How to Fix a Primary

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
How to Fix a Primary Movie Poster Image
Timely docu on an upstart election; some language.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 90 minutes

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Kids say

age 2+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Idealism, not compromising ideals. The challenges of trying to run an upstart campaign in a two-party political system that will go to great lengths to maintain the status quo. 

Positive Role Models

Documentary follows an upstart campaign for governor of Michigan. Campaign team composed of diverse, idealistic, and committed staff members. The candidate is a practicing Muslim, and faces overt racism. Campaign accepts no special interest money, and the documentary looks at how special interests and "dark money" influence elections.


Talk and some footage of abuse animals suffered at the hands of a company run by one of the candidates for governor. 


"F--k" often used, particularly in one scene where it's constantly repeated. "Motherf---ers" used once. Also: "A--holes," "bulls--t," "damn." 


Coca-Cola cans prominently featured; case of Coke given to a staffer for his birthday. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Cigarette smoking. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that How to Fix a Primary is a 2020 documentary about a doctor running an upstart progressive campaign to be the first Muslim governor in American history. As it follows the ups and downs of the campaign, expect some profanity during some of the more stressful moments, including a scene in which "f--k" is used several times. Talk of animal cruelty and footage of beagles being freed from unsafe conditions may be too much for younger and more sensitive viewers. Brief shot of cigarette smoking. Overall, this documentary shows how the two-party system in America is designed by the parties themselves to favor incumbents and/or candidates most friendly to monied interests. It also explores the racism, overt and otherwise, faced by the candidate, Abdul El-Sayed. This should inspire discussion among activist teens and parents about elections and how they're conducted in the USA. 

What's the story?

HOW TO FIX A PRIMARY follows the gubernatorial campaign of Abdul El-Sayed, a doctor hoping to be the first Muslim governor in American history. As he seeks the Democratic nomination for governor of Michigan, El-Sayed and staff relentlessly campaign, knocking on doors, speaking at events. Like many of the candidates running as progressives in 2018, El-Sayed comes up against not only opponents from the opposing party, but also the status quo of a Democratic Party set up to favor incumbents and candidates most friendly to corporate and monied interests. El-Sayed also must confront direct and "dogwhistle" racism on the campaign trail. While gaining traction, El-Sayed continues to seek the endorsements of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, believing that their help will propel his campaign to victory, despite the relative lack of funds in relation to a self-funding eccentric millionaire opponent and establishment favorite Gretchen Whitmer. It's ultimately the story of the joys and heartbreak of an upstart political campaign against an entrenched system stacked against them. 

Is it any good?

This documentary couldn't be timelier and more relevant to what's going on in American elections. How to Fix a Primary follows the ultimately failed gubernatorial campaign of Abdul El-Sayed, a doctor (now a CNN commentator) who was seeking to be the governor of Michigan and the first Muslim governor in the USA. The secondary title of the documentary is "Inside an Outsider Campaign," and that's an accurate description of what happens, on many levels. Not only does El-Sayed face the racism of deranged provocateurs, but he also faces the "dogwhistle" racism of "othering" who he is in an attempt by unknown interests to make El-Sayed come across to voters as someone who "isn't one of us." 

It's an unsparing portrait of idealism in the face of an establishment that doesn't come across as willing to embrace, or even consider, new ideas. This immersive documentary allows the viewer to share in the joy and heartbreak, the feelings of disillusionment when the campaign experiences the depths some are willing to go to make sure the candidate is tripped up by the machinations of dark money and shady rivals. Despite these setbacks and the ultimate result, the documentary strikes a hopeful tone, as so many involved in the campaign didn't simply surrender and join the establishment, but continued to find ways to work for change. While How to Fix a Primary is centered on a progressive left-of-center candidate's upstart campaign, this should inspire discussion among families about the ways in which our elections are set up to favor some at the expense of others, and how money has corrupted the process. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about political documentaries. How does How to Fix a Primary compare to other political documentaries you've seen? 

  • How did the documentary use this particular campaign as a way to call attention to bigger issues with elections as a whole? 

  • What did you learn from this documentary? What did you agree and disagree with overall? 

Movie details

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