The Obamas’ first project for Netflix, “American Factory,” is as interesting for what it isn’t as what it is.
When the former first couple announced that they would be lending their considerable profile to producing programs for Netflix, the assumption was that it would be uplifting, optimistic fare — the sort that students of Oprah Winfrey’s niche have sometimes dubbed “broccoli TV.” Even the name of their production company, Higher Ground, suggested as much.
“American Factory,” however, isn’t a “feel-good” movie; rather, it’s a nuanced, thought-provoking documentary, looking at the cultural differences between Chinese management and American workers at a Dayton, Ohio manufacturing plant, reflecting President Obama’s reputation for wonkiness more than anything else.
It is, in essence, a scholarly, almost sociological treatment of the material, in a way that broadly speaks to the plight of these blue-collar workers, with an empathy that’s personal but not partisan. Beyond the US-China divisions, it also underscores the challenges presented by factors beyond these workers’ control, including globalization and automation.
Directed by Julie Reichert and Steven Bognar (whose credits include “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” a decade ago), the film focuses on a former General Motors plant that closed, resulting in thousands of layoffs. In 2016, Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang established an auto-glass facility, Fuyao Glass America, at the abandoned site, an investment that promised to revitalize the area with more than 2,000 blue-collar jobs.
At first, the public posturing is all smiles. But Chairman Cao, as he’s called, grumbles about government-mandated safety regulations, and immediately makes clear that any attempts to unionize will be viewed harshly, threatening to shut down the operation if that occurs.
Soon, Cao is grousing further about American inefficiency, while the Chinese workers discuss the Americans’ laziness, calling a standard US work week — with eight-hour shifts and weekends off — “an easy life.”
At the same time, former GM employees talk frankly about the setbacks they’ve experienced, with one having gone from earning more than $29 an hour in her old job to less than $13 in her new one.
Beyond the sobering aspects, there’s an almost comical touch to the way differences between the countries are described, such as Chinese employees being told at an orientation session, “America is a place to let your personality run free. … You can even joke about the president.”
“American Factory” doesn’t necessarily make the cultural gap appear insurmountable. Still, the hurdles aren’t sugarcoated, adding useful context to the current trade war and the manner in which it’s unfolding.
As for the Obamas’ involvement, skeptics assumed Netflix was just happy to get into business with a former president, reaping the public-relations benefits of that relationship. But as inaugural events go, “American Factory” is an impressive ground-breaking exercise, heightening interest — perhaps especially beyond the documentary genre — in what’s to come.
“American Factory” premieres Aug. 21 on Netflix and in select theaters.