The first feature documentary from the Obamas’ production slate has just landed on Netflix, and to celebrate its release, Barack and Michelle sat down with the filmmakers of American Factory to talk about their love of storytelling.
They may no longer stand in the political spotlight, but three years after President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama left the White House, the power couple have continued to inspire the world.
As well as Michelle writing, publishing and promoting the best-selling memoir of all time, Becoming, the Obamas recently announced exciting plans to produce a number of Netflix shows, ranging from scripted television and unscripted series, to documentaries and feature films, all created by a diverse range of filmmakers.
“Barack and I have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire us, to make us think differently about the world around us, and to help us open our minds and hearts to others,” a statement read in 2018.
“Netflix’s unparalleled service is a natural fit for the kinds of stories we want to share, and we look forward to starting this exciting new partnership.”
To celebrate the release of their first feature on Netflix, American Factory, the pair sat down with directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar for a conversation about the making of the documentary.
In the clip posted by Netflix, the Oscar-nominated directors ask the Obamas why they decided to pursue film and television after leaving the political arena, as well as their decision to choose American Factory as the first release under their new production banner.
“We want to be in relationships with people and connect with them and work together with them,” Barack begins.
“Those first scenes of those folks on the floor in their uniforms - that was my background, that was my father,” Michelle interjects. “And that was reflected in this film.”
“We all have a sacred story in us, right?” Barack continues. “A story that gives us meaning and purpose and how we organise our lives.”
Expanding on their partnership with Netflix, Michelle affirms that their company, Higher Ground Productions, will push for diverse representation.
“Higher Ground is a reflection of both of us.” she says. “So that means, you know, our platform is going to look a little bit like everything, just like the world is a little bit of everything.
Barack also explains that storytelling holds a unique power to unite people from all walks of life, even in the face of their differences.
“If you know someone, if you’ve talked to them face-to-face, if you can forge a connection, you may not agree with them on everything, but there’s some common ground to be found and you can move forward together,” he continues.
“We want people to be able to get outside of themselves and experience and understand the lives of somebody else, which is what a good story does. It helps all of us feel some sort of solidarity with each other.”
American Factory, which takes a look at what happens when a Chinese billionaire opens a factory in Ohio, was acquired by the Obamas after the documentary won a jury prize for its directing at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
In 2008 post-industrial Ohio, the General Motors plant shut down, leaving thousands of Ohioans out of work. Years later, Chairman Cao Dewang, CEO of the Chinese company Fuyao Glass, opened an American wing of his sprawling, multi-billion-dollar company in the husk of the abandoned General Motors plant, hiring thousands of locals and kicking off one of the strangest tales of international labour and cross-cultural contact committed to screen. Early days of hope and optimism give way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.
Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory is a wry look at what happens when America’s economic vulnerability comes toe-to-toe with a new era of ambitious Chinese expansion. It’s a tale threaded through with cinema verite scenes of union meetings and management discussions, and on and on, until what emerges is a difficult, often funny, but altogether urgent look at the future of labour. An unsettling question hangs over the company and the story: will America’s Fuyao Glass employees succeed in unionising?
How and why, and whether the upper management is able to do anything to stop it, serve as the backbone for American Factory. An everyday political drama that has implications, not only for these workers’ lives, but for how we come to understand the broader disconnects between labourer and boss, and by extension, America and China.
Here’s everything we know about the Obamas’ other Netflix films and documentaries
They have also acquired a documentary about a summer camp for disabled teenagers called Crip Camp. Jim LeBrecht, a former camper and Nicole Newnham, will direct the film.
The Fifth Risk
Working with The Big Short author Michael Lewis, the Obamas will release a documentary series based on his book The Fifth Risk which aims to portray the work done by everyday heroes who protect the US nation.
Listen to Your Vegetables and Eat Your Parents
Here, the Obamas have created a 30 minute pre-school series called Listen to Your Vegetables and Eat Your Parents that, they hope, will help instruct and inform children about food.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
The pair have also turned their hand to producing a feature film biopic of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass based on David W Blight’s Pulitzer-winning book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
This will be a scripted anthology series based on the New York Times obituary column Overlooked, looking to tell the stories of those whose deaths weren’t shared in the column but that they feel deserved to be acknowledged.
Bloom has been written and directed by the creator of hit TV series Nashville - Callie Khouri. It’s a drama series on the fashion world in post-war New York.
Speaking about the projects, former First Lady Obama said: “We love this slate because it spans so many different interests and experiences, yet it’s all woven together with stories that are relevant to our daily lives.
“We think there’s something here for everyone – moms and dads, curious kids, and anyone simply looking for an engaging, uplifting watch at the end of a busy day. We can’t wait to see these projects come to life – and the conversations they’ll generate.”
The rest of the projects will be released over the coming years - with dates to be confirmed closer to the time of release.