As banks, schools and government offices closed in observance of Labor Day, lots of people here used the holiday to stock the freezer with bags of green chile—many of them, we bet, didn't think much about the labor movement that led to not just the weekend, but all kinds of safety and fairness rules that we take for granted. Not so with those who used the time off to catch up on the Netflix streaming release of American Factory, the first film from Higher Ground, the production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama.
The opening narrative of the documentary had us thinking this was going to be the story of the triumphant return of manufacturing to middle America, but by the time the lights come back on at the auto glass plant that Chinese giant Fuyao reopens in a shuttered Dayton, Ohio, GM factory, we're hooked on the powerful conflict at hand.
The complexities of what it means, and how it works, for Chinese managers and line workers to train US counterparts and for a business here to strive to get the same "efficiency" as its cohorts overseas make for a provocative exploration. Amazing back-room and under-the-breath access leaves little room to guess about motivations, and as tensions rise, our sympathies pivot between characters. The Ohio forklift operator was happy to get out of her sister's basement, but six of her Chinese coworkers live together in the same kind of new apartment she scores. A woman worked for GM for decades; at Fuyao, she earns less than half her former wage. An older worker who wears a pro-union headband is tasked to complete a two-person job and later fired. On a trip to a sister factory, Americans see first-hand why Chinese colleagues say things like "lazy," "slow," and "fat fingers."
The cultural clash left us pondering big questions, peeling back the layers and feeling grateful for our pampered lives.
+Complex; thought-provoking; weird
-Creepy Chinese corporate singing
Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
Netflix, TV-14, 115 mins.