Credit: NYFF
by Mattie Lucas Film

Best Films of 2021: Her Socialist Smile

January 8, 2022

11. Helen Keller is one of those historical figures whose legacy has been so white-washed by history that it has become a kind of cornerstone, warm-and-fuzzy American “triumph over adversity” mythology while bearing little resemblance to who Keller actually was, personally and ideologically. While it’s true that Keller was indeed deaf and blind, and that she learned to read and write via the efforts of her caretaker Anne Sullivan — a story every American school child is familiar with, and which has been ingrained in the popular culture at large thanks in no small part to the play The Miracle Worker and its subsequent film adaptations (most notably its 1962 iteration, which won stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively) — Keller’s legacy reflects so much more than her sensory deprivations. Indeed, those extra-inspirational elements are the very legacy John Gianvito‘s riveting documentary, Her Socialist Smile, seeks to reclaim.

Keller was deeply involved in radical left-wing politics throughout her life, aided in no small part by Sullivan, often acting as her companion and interpreter. A member of the American Socialist Party, Keller was a leading figure in the American left in the early days of the 20th century, speaking publicly for the first time in 1913 and fighting alongside prominent leftist figures like Eugene Debs for a popular socialist movement in the United States. It was Keller’s own disability that awakened the upper-class woman to the struggles of the marginalized, and informed her activism throughout her life, a causality which Gianvito explores via her own words. And while the documentary is narrated by poet Carolyn Forché, Gianvito often exhibits Keller’s own words silently as white text upon a black background, forcing the audience to hear them just as she would have. As there is no film footage of Keller’s speeches, Gianvito is forced to rely on a collage of photography that depicts Keller’s surroundings in order to piece together the essence of her life, for which her words provide the glue. The effect is spellbinding, a truly radical documentary about a radical figure whose authentic legacy has been sanitized into an American bootstrap mythos that undercuts the spirit of its subject’s work on behalf of the marginalized, work that made her more than a few powerful enemies during her lifetime. It’s an injustice of breathtaking proportions that her voice has been stolen from her once again by the pages of history, but Her Socialist Smile boldly reclaims her legacy so that when we finally do hear her actual voice, the effect is galvanizing. Her Socialist Smile is nothing less than the year’s finest documentary, and Keller’s true life’s work has never felt more urgent or more essential than it does now.