Review: 'American Factory'

American Factory
February 8, 2020

Barack and Michelle Obama's post-presidency entertainment career began in earnest in 2019. A year after signing a much-touted deal with Netflix, the former first couple's production company (Higher Ground Productions) released a documentary over the summer. It's called American Factory, and now it's nominated for Best Documentary Feature at Sunday's Academy Awards.

In concept, American Factory sounds shockingly Trumpian. It’s about a closed-down Dayton, Ohio, GM factory that Chinese state-backed glass manufacturer Fuyao buys and reopens. Fuyao brings back jobs but halves the wages, and tensions mount. Directed in a fly-on-the-wall style with no narration, American Factory purports to tell objectively a story of blue-collar Americans caught up in the forces of globalization and Chinese authoritarianism. The Obamas even express a vaguely populist outlook on the project in a promotional video. It's all meant to tell people's "stories" and "let people speak for themselves."

In execution, however, American Factory recapitulates the worldview Trump ran against in 2016. Far from a populist pivot, American Factory treats its subject matter as a quaint story of two cultures learning to live together in harmony. Rather than the struggles of "back-row" Americans to stay in the middle class, it views its own story as a series of odd-couple antics. The illusion of objectivity lasts only until about the hundredth mention of "melding two cultures," "one culture, one team," or "cultural differences." American Factory approaches its subject intent on seeing it through a very particular lens.

That lens distorts things a bit. The "cultural" differences on display include Americans worrying about safety precautions and quality control while their Chinese supervisors wonder why they won't work weekends. The inflow of international capital brings on real labor problems—enough that talk of a union provides some second-half drama. But American Factory classifies it all as "cultural" misunderstandings. Its Netflix summary underscores this interpretation: "Hopes soar when a Chinese company reopens a shuttered factory in Ohio. But a culture clash threatens to shatter an American dream."

The problem is, the American workers won't cooperate with the documentary's preferred narrative. The "clash of cultures" narrative is entirely one-sided. In every circumstance, Americans make consistent efforts to praise and appreciate their new bosses, coworkers, and exhibitions of Chinese "culture." It's clear throughout that every Dayton native is making a genuine effort to be tolerant. In the promo video, Obama admits he expected otherwise, saying "they exhibited a lot more trust than I would have expected." The sole exception comes when one worker asks why Chinese propaganda has to be playing in the factory lunchroom at all hours.

The Chinese executives, by contrast, belittle, stereotype, and insult their American employees. We're treated to several Chinese-language training sessions in which executives inform managers what to expect from Americans. Americans, they say, are "slow," "overconfident," and hard to train because of their "fat fingers." In one session, a company VP compares his American workers to donkeys and says, matter-of-factly, "we're better than them."

American Factory accepts the Chinese executives' self-promotion as authentic expressions of Chinese "culture." At one point, Fuyao takes a group of the Dayton workers (and the documentary crew) to China to witness a multitude of uniformly happy, young, healthy, productive, robotic factory workers talking about how much they love working 12-hour days and only seeing their children once a year. Don't worry, though, they have a union! It just happens to share office space with the local Communist Party. Its head, who makes sure to show off his patriotism, insists "we need our workers to fight for Fuyao's success."

Maybe the filmmakers want viewers to find the close coordination of the party, firm, and union with the state suspicious. But American Factory makes few attempts to pull back the curtain on totalitarian artifice, despite its pretense to an authentic, tell-it-like-it-is style. Nor does it seek out any culture beyond the propaganda, despite all the talk of appreciating different "cultures." The film seems perfectly content to play along.

In the film's most disturbing sequence, the Americans attend a propaganda pageant the company puts on in China. Workers sing hymns—yes, hymns—to the company. Fuyao stages a group wedding with a dozen employees. After a montage of song-and-dance routines stuffed with blunt Maoist pro-Fuyao slogans, one of the Americans, teary-eyed, tells the camera "we are one big planet, a world somewhat divided, but we're one." He doesn't suspect that what we've just seen—the endless promotion of the state and its instruments—aren't authentic reflections of Chinese people and culture. It's totalitarian, and it's creepy. To the extent to which viewers notice, they're asked to accept it as authentic Chinese "culture."

But that's not what a culture is. Culture requires leisure, family, and faith—all of which the Chinese Communist Party has worked for generations to either stamp out or claim for itself. And now, the Dayton workers in American Factory find those foundations of culture under threat too. The film doesn't ask why. It doesn't even notice. Instead, it sticks by an odd-couple two-cultures narrative that belittles the American workers it depicts as well as the Chinese workers it doesn't.

Higher Ground Productions picked up American Factory early last year, after the project had already wrapped and was screening at Sundance. But it's easy to see why the Obamas would promote the film as their own and, assuming it wins Sunday, take home an Oscar for it despite not being involved during the actual production.

Insensitivity to social problems at home, and naiveté about authoritarians who attack the foundations of their own people's culture, is nothing new for Obama. Readers can pick their own favorite example, be it China, Iran, Myanmar, Cuba, or any number of "Arab Spring" participants. Oftentimes, the presumption that foreign (especially authoritarian) actors are sincere goes hand-in-hand with the presumption that blue-collar Americans are bigoted. One might recall the time Susan Rice blamed a terror attack on American intolerance.

So the Obamas' four-years-too-late attempt to scrape together some blue-collar bona fides falls right back into old problems. Their first Netflix collaboration picks up right where the administration left off, offering condescending platitudes to red-state Americans and a platform for Communist oligarchs to propagandize. The Washington Free Beacon can't wait to see what they make next.

Published under: Movie Reviews