Roger & Me (1989)
Directed by Michael Moore
Those who gain power from the existing institutions love when art is made “highbrow” and separate from the masses. The documentaries made by the Maysles Brothers and Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA were not seen as a threat because they lingered in the art house/film festival scene. Michael Moore has always been a different creature, and the reactions from those in power show us they feel threatened by his work. Why is that?
When I was in college, Moore’s Bowling for Columbine came out, and I saw it in the theater. I was attending a private Christian university, so there was a definite sense that the director was not seen as a positive figure. My school was not entirely down the psycho-fascist pipeline then, so the common sentiment was that while Moore did have a point, the way he advocated for his subjects was too ostentatious and made himself too much of a figure in his own work.
I saw this as a reasonable take at the time, but now I don’t think I agree any longer. Moore makes his documentaries in an American style, with a brash, loud, obnoxious tone. The thing is, it works. If most people in the United States know any documentary filmmakers, they will know of two: Ken Burns and Michael Moore. Burns is known because of how prolific he is & that his work is regularly broadcast on PBS, a channel everyone has in their homes. Moore is known because he isn’t afraid to make an ass out of himself if it brings more awareness to important issues. This is why his critics critique him more than the points he raises in his work.
Roger & Me is Moore’s most personal documentary to date. His hometown was Flint, Michigan, and in the years leading up to his film, the General Motors plant was shuttered due to the destructive economic policies & corporate greed of the 1980s. Moore doesn’t hesitate to make himself a central figure in the documentary by showing us 8mm home movies. This is a wild change compared to the Direct Cinema style of the Maysles. Moore also provides constant voice-over narration and makes his sense of humor integral to how the project is presented. These are the elements that his most vocal critics get hung up on, which is ironic because conservative filmmakers have certainly cribbed from Moore’s work (see Dinesh D’souza for a far less funny & clever version of this type of activist filmmaking).
The focus on the filmmaker rather than the voices he is presenting is a typical tactic of corporate interests. When we focus on both the G.M. plant workers & the efforts of the company to try and soften the blow, the critical aspects of the film come to the surface. Through Moore’s historical background on Flint shown in the first third of the picture, we can see that this city exists because of the promise of G.M. and their factory. People migrated from across the country to live there because they were being offered something to lift them out of poverty. We should be infuriated when G.M. abandons these people, their children, and their grandchildren. Attempting to respectfully argue with such powerful interests is absurd when they operate with little to no respect for the workers who have given them their fortunes.
The people who left in the wake of this destruction of livelihood are pretty varied. Ben Hamper had a nervous breakdown on the assembly line, and Moore met with him at the mental health facility Hamper checked himself into. He describes the comic horror of driving home after fleeing the factory and The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” playing on the radio, the most ironic soundtrack you could ask for in a moment like that. Moore meets Janet, a woman who hosted a local feminist radio talk show, who has abandoned that show to sell Amway. She has “parties” where women come, and she does their seasonal color readings for them and asks Moore to issue a correction after she incorrectly identifies herself as a winter.
Most interesting were the C-tier celebrities that G.M. pays to come to Flint and issue shallow pep talks to their residents. Televangelist Robert Schuller gives a speech that, from what we see, has little to do with spiritual healing and everything to do with cheerleading the destructive maw of capitalism. “Entertainers” like Pat Boone and Anita Bryant are brought in as well, also people who self-identified with Christianity in this period of their careers. Bryant was the infamous anti-LGBTQ harridan that pushed for legislation in the 1970s that would ban gay people from working as school teachers. She was rightfully pied in the face on television for that one. When Moore queries Bryant and Boone, they give pathetically vague answers that never address Moore’s questions and fall back on toxic positivity. Those who have secured their bag in America rarely take the struggle of those at the bottom seriously to any degree. Empty platitudes and “rah-rah” nonsense seem to be all they think the working class needs.
We now have great hindsight about Flint, Michigan, in the decades that followed Moore’s documentary. The promise of a new, brighter future was fading fast at the time of filming. In 2023, the city has not had clean tap water in over ten years. Through multiple presidential administrations, former industrial cities like Flint have been left out to die, with no thought given to the human beings who live & work there. Some “lucky” ones were able to move, but I would be willing to bet they & their children have continued to struggle. Labor in the United States is treated like garbage. You can see it in the criminally low wages, the lack of sick/personal/vacation time, and the hierarchical brutality encouraged at the top.
The argument is made that this backbreaking, soul-crushing labor is “what made America great.” I’ve seen lately that the once unipolar domination the United States could claim globally faded around the time manufacturing was outsourced. I have to applaud China. They understood the best way to take out the threat of American hegemony wasn’t to engage in a ground war but to battle through economics. The Soviet Union believed they could out-industrialize the U.S., never realizing the depth of America’s cruelty towards its workers. China decided to smile, shake hands with Nixon, and slowly strangle the country. Anyone still clinging to the fantasy that the U.S. is number one in any metric beyond “quickest decline in life expectancy” or “highest infant mortality among ‘developed’ nations” is beyond delusional.
Moore manages to cap off the doc with his signature dark humor, an attempt to not roll the end credits in complete misery but also an acknowledgment that things are fucked up, and they don’t appear to be improving. The Beach Boys plays as Moore mocks the suggestion by a G.M. lobbyist earlier in the film that the citizens of Flint simply invent something to make money off of, like the lint roller. This idea that you can just sit down and develop a product, then get it manufactured, and do just fine speaks to the truth behind American capitalism and its snake oil salesman roots. These people think it’s easy because they are not concerned about the product’s quality. You make a worthless thing, market it cleverly, and don’t offer refunds. That’s the American way.
One thought on “Movie Review – Roger & Me”