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A DIFFERENT KIND OF CAMPAIGN

The Obamas are officially Oscar contenders

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
The Obamas' first production for Netflix is already getting Oscar buzz.
  • Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

Published

Donald Trump loves to brag that his NBC reality TV show, The Apprentice, was twice nominated for an Emmy award. (It never won, a fact the US president blames on politics.) That’s neat, but his predecessor in the White House will probably be nominated for an Oscar next year—and has a good shot to win.

American Factory, a documentary about a glass factory opened by a Chinese billionaire in Ohio, earned rave reviews when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Netflix purchased the distribution rights to the film and brought in Barack and Michelle Obama to produce, as part of the streaming company’s new partnership with the former US president and first lady.

Since debuting on Netflix on Aug. 21, American Factory has garnered even more positive reviews. Critics have called it an ”eye-opening” glimpse at the culture clash between Chinese and American workers and a “stirring, timely, beautifully shaped” study of the challenges of the 21st century global economy. According to IndieWire, the film is one of the frontrunners to be nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary in February. If it wins, Obama would be able to put a famous golden statuette on his mantle, right next to his Nobel peace prize.

The Obamas inked a wide-ranging production deal with Netflix last year to help make original TV shows, movies, and documentaries. Their current projects include an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book The Fifth Risk, a biopic of American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and a drama series set in the postwar New York fashion world. American Factory is the first Obama production to reach Netflix subscribers.

Julia Reichert, the co-director of American Factory, told the Hollywood Reporter last week that the Obamas watched their film and wanted to use their production company, Higher Ground, to “elevate” it. “When we left that room, our heads were spinning,” she said. Reichert also told the Los Angeles Times that she believed Michelle especially related to the documentary because her father was a working-class employee at a Chicago water filtration plant.

As an Oscar contender, American Factory has a lot of things going for it. The biggest, of course, is the Obama factor: Oscar voters could jump at the opportunity to honor the former US president and first lady.

The second is somewhat counterintuitive: the Netflix factor. While Oscar voters have long resisted awarding the streaming service’s scripted dramas and comedies, its documentaries have conversely fared quite well at the Academy Awards. Netflix has had at least one film nominated for best documentary every year since 2014. In 2017, the streamer won the award for its documentary Icarus, which explored a Russian doping scandal.

At the heart of American Factory is a story that’s as politically relevant as it gets—particularly in a presidential election year when American manufacturing and trade agreements are major issues. Academy voters, branded by the current president and his supporters as elitist and out-of-touch with most Americans, may choose to reward the film to show that they are interested in issues affecting the working-class population. If that happens, Trump rage-Tweets will surely ensue.

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