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Manchu Work

Ian Cook/Netflix

American Factory (2019)

When General Motors’s Moraine Assembly operations in Ohio shuttered in December 2008 after 27 years of operation, there were few prospects for its 2,400 workers. When Chinese-owned Fuyao Glass set up shop there in 2014, economically depressed local residents greeted it as if it were the Second Coming. But before the honeymoon even got underway, Senator Sherrod Brown party-pooped in a speech at the factory’s opening ceremony by urging the workers to organize.

Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert identify a few threshold issues early on, such as the cultural adjustments for the transplanted Chinese workers and the Americans struggling to meet the Chinese expectation of breakneck productivity. The honeymoon was short lived, and the workers grew increasingly sour on the comparatively low wages, lack of occupational safety and exacting demands as union organizers lined the driveway each day egging them on.

The inaugural production from the Obamas’ company, “American Factory” leaves its promising premise on the assembly line without fashioning it into a fully realized vehicle; perhaps this is to avoid potential bridge burning. Despite the aforementioned tensions, the filmmakers seem to bend over backward to accentuate the positives, including a white worker going out of his way to help his Chinese colleagues assimilate and still thinking of them fondly after his termination. When a delegation from the factory visited the Chinese headquarters, they enthusiastically soaked up all of the company’s cringy corporate culture. Indeed, race relations seem to be a recurring theme, but one the filmmakers refuse to address head-on. Yellow peril was omnipresent, yet not one interviewee explicitly articulated it.

“American Factory” ends on an inconsequential note, with workers rejecting unionization. The Americans carried on with their lives toiling under their sketchy Chinese overlords, but at least the Chinese finally got to reunite with their loved ones and formally immigrate.


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