Top of the Docs #47 – Roger and Me (1989)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be touring North America looking at documentaries focused on specific cities!

Flint, Michigan is a town that has had a tumultuous history over the past few years, most noticeably being in the spotlight due to the scandal concerning their water supply, which due to state mismanagement has been toxic for a number of years, and across multiple presidential reigns. However the abuse of Flint goes back much further than that, as Flint native Michael Moore chose to show in his debut feature documentary Roger & Me.

Prior to the making of Roger & Me, General Motors, the company famous for producing Ford vehicles, employed 80,000 employees in Flint. They were the backbone of the community, similar to how many industrial towns and cities rely on a centralised employer or trade. However in keeping with the radical and purposefully manifested decline of industry in the late 20th century, General Motors planned to reduce jobs in Flint from 80,000 to 50,000, plunging thousands of families into poverty. Moore was not going to let this go by without raising the alarm, and so Roger & Me acts almost as a statement of care, that this is not something companies can do and get away with. People care, and not just those that it effects directly.

Moore finds that on both sides people are guarded. GM are of course cautious of Moore, his film, which sets itself a simple aim – to have a meeting with Roger Smith (CEO of GM) about what is happening, why it is happening, and to hold him to account for the lives he is putting at risk. GM know exactly what they are doing, and allowing Moore any room to get statements from them simply allows room for them to misstep further.

And of course the workers of Flint are guarded too. They don’t trust Moore isn’t working to discredit them, or put them on an equal moral footing with the suits in Detroit. They have been shunted by a company the town has proudly been built around, and that has provided a livelihood for generations of workers. They are attempting to organise a resistance that could result in them saving or losing their livelihoods, and thus their caution around Moore feels warranted.

Roger & Me is undoubtedly a film about how American cities, both big and small, are beholden to corporate power. Flint of course is an extreme example, but Moore does well to convey the way in which a romanticised view of corporations, and the hold they have over (particularly) the so-called Rust Belt is quite disturbing, and leads to the conditions that helped produce the election of Donald Trump (which is not to say that voters from these areas played even the largest part in his inauguration). It is a film, at heart, about the American cities that don’t have tourists flocking to visit, America’s backbone, and how it has long been trampled on by those who claim to represent the American dream.

Trailer for Roger & Me

Header image courtesy of Turner Classic Movies