Morgan Spurlock rose to international fame in Super Size Me (2004) when he used himself as a research subject to chow down for breakfast, lunch and dinner on “supersize portions” at McDonalds in a marathon of calorically indulgent eating. During the process Spurlock fashioned his body into a toxic biohazard. After one month of greasy Mc-oversizing, he proved the medical hazards of such an intake of poisonous fare. His systemic overloading on fats, salt and sugar compromised the health of his kidneys, liver and heart and his weight gain laced with nights of acid reflux and intense heartburn solidified how fast food chains outsourced bad nutrition and obesity while emphasizing low cost.
The film successfully grossed millions with a huge profit margin and vaulted Spurlock into the hero heaven of vegans and health food mavens. Meanwhile, a shamed McDonalds pulled its “supersize program” and brought in “healthier” menus with salad sides and meals, and thoughtful “trimmings” on burgers. And as a documentarian, actor, producer, writer and filmmaker, Spurlock’s entertaining and revelatory approach reshaped the tenor of documentaries by spinning a novel, investigative method, moving from outside critic to inside ethnographer whose chronicle as a consumer couldn’t be easily dismissed.
Though the fast food chains had been put on notice immediately after the film’s release and mega publicity, to what extent did they maintain their “good behavior” providing healthier fare years later? Indeed, after the shock of Spurlock’s doctor’s dire warnings about his ill health faded from the public’s memory, could they be lured back to fried, greasy, salty, burgers, chicken sandwiches and fries?
Spurlock discovered they could in his sequel Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! in which he chronicles his own launch into fast food and agribusiness poultry farming. As a result of a proposition by Hardees to make an advertisement using his credibility and authenticity showcasing the supposed “healthiness” of its menu, he decided it was time to revisit the new “trends” morphing the fast food industry. Once again, taking an ethnographer participant’s approach after research, expert consultations and the input of the public, Spurlock created his farm to fast food table chicken pop-up restaurant in Columbus, Ohio where his Holy Chicken! joint rose like a phoenix from an old Wendy’s.
Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! is Spurlock’s amazing journey through poultry farming right up to the psychological approach of designing a chicken sandwich and “healthy,” relaxing setting in which to eat it. When it comes to the insidiousness and cruelty (toward farmers and chickens) of what Spurlock refers to as the “Big Chicken Mafia,” and the obsessive intensity of the fast food industry to brainwash and lure its customers, Spurlock reveals how the public is gamed, bamboozled, duped and mollified into believing agribusiness and the fast food industries have their best interests at heart. By assuming the role of the insider, Spurlock becomes privy to most everything we need to know to “open our eyes” when we make food selections from their raw forms in grocery stores (branding, i.e. organic, free range, etc., is an extreme exaggeration) to their crispy chicken (never say fried-it’s anathema) and painted on grill marks in fast food restaurants.
Some of what Spurlock entertainingly and wryly unloads on the viewer they are probably familiar with. Fast food menus have been made to appear sleek, chic, “organic,” healthy, fresh, but are actually filled with the same old malign items despite the kale most probably grown with pesticides and herbicides. With his innocent, frank and humorous delivery that he has honed to precision, he lightly excoriates how “branding” and “labeling” provide a “halo of health” effect which of course is a sham.
For example what is fresh, organic, natural regarding veggies? Were these items bagged from California days ago or fresh picked from the farm that morning and raised without pesticides and herbicides? Are pictures of salads, veggies and fruits come-ons to convince us we are eating healthy food as we by-pass them for the greasy, fat-filled burgers and fried chicken? Are wooden laminate floors and green decor appointments suggestive of fresh, natural settings decrying the artificial? Yes! The industry has staged every element of delivery down to their brown napkins and bags and paper straws.
When Spurlock in the interest of sampling the competition’s chicken sandwiches (chicken sandwiches-best sellers, have overtaken burgers as healthier offerings in the public mind) he visits McDonalds, Burger King, et. al, to try out their chickeny fare. His epithet descriptors are humorous and of course, the taste is no different than what he remembers from thirteen years ago. As for sampling and examining the best-selling chicken sandwich in the US market today offered at Chick-fil-a? He discovers their advertised “seasoned to perfection” deliciousness is not because of the chicken, but because of the extensive “flavor enhancer” otherwise known as the devastatingly poisonous MSG. So he and the experts he has taken along on their sampling travels to see how they can beat the competition vow that to succeed, he should be as authentic farm to table as possible, minus the MSG.
