The 400-Word Review: American Factory

This impressive documentary, produced in part by Barack and Michelle Obama, is loaded with insight and perspective.

Photo by Steven Bognar / Netflix

In one scene of “American Factory,” a group of American workers participates in an elaborate pageant at their company’s Chinese headquarters. As the blue-collar employees dance, a video plays behind them — evidently selected as something identifiably American selected by a Chinese DJ.

The video shows clips from the movie “Minions.”

The irony appears lost on all involved.

“American Factory,” a gripping documentary from producer/directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, is as absurd as it is ominous, as illuminating as it is intimidating. The narrative story follows the life cycle of a large industrial plant on the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, as it is rehabilitated by Fuyao, a Chinese glass company.

The plant was once Moraine Assembly, a General Motors plant offering respectable salaries to its blue-collar workers. It was shuttered in 2008, purchased by Fuyao and reopened as Fuyao Glass America — manufacturing windshields and other auto glass — in 2014.

Despite the return of jobs to the area, the new arrangement swiftly proves unpleasant to all involved. Fuyao is disappointed with the plant’s productivity; as noted by American middle management on a tour of Fuyao’s Chinese facilities, labor in China is much different than it is in the United States. To the American workers, the new jobs are low-paying, intense and often unsafe, breeding resentment between local workers and those brought in from overseas.

Bognar and Reichert produced an Oscar-nominated short about the final day of operation at Moraine Assembly before continuing to follow the plant’s life for more than a decade. “American Factory” is the first product of Higher Ground Productions, the imprint started by Barack and Michelle Obama.

It is the best, purest type of documentary filmmaking, making its argument not through talking heads and proselytizing but rather through the evidence of one’s eyes and ears. On a basic level, it’s about the incompatibility of American and Chinese industry; the former nation is caught in a centuries-old struggle between worker and management, and the latter extols a corporate and blue-collar culture largely incompatible with western principles.

A closer look, however, reveals an alarming document of structural collapse at the highest levels. In China and in Dayton, even a successful company is no longer willing or able to both treat its workers well and make money. “American Factory” is a cautionary tale about global industry — and a funeral bell for a certain breed of business.

My Rating: 9/10

"American Factory" is now streaming on Netflix.

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