Former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle made their Hollywood debut on Wednesday with a film set in industrial Ohio. The documentary American Factory looks at a former American automobile factory now operating as a Chinese business.
The film was released Wednesday on Netflix. It is the streaming service's first joint project with the Obamas' new production company, Higher Ground.
Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert said they learned of the Obamas' interest in the film as they were discussing placement of American Factory with Netflix. They were told the Obamas had seen the movie a few days earlier.
Bognar and Reichert live in the Dayton, Ohio, area. That is where Fuyao Glass replaced a General Motors factory. The filmmakers said they had first planned to explore a culture clash. But then, they said, the film deepened into a story about globalization and the rights of workers.
Chinese businessman Cao Dewang owns the Fuyao plant. He employs about 2,200 American workers and 200 Chinese workers. The film gives a close-up look at how the workers from different cultures interact. For example, many Chinese at the factory say Americans do not work hard enough. And at one point, a Chinese worker explains that Americans are slow because they have fat fingers.
The American workers question what they see as Chinese workers unquestioned service to a company that robs them of time to enjoy life.
Dave Burrows was the vice president of the factory. In one part of the film, he privately criticizes Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown for suggesting that the Chinese consider letting employees unionize. Two years later, after having been dismissed, Burrows insults Fuyao as he drives by the factory.
Tensions rise when the factory does not meet production goals, leading to an angry disagreement about the right to unionize.
Near the end of the film, an employee gives Cao a tour of the factory floor. The employee praises how automation gives Fuyao the chance to dismiss workers.
Netflix worked in partnership with the Obamas’ production company. Netflix released a brief recording Wednesday of the Obamas discussing why they were interested in the project.
Michelle Obama said, "One of the many things I love about this film ... is that you let people tell their own story. I mean, you truly let people speak for themselves, and that is a powerful thing that you don't always see happen."
Former President Obama said that they want people to look outside of their own experiences to understand the lives of others.
That "is what a good story does," he said. "It helps all of us feel some solidarity with each other."
Reichert said she has seen some commentary that the Obamas were interested in the film as a criticism of President Donald Trump. She said that suggestion is false.
"It has zero to do with Trump or Obama, or the political scene at all," she said. "It's about the lives of average working people in the heartland."
One of the American workers is shown growing close to Chinese workers at the factory. He invites several of them to a Thanksgiving dinner and to ride on his motorcycle. Later, the American worker is fired because it took him too long to use a computer.
Reichter said she and Bognar were thankful to Cao for letting them into the factory.
Bognar said, "We hope that people realize that without empathy for people who are different from you, you're not going to solve the political divide."
I’m Ashley Thompson.
Words in This Story
debut – n. a first appearance
globalization – n. the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets
automation – n. the method of making a machine, a process, or a system work without being directly controlled by a person
scene – n. the place of an event or action
access – n. the right or ability to approach, enter, or use
empathy – n. the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings