Why The Obamas Backing The Netflix Docu American Factory Makes Sense

Archita Kashyap - 55 weeks ago

Their first Netflix co-production focuses on cultural conflict amidst the tenuous US- China trade war.

(Barack Obama and Michelle Obama with directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert)

When former US president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle announced a partnership with Netflix to produce shows, series and documentaries, the internet was abuzz. Former presidents are known to mint money with book deals, lecture series and becoming experts of myriad matters of global significance. It is uncommon for a President and a former First Lady to take on entertainment as a future professional engagement, but then everything about the Obamas and their life has been unusual. Skepticism around their choice is now disproved with American Factory, the first documentary that they have co-produced under their company’s name, Higher Ground. 

American Factory has created ripples in this timely phase when a US-China trade and tariff war is heating up and has brought in headwinds that have had negative impact on markets across economies including India. Just this week, the United States has announced another round of tariff increase on China manufactured products. The Chinese official media, meanwhile, has utilized widespread conversation around American Factory to focus on the misled approach of the Trump administration in approaching trade with their country. In China, where Netflix doesn’t stream, hundreds of thousands have watched it if social media buzz is a measure of interest. Debate around it’s subject, a Chinese owned factory run in the United States, has been intense, with moral and pragmatic dimensions covered by bloggers, students, and common people. 

Beyond the din around American Factory, which has garnered positive reviews since it’s debut at Sundance Film Festival last year, it’s capacity to generate interest worldwide testifies to an important fact - the Obamas might have a lot to say and do yet through the medium of online streaming as a tool of mass communication. 

(A still from American Factory)

Made by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, American Factory shadows the opening of a glass-manufacturing factory in Dayton, Ohio, a former General Motors plant town, by a Chinese business tycoon. Home to a former car manufacturing plant, people in this town are now unemployed and desperate. Working at half their former wages after the GM plant shut down, for a Chinese owner, is not a choice but compulsion. It begins on a positive and hopeful note, but soon, differences in work culture and core methods of functioning bring clashes between management and workers. Mirroring life as a factory employee in China are people from the country working here a supervisors. Their experience is a crucial point of view in highlighting the story that his documentary actually tells - the conflict between Chinese and American ways of doing businesses runs very deep and can have longer, bigger consequences on global trade. 

While some publications in the West have, somewhat prematurely predicted potential Oscar buzz for the first production by the Obamas, American Factory is about more than just recognition from showbiz. It is about that inherent quest of all people - for a happy life and work satisfaction that is fast fading away in an environment of extremely high pressure workplaces across the world. American workers stand for innovation while the Chinese are resource and cost conscious. Their different view points represent the conflict between people and profit in most places today. In this documentary, the workers union gets a Chinese rep, one who is related to the plant’s owner. If this smacks of nepotism, it is actually symbolic of work places across Asia, particularly India where family linkages drive most big business houses. Automation is used to replace workers that demand better work conditions and safety - a common choice made by businesses everywhere. Machines don’t complain and save costs. People are expendable. 

American Factory is in the news right now because China and the US are battling a new kind of war with far reaching consequences - a trade war. Without it’s currency too, this documentary does a fine job of shining a light on the changing circumstances of a skilled worker in an increasingly machine led manufacturing scenario. With the Obamas backing this volatile issue, and having announced a promising line up of content with Netflix in future, one can expect more relevant and engaging stories that can make the viewer introspect in the real world.


Barack Obama / Michelle Obama / Steven Bognar / Julia Reichert / American Factory / Netflix / Jimmy Wang / Robert Allen / Sherrod Brown

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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