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New Documentary Brings Eugene V. Debs to Life

More than a century later, the Socialist politician is as relevant as ever

Gretchen Rachel Hammond
April 24, 2018
Wikimedia Commons
Eugene DebsWikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Eugene DebsWikimedia Commons

On August 29, 1895, Eugene Victor Debs penned a letter from his cell at the federal prison in Woodstock, Illinois, to the Terre Haute, Indiana Labor Day Committee.

Lacking a speaker for the day’s festivities to be held in Deb’s birthplace, the committee had asked him to write a letter that could be read aloud instead.

In his reply, Debs noted how history had repeated itself from the actions of tyrannical leaders in the ancient world to those of the federal judge who had “arbitrarily” imprisoned him following a strike by members of the American Railway Union in Pullman, Illinois, which had become known as “Debs Rebellion.”

Yet the man who was to become one of America’s most celebrated socialists and staunch defenders of the nation’s laborers did not maintain an air of pessimism. “It has been the good fortune of labor to produce from its ranks men who, though unlearned in the arts or oratory, were yet orators of the highest order, if effect instead of fluency is considered,” he wrote. “It is the occasion that makes the orator as it is the battle that makes the veteran.”

The occasion now calls on a filmmaker to chronicle Debs life, 122 years later: Yale Strom, a director, musician, and author, will debut American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs later this week, a culmination, he said, of a life-long obsession with the political leader.

When he was 14, Strom came across Debs’ biography from among his father’s vast library of books.

“I read about two or three chapters and then put it down,” he said. “Both my parents were socialists and Dad would quote him at the dinner table but there were times when ‘socialist’ was a word that you didn’t want to say.”

However, it was only during then Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency that Strom took a keen interest in the venomous fear with which socialism is associated.

“People were holding up signs and yelling epithets like ‘you’re a socialist!’ ‘Go back to Russia!’” Strom recalled. “I thought ‘this guy is the farthest thing from being a socialist.’ It all just clicked right then. I wondered why ‘socialist’ was such a bad word. There was a time when the Socialist Party was a third party. People in it held political office and were running for president. So, I decided to a do a film on the most prominent American socialist to this day.”

For the next five years, Strom immersed himself in Debs’ life and the ideas that were to play a key role in the American political debate for well over a century, from the New Deal to the progressive platform of Bernie Sanders.

Debs, Strom found as he was working on his movie, was a man who “was sincere in his beliefs, in his ideals of wage disparity and poverty that could and should be done away with. It’s not just part of the natural order of the way life is, it does not make sense. He saw the heart of so many problems, the many failures of society were due to economics. If you can’t pay the bills, it clouds everything you do.”

In the resulting film, Strom’s fascination with imagery shows the faces not only of Debs and those who fought with and against him, but also of those people to whose lives he was irrevocably committed: The documentary is rich with images of police bringing their nightsticks down on protesting men and women, chain gangs, coal mine and textile workers, and a pair of dirty hands shackled together with cuffs, all serving as the backdrop to Debs own words.

Strom uses an array of performers to provide inflection to Debs’ writing, speeches, and world, including Unscripted star Nick Cagle and actor, composer and playwright Steve Gunderson, while the earnest voice of Field of Dreams actress Amy Madigan delivers the narration.

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs opens at Cinema Village in New York on April 27 and at the Laemmle Santa Monica and Pasadena Theatres in California May 4-10.

Gretchen Rachel Hammond is an award-winning journalist and a full-time writer for Tablet Magazine.