The most upsetting segment in the documentary underscored ironically by melodic classical music involves Morganic Fresh Farms in Alabama. Spurlock takes us on his adventures finding, purchasing and raising his chickens which begin as adorable hatchlings under the auspices of independent farmer and mentor Johnathan Buttram. It is then that he rips the veil to expose the noxious, controlling practices of “Big Chicken” integrators (Tyson Foods, Perdue, Koch Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms) who turn their farmers into sharecroppers as they “tow the poverty line” eventually bankrupting them or driving them out of business if they become rebellious. The integrators use a genocidally counterproductive “tournament system” that pits farmer against farmer for the “love of “big brother chicken” to enhance their profits while squeezing their farmers by forcing them to make unnecessary upgrades.
Spurlock’s interviews with some of the farmers who are at their wits end and emotionally devastated at the stress of having to increase their purchases and indebtedness to “big brother chicken” integrators, tell a tale akin to “slavery,” in a job that requires farmers never take rests or vacations but are on call almost 24/7. On strict orders not to talk to reporters to tell them of their plight or they will be blackballed, the farmers take a great risk to get the information to the public in Spurlock’s film. Indeed, Spurlock who makes Jonathan Buttram his hero farmer, indicates by the close of the film (2016) “big brother chicken” integrators refused to give Buttram more chickens to grow because of his revelations about the industry. To “big brother chicken” integrators the truth is punishable by elimination. Vladimir Putin and other autocrats do no less. Reprehensible!
Indeed, if “big brother chicken” truly cared about the public as their friendly advertisements and chicken lobbyist Tom Super suggest, they would open their doors to their growing houses. But they can’t because if the public knew how the chickens were overcrowded and abused, they would be appalled and boycott “big brother chicken,” who refuses to change its profitable practices. For example Spurlock chronicles how the broiler chickens used in fast food and for sale in grocery stores have been genetically modified to grow in hyperdrive over a six week period so they weigh six pounds by the end of their lives. If a baby grew as fast proportionately, it would weigh 650 pounds.
Talk about genetic overload, the chickens are so obscenely big breasted top heavy, they can have hip joint breakage and necrosis and a myriad of other disgusting diseases if their immune systems are not functioning properly. However, even the healthier ones die of heart attacks before the six weeks are up because they are too heavy to stand for longer than 5 seconds let alone run around and get exercise. Their heart muscle gives out because genetically they are conditioned to grow too quickly for their heart to accommodate them. When Spurlock takes some of his heart attacked chickens to the vet who autopsies them, the vet pronounces that this is what happens to these chickens whose meat is otherwise healthy.
Humanely, Spurlock allows his chickens more space to run around where to make money to survive, his friend and mentor from whom he purchased his chicks, Buttram, like other farmers are forced to pack in their chickens for profitability. If they can’t move? Well, a hazard the integrators promote. Spurlock saves the one God-growing chicken not genetically modified to hyperdrive growth that he kept with the other big breasted chickens to show as a comparison. The God-growing chicken runs so fast, they can barely catch him. Of course, he is smaller, healthy and not in a chronically somnambulant feed overdose!
Spurlock’s film is fascinating and sardonic not only for what he reveals, but for the authentic and honest approach he takes insuring the credibility and reliability of his chicken sandwich product. On the walls of his pop-up Holy Chicken!, he exposes every shoddy practice that the fast food industry and he himself used down to the painting of grill marks on his crispy “grilled” chicken sandwich. And he identifies, to the dismay of his patrons, the big breasted hyperdrive grown chickens he grew on his farm. He also includes a drawing of Johnathan Buttram with the admonition “know your farmer” and a description of the sharecropper system that farmers are forced to use if they would be poultry growers.
The opening day patrons of Holy Chicken! paid for a delicious chicken sandwich which by the time they finished reading all of the information on the walls and the menu, they were appalled to have eaten. One patron commented about the clever ironies of the restaurant ,and Spurlock affirmed speaking into the camera to both industries that he hopes to put himself and them out of business with increased public awareness that they are being “taken for a ride.”
Supersize Me 2: Holy Chicken! is a must-see for a laugh and a tear. It was featured a few years ago at the Toronto Film Festival and then was pulled for #MeToo reasons against Spurlock who made an Al Franken move and apologized for his behavior then was bashed again and again for it. The inability of women to discern when they should forgive those who admit fault and apologize instead of beating them forever, bodes badly for the movement. Kirsten Gillibrand’s insistence that Franken fall on his own sword and resign from the senate while the occupant of the White House and his friend Jeffrey Epstein and Justice Kavanaugh had done far worse than Franken, reveals the movement needs to step back and examine itself for inequitable judgment and cowardice for not going after those who need to be called down in the face of overwhelming evidence. #MeToo needs to embrace the men who apologize, make amends and change, not flagellate them in a misguided fashion while NOT ADMONISHING RELENTLESSLY the true rapists, misogynists and sexual predators in high places who smile in the shadows of their lying denials.
Thankfully, Spurlock’s film finally will do the good that it was intended to do, receiving a release date the week of 6 September 2019. Don’t miss it! If you can’t wait, it is also online.