History often remembers people with disabilities in neutered forms. I grew up knowing Helen Keller as the American wild child of The Miracle Worker, the little girl who couldn’t see or hear, but learned to communicate nonetheless and grew up to earn a bachelor’s degree. Rarely is it acknowledged that she was also a fiery socialist who advocated for labor rights and women’s suffrage. John Gianvito’s new documentary Her Socialist Smile, currently playing at the New York Film Festival, is an effort to restore Helen Keller as a political figure.
In the film, the Keller we’re familiar with from pop culture is recontextualized and given new intellectual legitimacy, presented as an activist and thinker. She brought the issue of disability rights out of the confines of philanthropy and advocated a Marxist understanding of the oppression of all people, including those with disabilities, drawing a direct correlation from disability to poverty and disease. She even pushed for a Braille translation of Bakunin’s God and the State. Keller was 32 when, overcoming acute anxiety and trepidation, she delivered her first public speech, and it was at a socialist gathering in Montclair, New Jersey. “It is the labor of the poor and the ignorant that makes us refined and comfortable,” she said.
Keller went on to speak and write in support of a number of progressive causes, vehemently opposing America’s warmongering and Woodrow Wilson’s policies. She was a speaker at the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Conference, which organized a women’s march in Washington a day before Wilson’s inauguration. She denounced the Democratic and Republic parties alike, believing that both were run by rich people with vested interests. Naturally, Keller was put under watch by the FBI and later hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
With a presidential election looming, there has been a recent surge of documentaries urging people to be politically active and get out the vote. Formally, Her Socialist Smile is very distinct from that crowd. Poet Carolyn Forché narrates events, while Gianvito has Keller’s own quotes appear as silent text on the screen as the camera meditates on ephemeral images of nature — a melting icicle, dandelions dispersing into the air, a forest during a snowfall. The film resuscitates Helen Keller’s legacy from a source of vague inspirational quotes for self-help books and Instagram posts to a different kind of heroism. It draws upon history to remind viewers to oppose the disenfranchisement of the working class. Keller’s fight for the radical upheaval of a broken system continues to resonate today.
Her Socialist Smile is available to stream through September 26 as part of the 58th New York Film Festival.