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McLibel. 87 minutes, 1998. Spanner Films. Ł13.00.


REVIEW of McLibel:

The 1998 film, McLibel, tells the story of two Greenpeace workers, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, one a former gardener and the other a former postman, as they battle McDonalds in the English High Courts. McDonalds brings the libel suit against Steel and Morris after London Greenpeace, of which Steel and Morris are both members, distributes leaflets throughout the city and in front of McDonalds franchises, espousing the multi-national corporation and the restaurant menu’s more nefarious undertakings. England’s libel laws, which the narrators decry throughout as inherently anti free-speech and overtly protective of corporate interests, require that Steel and Morris—not McDonalds—provide evidence verifying the statements made within their leaflets. The film is a chronicle of their efforts to challenge English libel laws before both the English High Courts and the European Court of Human Rights.

A viewer expecting 87 minutes of uninterrupted condemnation and demonization of the McDonald’s corporation may be left wanting, as the film is less about depicting McDonald’s specifically, along with its corporate structure and its executives, as evil and wanton, and more about exposing the inherent unfairness within the English legal system and the hegemonic strength and socializing might of all multi-national corporations. To be sure, McDonald’s does not emerge unscathed. Arguably the most powerful parts of the film are those that depict McDonald’s spokesclown Ronald McDonald on an endless campaign to brainwash children, unleashing mini-soldiers armed with “pester power” upon their parents, as well as McDonald’s executives’ Mr. X and Mr. Y and their perfectly muted and garbled—and despicable—tape-recorded attempts to convince Steel and Morris to settle their case. Yet both of these disturbing depictions, along with the reenacted and disheartening accounts of the prosecutions’ expert-witnesses do not seem specific to McDonald’s, nor to the fast-food empire as a whole, but instead to all multi-national corporations. There are moments in the film where the viewer may even forget just who the enemy is. Is it McDonald’s? Is it corporations? Is it society? Or is it America?

Luckily Eric Schlosser, the writer of Fast Food Nation, if not there to answer those specific questions, is at least there at multiple times throughout the film to remind the viewer of the impacts that come with a fast food culture, at one point describing the dehumanizing nature of “McJobs:” a corporate employment structure that depends on unskilled, low- wage, replaceable workers each acting like a cog in a machine, much like the cows and chicks that are also shown, at points quite gruesomely, being treadmilled to their death. Schlosser assures us that profit is the only consideration, crowding out interests like the environment, nutrition, animal welfare, or the right to unionize. Yet he does a better job in his own book and movie of riling us up. Here his argument seems a bit flat, particularly as he urges the viewer that all would be well if only she would become “awake, alert, alive, conscious and not just a captive of these corporate marketing campaigns.” That sounds great; however, one imagines these admonitions falling deaf upon a single mother of three earning minimum wage.

The film looks and feels dated, and instructors hoping to offer students novel interpretations of their diet or paradigm-shattering substantiation, particularly in the food arena, may end up feeling undernourished. Yet it does chronicle an extremely important moment in food history, a moment that would not only make possible later films and books like the very popular Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock or the more recent blockbuster, Food, Inc., but also a greater, more complex and more involved relationship with what we eat. If you are interested in this film for the classroom, it may be best suited for an introductory law, ethics or sociology seminar etc., particularly one that is better able to contextualize the movie’s historical significance. A community might consider this video in the context of growing a conversation about the role of corporate/fast food on issues of social justice or corporate social responsibility. A lively discussion might ensue if this film is paired with Super Size Me, which also looks at the role of fast food on human health and nutrition. Consider assigning Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation as reading material to accompany this film. His telling of the history of fast food is fascinating context for understanding how this industry gained such power. They will make a great pair.

Douglas L. Bessette
Michigan State University


1. How has your diet changed since you were a child? Have there been certain events or times in your life that have resulted in dramatic changes?

2. How do you think fast food chains such as McDonald’s have changed in the past ten years? What changes have you witnessed personally?

3. How does McDonald’s impact on the environment, animal welfare, and employment practices differ from other companies?

4. In the film certain McDonald’s marketing campaigns were shown to be deceptive. What ads have you seen either for McDonalds or for other companies that have been deceptive or outlandish? How do these ads affect your interpretation of the company?

5. What effect do you think fast food chains have on agriculture and farming in the U.S.? What about abroad?

6. In the film Eric Schlosser states that because of inflation minimum wage workers are making less than ever before. What do you see as McDonald’s and other fast food chains’ role in keeping the minimum wage so low?

7. At the end of the film, Dave Morris argues that an effective alternative to corporations is “taking control of our own lives, our own communities, our own workplaces, and making all the decisions that affect our lives, resources, etc.” How realistic do you think this scenario is? And what do you think the role is for farmers’ markets in this scenario?

8. At the end of the film, Dave Morris argues that an effective alternative to corporations is “taking control of our own lives, our own communities, our own workplaces, and making all the decisions that affect our lives, resources, etc.” How realistic do you think this scenario is? And what do you think the role is for farmers’ markets in this scenario?

9. What are the advantages of corporations, namely fast food chains and supermarkets like Wal-Mart? What are the disadvantages?

10. How honest do you think Steel and Morris were in depicting and describing the events in the film?

11. How easy is it in the U.S. to demand honesty from or whistle-blow on corporations?

12. How has the Internet changed the way we deal with corporations? With food?

13. Is having enough food to eat a basic human right?

Questions by:
Douglas L. Bessette
Michigan State University

in cooperation with
Michigan State University
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