In Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken, director Morgan Spurlock is only medium coy in tracing the current fast food trends towards healthy-sounding food back to… himself, and to Super Size Me, the unlikely 2004 hit that turned the cuddly documentarian into a star and led McDonald’s to stop asking people if they would like to “supersize” their meals.
Fast food is different in 2019, or so they’d have us believe — full of verdant green walls and rustic wood grain, packed with “healthy” terms like “fresh,” “hand-made,” “no hormones added,” “free-range,” “artisan,” etc. And so, in his latest effort, the mustachioed food botherer sets out to separate fast-food truth from marketing.
Spurlock’s shtick — and how much you enjoy Spurlock largely depends on your tolerance for shtick — once again centers on a stunt of sorts. In the sequel, he’s opening his own fast-food chicken restaurant (“Holy Chicken”). Not only that, but he’s trying to raise the chickens himself. Oh, and his plan is for all the advertising to be 100% truthful.
I can understand Spurlock’s brand of kitsch grating on some people, or thinking the idea of “stunt docs” is outdated, but the truth is, Spurlock is still a charming narrator (at least to me), and his “stunts,” whether they be eating McDonald’s for a month or opening a “100% honest” chicken restaurant, are transparently framing devices for a larger story. He’s simply taking important information about the nation’s food supply that’s already out there in some form and trying to give it a user-friendly “hook” — to package it in a way that the average American will care about. And we should care. Just this week the Trump administration put the finishing touches on a plan to essentially let the pork industry inspect itself.
If there’s a flaw to Spurlock’s approach, it’s that he seems to focus an awful lot on the consumer choice aspect of reforming the corporatized food economy, when it seems clear that there’s a limit on what “voting with our dollar” can actually accomplish, in the absence of meaningful policy reform. Nonetheless, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken, which played theaters in bigger cities earlier this month and is now on VOD, is full of information we should definitely know and probably don’t, about our favorite protein.
In particular, it sheds some light on “Big Chicken” — the cabal of vertically-integrated corporations that control 99% of the industry — and how those companies leverage their power to squeeze independent chicken farmers. We learn that the industry presides over a “tournament system,” which was supposed to reward better quality chicken, but in practice is a way to enforce rigid standards and to punish and blackball any farmer who steps out of line.
Later, Spurlock exposes how damn near impossible it is to grow chicken independently, through the lens of trying to do it himself. His film is at once an exposé, a publicity stunt, and a plea for transparency. But transparency can be a tricky thing, and before the film could be released, Spurlock became a poster boy for the limitations of what transparency can accomplish.
Holy Chicken was largely shot in 2016 and played the festival circuit in 2017. That Spring, TNT announced that Spurlock would join Sarah Jessica Parker for a show focusing on issues facing women and the #MeToo movement. But before it had been shot, Spurlock released a confession on Twitter, in which he admitted to a rape accusation from his college days, copped to a previously-settled sexual harassment allegation at his production company, and said he had “been unfaithful to every wife and girlfriend I have ever had.” His admission, he said, was part of an attempt to be better. But the fallout was swift, and within the week Holy Chicken had been dropped by its distributor, YouTube Red, and Spurlock had split with his own production company. Eventually, he had to pay TNT $1.2 million after the show was scuttled.