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“American Factory” Is An Engaging Blue Collar Documentary

The heartland of America is not where you would initially think to go in order to find cooperation between American factory workers and a giant Chinese company. And yet, that’s exactly what is being depicted and explored in the new Netflix documentary American Factory, the first film to come out from former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground. Partnered with the streaming service, they clearly have set out to showcase stories like this. The doc is occasionally on the dry side, but it’s an engaging look at how blue collar workers are finding a new way to survive in the middle of the country.

The documentary looks at a new factory that was opened in a small part of Ohio. Within an abandoned General Motors building, a Chinese billionaire has started a new plant, hiring a few thousand blue collar American workers to labor alongside his Chinese supervisors. Initially, the mixture of high tech and working class breeds positivity, with hope for the future all around. Then, as setbacks occur and minor culture clashes rear their head, the optimism wanes, as the Americans and the Chinese struggle to find common ground. All throughout, the uncertain future for all is never far from mind. Still, the desire to work hard and to make sure their jobs are done well connects the team, regardless of their background. In that regard, this is as much an inspirational look at blue collar labor as it is a study of a corporate experiment. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert direct, as well as co-produce, with music by Chris Cannon. Cinematography is by the team of Aubrey Keith, Jeff Reichert, and Erick Stoll, along with Bognar and Reichert.

There’s a lot going on here. American Factory presents an equally thoughtful and troubling look at our current economy. The doc uses a small focus to present a broad issue. The complicated dynamic between employers on a corporate level and workers on the factory floor is given a clear eyed look. Especially in the globalized 21st century economy, where automation seems to be the future, everyone is worried about what’s next. At the same time, the desire to do a good job and to make a quality product is paramount. The movie makes sure never to lose sight of that fact.

The first project shepherded by the Obamas is an engaging one, presenting a complicated issue with clarity, maturity, and without the need to spell out an answer. The most fascinating thing about this film is how open ended it feels. Automation looms large throughout, and especially at the end, seems like a monster waiting to devour the workers. Still, you also get the sense that these employees are determined not to go quietly into the night. Manual labor is disappearing in this country, but these men and women are going to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, right up until the final moments they can. The movie quietly leans into that point.

Tomorrow, documentary lovers have an interesting new one to check out when American Factory debuts on Netflix. It’s going to be interesting to see what else comes of this partnership between Netflix and the Obamas, but this is a solid start. It’s likely that further docs will also take aim at human stories with political undertones, but anything is possible. Mostly, they’ve just managed to get a small flick to a position where it will be seen by way more folks than otherwise. That alone is worthy of praise. Luckily, the film itself is pretty strong as well. Give it a shot and see what you think…

Be sure to check out American Factory, streaming on Netflix tomorrow!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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