An all-nighter spent skimming Plato’s “Republic” could be a much less hurried endeavor than “What Is Democracy?,” a vastly bold documentary from the Canadian director Astra Taylor (“Zizek!”). Like democracy itself, the film assumes such a broad mandate and has such noble intentions that indicating its shortcomings appears virtually irrelevant.
The overarching idea right here is to discover the philosophical underpinnings of democracy by speaking with students and visiting the present-day websites of Plato’s Academy and the Agora in Athens. Using quotations from “The Republic” as glue, Taylor travels elsewhere and finds imperfections within the democratic course of.
In the United States, Cornel West factors out cases when majority rule hasn’t all the time been fascinating, noting that the Emancipation Proclamation and Brown v. Board of Education each arrived by fiat. Many of the movie’s most stinging moments cope with the diploma to which true democracy has hardly ever if ever existed for African-Americans.
And within the birthplace of democracy, Taylor traces how the debt disaster put Greece in a bind between the nationwide will and the meta-democracy of the European Union, which itself, the film suggests, was beholden to the decidedly undemocratic whims of finance.
Some of the past-present dialectics bear fruit. It’s instructive to see the idea of oligarchy enshrined in a 14th-century fresco in Siena, Italy, or to learn how the Athenian reformer Cleisthenes’s ideas for the organization of civic space facilitated mingling that would foster a sense of the common good.
Yet the movie has a tendency to take arguments to overbroad ends (should grade school be a democracy?) and is inevitably unwieldy. It’s easy to imagine a more cogent film that weighted either philosophy or reportage more heavily. But I’m willing to put it to a vote.