While scanning the Netflix streaming options last night in search for a good documentary to accompany my evening knitting, I came across Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox. Produced by Sara Lamm in 2007, it’s both an exploration of eccentric beliefs and a profile of a social responsible company. If you’ve already seen it I’d love to hear your take on it .
You’re probably familiar with the soap, or more so its label, a jumbled series of prophetically sounding run-on sentences about hard work, moral ABCs, and God, all culminating in the phrase, “All-one!” A master soap maker who lost his parents in the Holocaust, Dr. Bronner escaped from a mental institution before traveling the U.S. selling his soap and, more specifically, the message printed on the bottle. His teachings were a mixture of astronomy, religion (specifically the unification of all faiths), and social commentary, specifically the belief in equality of all humankind.
The documentary centers around Bronner’s youngest son, Ralph Bronner, who travels the United States telling the story of his father and his belief in what he dubbed the “moral ABCs.” According to the film producers, “68-year-old Ralph endured over 15 orphanages and foster homes as a child, but despite difficult memories, is his father’s most ardent fan.”
It’s a compelling film, unraveling the character of Dr. Bronner from the man himself, a flawed human who put his belief in the need to “unite spaceship earth” above his own children. Although slow-moving at times with less than perfect footage, the film does a great job teasing out the wisdom of Dr. Bronner’s teachings from his numerous shortcomings as both a visionary and a father.
What I found most fascinating about the documentary (besides an inside look at an eccentric self-proclaimed rabbi), were the slivers of information about his descendants who run the company today. Ralph is clearly more emotionally complex then he ever lets on, and the film follows his travels as he attempts to connect with strangers, striving to bring his father’s legacy to new generation even as he seeks out his own identity. He meets a New York subway worker and talks of the beauty of the common man. He befriends a piano player who’s caring for his dying friend. Somehow the legacy of soap continues to serve as a window to our common humanity and underlying eccentricities. (You can read Ralph’s response to the film here).
Alongside Ralph’s bittersweet tale is a glimpse into how the company is run today, the product of Bronner’s relatives who clearly have a deep respect for the man even as they live with troubling memories. Everything within the business is operated under Fair Trade agreements, workers are paid incredibly well, and the operation focuses on environmental, economic, and social sustainability. The family doesn’t go around preaching Bronner’s teachings, but rather apply some of the more accessible policies of what Bronner dubbed “constructive capitalism.” According to the film, all of the Bronner descendants have “capped their salaries so that they make no more than five times that of the lowest paid employee.”
Have you seen the film? What are your thoughts?
You can read more information from the fim’s creator here.
Also check out her interview on NPR here.