Jon D. Erickson and Jacob Smith’s film Walking the Sleeping Giant, about the people and groups behind the groundswell of grassroots support for the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, is an important film for anyone who believes that on-the-street activism can affect change. It’s not even really about Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t even appear for huge swaths of the movie. It’s about the conditions that allowed the underdog politician to have even a fighting chance against big donor politics. It’s still rather amazing to look back at how close a Jewish socialist got to the White House in 2016. Had he won, this would certainly be a very different country right now.
It appears painfully obvious in hindsight that America wanted a populist voice. Trump and Sanders represented this desire, but with far different ideologies. It’s a shame we picked a xenophobic sociopath instead of the quiet guy in an off-the-rack suit from Vermont by way of Brooklyn. I remember one of the arguments against Sanders during the election, and especially among my more centrist friends, was that America wasn’t going to elect a Jewish socialist. But in a post-Obama world, this argument seemed absurd.
Well, so much for that. Erickson and Smith don’t linger on these questions, or really discuss Clinton and Trump much at all. Instead, in addition to following Bernie on the campaign trail, they weave three major threads throughout the documentary. We follow a local political campaign in a very depressed area of West Virginia, an organization called Democracy Spring, and the Black Lives Matter movement, which had perhaps reached a high water mark during the election.
In West Virginia, a food bank only has enough supplies to feed 110 families. In Los Angeles, a mother wants the police to answer for the death of her daughter, who supposedly killed herself by hanging in her jail cell. Her tears when the police commissioner says there was no evidence of wrongdoing is heart wrenching.
Throughout the film, there’s this idea that the Sanders campaign, as imperfect as it was, was the first to really try to bridge the gap between the workers movement and various civil rights movements. After all, it’s the poor and African Americans of all economic classes who have been affected most by corporatized politics in the post-Citizens United era, and it is African Americans especially who have been the victims in the United States’ militarization of its police force.
The montage of police brutality and shootings on cell phone footage many of us have already seen on social media is incredibly affecting. It’s in this area where the gap between the populism of Trump and Sanders becomes most apparent. Far from being against police brutality, Trump believes there’s not enough of it. There’s a reason why police unions endorsed and continued to champion the guy.
It seems to me that Erickson and Smith accomplished exactly what they set out to do: provide a glimpse into a very powerful movement during a very special time, the last period of genuine optimism for many of us. The movie makes no pretense of showing all sides. Nor should it.
The film shows a bit of the aftermath, the dismaying days after Trump’s presidency became a surreal reality, but it doesn’t linger on it. Instead, it keeps focusing on the people and groups that were profiled throughout the film. They’re not giving up. They’re fighting harder. And so, in this way, Waking the Sleeping Giant shares the optimism, strength of character and perseverance both of Sanders, and the people behind the movements that led to his ascension. Just like the people it profiles, the movie inspires hope. It’s this kind of optimism that we desperately need right now.
Waking the Sleeping Giant has just been picked up for distribution by Indiecan Entertainment. A wide release date should be available shortly. The author was provided a link to a digital screener for the purposes of this review.