The documentary, which debuts on Netflix on August 21, never mentions President Donald Trump by name—but its message is clear: Trump’s promise to reinvigorate the industrial heartland is going to take a lot more than a campaign slogan. There are no easy solutions. And if some manufacturing jobs do come back, they’re going to look nothing like they used to. Americans will have to accept a new reality to stay competitive in the global marketplace—one that they might not like, and one that Trump doesn’t acknowledge.
This message is also coming straight from Barack and Michelle Obama. “American Factory” is the first project to come from the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, as part of the deal they made with Netflix to produce a slate of series, movies and documentaries that reflect their values. Higher Ground acquired the movie after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
The Obamas have largely kept a low profile as the 2020 presidential race heats up. The former president reportedly has met with a number of Democratic contenders, and has criticized divisive rhetoric “from our leaders” without mentioning Trump by name. But this film is a statement all on its own. Even though the Obamas have avoided overtly partisan material for their Netflix slate (other projects include a biopic of Frederick Douglass and a preschool series called "Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents”), “American Factory” hits right at a central issue of the last presidential election—and likely the next one.
Reviving American manufacturing is also an issue that Obama has tried to tackle before. His stimulus package pumped billions into green manufacturing projects. And his reelection campaign in 2012 leaned heavily on the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, saving auto manufacturing and related jobs across the industrial Midwest. The results of Obama’s efforts, though, were mixed. His administration touted the growth of the wind and solar industries, but overall job gains are unclear. While the manufacturing sector turned around following a precipitous dive during the Great Recession, the growth was slow and steady, and never not quite returned to where it was when he first took office. Now, not only is Obama watching Trump reverse much of his green economy agenda through deregulation, he’s also watching Trump claim to know how to produce the manufacturing boom that eluded him.