American Factory, the first movie that Michelle and Barack Obama’s company, Higher Ground Productions, is releasing on Netflix, is about a Chinese auto-glass manufacturing company, Fuyao, that opens a unit in Dayton, Ohio, in 2016, eight years after GM Motors had closed its plant there, leaving thousands of workers jobless. Many of the old GM hands are hired by Fuyao, and it seems like win-win for all. In the beginning, everything goes well. However, cracks soon start appearing. The Chinese find the Americans lazy and inefficient (“They’re pretty slow,” says a Chinese supervisor. “They have fat fingers.”). The Americans find the Chinese domineering and unsympathetic (“To me, it is like they just don’t respect us,” says an American worker). After the company makes a loss of $40 million in 10 months, tempers start rising.
The best thing about American Factory is that its makers, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, are not trying to make a point. Their narrative style is nuanced. What you are left with, in the end, is not a new perspective on labour or a thesis on inter-racial conflict. It is, rather, the stories of the people at the bottom rung of the system who are trying to make the most out of the little they have been given. Like forklift operator Jill Lamantia, who lives in her sister’s basement and struggles to make ends meet. Or Wong He, a furnace engineer at Fuyao, who misses his wife and children in China. His only luxury is the one cigarette he smokes in his apartment after work. Ultimately, American Factory’s triumph is that it unearths the humanity beneath the politics and the propaganda.