When you watch Morgan Spurlock tell people he wants to open a fast-food joint, you see skeptical looks and stunned laughs in response. But his half-smiling poker face is ironclad. He’s serious but still winking at you.
His farm-to-table restaurant, Holy Chicken, is also the namesake of his latest film, “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken.” It’s a sequel to the Oscar-nominated stunt documentary that made him famous 15 years ago as the jocular redhead who ate McDonald’s food exclusively for a month. This time, his new gimmick flips the script: Instead of consuming fast food, Spurlock starts selling it.
“If I’ve learned anything out of making a career out of questionable life choices,” Spurlock says at the start of the film, “it’s that sometimes the only way to find the truth and solve the problem is to become a part of that problem.”
Questionable life choices. Spurlock might be referring to his McDonald’s bender, or any of the other stunts he’s pulled on television, ostensibly for the edification of his viewers — living on minimum wage for a month, spending several weeks in prison, briefly working in a coal mine. But it’s been his off-screen life choices that recently left his career (and “Super Size Me 2,” for a time) in limbo.
In 2017, amid a wave of Me Too revelations elsewhere in the entertainment industry, Spurlock proactively admitted to bad behavior in his past, including a sexual harassment case that he had settled eight years earlier with a former assistant. Bettering himself and making amends doesn’t have to happen in the public eye, he says, so he resigned from his production company and stepped out of the spotlight. “I am part of the problem,” he wrote then. “We all are. But I am also part of the solution.”
So, back on the big screen, what is Morgan Spurlock part of now — the problem, or the solution?
In “Super Size Me 2,” which was yanked from the 2018 Sundance slate after Spurlock stepped away and now marks his comeback a year later, he is both. Spurlock is once again up to his muckraking high jinks, delivering the scoop from within the very structures of American fast-food mongering and corporate agribusiness that he seeks to critique.
The scoop: The companies that sell us fast food have been sneakily presenting themselves to customers as healthier and more socially responsible — deploying such feel-good terms as “artisanal” and “handcrafted” that amount to little more than empty, market-tested signaling. Those labels slapped onto Perdue or Tyson chicken in the frozen aisle, Spurlock observes, don’t actually tell you much about what happens behind the scenes. “Free-range,” for example, just means that chickens are presented the option of going outdoors for “some” part of the day.
Spurlock teams up with an Alabama poultry farmer named Jonathan Buttram and his family to raise his own chickens after getting stonewalled by larger producers, and he has fun playing by the industry’s standards. “You’re living the chicken dream!” Spurlock says to one of his young, “free-range” birds, grinning wryly as the chick waddles in a fenced space extending only a few feet from the door.
The documentary’s main target is the multibillion-dollar chicken industry’s big five megacompanies — the “Chicken Mafia,” as Buttram calls them. They pay their farmers through a “tournament system,” pitting grower against grower, where griping about unfair conditions often leads to a flock of smaller, even sicker birds the next month, triggering a cycle of lower output and lower compensation.
“Farmers and chickens are being mistreated,” Buttram told The Washington Post. “Since this movie was made three years ago, it’s gotten a lot worse.” (In the film Buttram and his family, who say they have been victims of corporate retaliation for cooperating with Spurlock, serve as the main avatars of the family farms that they say suffer under this regime.)
“There’s not a company out there that tells you the truth about their food, where it comes from, what it means to the environment we live in,” Spurlock told The Post. “And we live in a time now when people crave that level of honesty and information.”
And so, he offers moviegoers and potential customers the honesty he believes they crave — alongside the fried chicken they definitely do crave — not by sneaking cameras into the Chicken Mafia’s inner sanctum, but by laying bare his own restaurant’s operations.
Spurlock ventures into a lab with food scientists and chefs to concoct the highlight of his menu: a Grilled Crispy Chicken sandwich. It’s “crispy” because the word “fried” is marketing taboo. It’s not really “grilled” since grilling fried chicken would overcook it. Instead, “grill marks” are painted on with dark food coloring.
By the film’s end, Spurlock has an operational Holy Chicken pop-up in Ohio. It’s an in-your-face, postmodern fantasia of reds, greens and boldface messaging. It’s also an exercise in radical transparency in the fast-food industry. A wall displays such phrases as “all natural” and “local” along with a block of text beginning with, “Not sure what all these words actually mean? Great! Because, legally speaking, they don’t mean much.”
The Ohio pop-up is just the start of what Spurlock envisions as a minor revolution beyond the film. How large that movement gets will depend on how large the market is for fast-food restaurants functioning as gallery-styled exhibitions of these restaurants’ various deceptions. Success can mean proving that you can run a chicken place that has a healthier relationship with its suppliers and customers than the industry currently extends, even if it still serves fried chicken with grill marks painted on it. It’s not a solution to the problem, but it could be part of one.
“We’ve already identified chicken growers that we’re going to be working with,” Spurlock told The Post. “Once we open up two, three locations, the goal is to have our own farms, our own integrated system where we can pay these people more money and they can benefit from profit participation.”
It would seem Spurlock stands to benefit, too. His dual role as filmmaker and restaurateur means that “Super Size Me 2” does not just do the documentarian’s work of nudging audiences to eat their vegetables. It can also work as a feature-length advertisement for his franchisable business, nudging audiences to eat his chicken.
Spurlock’s return to the screen may leave an odd taste in people’s mouths regardless of how they feel about the film. The culture is still grappling with how and when men who have admitted or been accused of sexual wrongdoing should emerge from exile. In a phone interview, Spurlock said he wanted people to focus not on him and his transgressions but on the farmers who are being squeezed by major chicken processors.
“I’m hopeful that people don’t try and penalize [the farmers] and the message we’re trying to put out based on some things that I said a few years ago,” Spurlock told The Post. “All I can do is have faith that every day I can continue to be the best person I can and translate that to the work I believe in, which is telling stories that make a difference.”
If he and Holy Chicken can liberate even a small portion of poultry farmers from the Chicken Mafia’s grip, Spurlock says, that will disrupt the status quo. “One percent to 2 percent, 2 percent to 3 percent — just that small movement is a huge movement,” he told The Post.
What if Holy Chicken doesn’t turn out scores of food activists, just hungry people on their lunch break? Spurlock is optimistic. He believes people like fried chicken and want to be in on the joke.
“I think the best part,” he said, “is that people can have their chicken and eat it, too.” You could picture him winking as he said it.