His restaurant even has a dispenser of "holy water."

We learn that Big Chicken is controlled by five conglomerates: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride, Sanderson Farms, Koch Foods, and Perdue Farms. These major players have little interest in the welfare of small, struggling chicken farms, and even less interest in the actual welfare of those farmers' chickens. At one point in the film, a memo from Big Chicken is sent out to alert people that Morgan Spurlock the filmmaker is going around asking probing questions, which prompts Spurlock to wonder what it is these powers have to hide.

Spurlock bills his fast-food experience as "authentic," but he's not using this word in a conventional way. He's not claiming that his chicken sandwiches feature all-natural, healthy ingredients (and he spends a lot of time telling us why those terms are always misleading). He means "authentic" in the sense that his restaurant is devoted to telling you the truth about the chicken industry. We see scene after scene of people reading the words printed on the walls, cups, and other containers of Holy Chicken! and reacting with varying degrees of amusement, revulsion, and even veiled anger as they realize the extent to which they've been had.

All in all, I found "Super-size Me 2: Holy Chicken" to be educational, as well as a defense of the little guy—the hard-working chicken farmers who are squeezed by Big Chicken and living lives of hardship and perpetual debt. What I find interesting, though, seeing this film in 2021 and not back in 2016 when it came out, is how little seems to have changed in fast food.

And this brings up a thought: I remember watching a reality-TV show that followed Jamie Oliver to the supposedly "unhealthiest" city in America: Huntington, West Virginia. Oliver's mission: to get the citizens of Huntington to care about what they eat. At one point during the series, Oliver shows a bunch of schoolkids how a chicken nugget is made, from stem to stern. The process is disgusting, involving the leftover parts of the chicken, but Oliver shapes everything into legitimate nuggets, fries them up, and asks the kids whether they want to eat them. To Oliver's shock, the kids all cheerfully raise their hands, ready to eat some fresh nuggets. The lesson I took from that moment can be applied to Spurlock's film: even if a crusader brings us, the public, the truth (well, some argue that Oliver's show engaged in a lot of trickery to make a very biased point), there's no guarantee that anyone will actually care. Given how nothing seems to have changed in the fast-food industry since 2016, I suspect that Spurlock and his film are having very little impact on the public consciousness. 

That said, go into "Super-size Me 2" knowing that Spurlock, like Jamie Oliver, has his biases, but he's exposing shady practices and, at least arguably, standing up for the little guy. I think this documentary will appeal to traditional liberals who take a dim view of corporations and how they seem to stultify and ruin everything, but it will also appeal to today's post-Trump conservatives who also take a dim view of corporations these days (albeit for different reasons) and favor the smaller farmers over the corporate behemoths.

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