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Cinema/film industry has become a very conspicuous form of mass entertainment. The extent of cinema’s popularity, influence, and proliferation has been phenomenal. Artistic expression and development via technological expediency has made it an unequaled facet of the arts in the 20th century. Films have a social as well artistic function. Although the demand for imaginative entertainment is at an all time high, interest in the realities of the world is also on the rise. Documentaries address this interest. They are comprised of real people, world events, places, and social conditions – documenting history, reality. British film maker, John Grierson first coined the term in 1926. Prior to 1926, such films were referred to as “actuality” films and came on the scene at the turn of the 20th century as well. German filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) catapulted the documentary as mode of propaganda designed to specifically argue a point and influence public opinion. To this day this remains true. From this milieu Academy Award-winning American independent filmmaker, liberal political commentator, and author, Michael Moore arose. Moore’s cadre of successful documentaries includes – Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 911, and Sicko. Moral outrage with a twist of humor, sarcasm, and irony encompasses his unique style.
Moore catapulted onto the scene in 1989 with the controversial documentary Roger and Me which embodied a new form of documentary in terms of interpretive control. Roger and Me examines the economic devastation experienced by the Flint, Michigan residents resulting from the closing of several General Motor (GM) auto plants – a summary decision made by then President and CEO, Roger B. Smith, now deceased. New plants were opened in Mexico and workers were paid less while the city of Flint Michigan was left economically devastated and over 30,000 people lost their jobs.
“Roger and Me” in autobiographical in nature as evidenced by the opening scenes which feature Moore’s archival family movies on 8mm. They echo the profound influence the automotive industry had on Moore’s family (parents and grandfather former GM employees) and the majority of Flint residents. Escaping factory life as a young man, Moore does a brief stint at a San Francisco magazine only to return to Flint at the commencement of Smith’s decision. From that point the film traverses through the closings’ devastating impact on family, friends, and residents. Moore confronts Smith in the climax of the film only to be met with insensitivity and denial.
Moore’s portrayal of what happened in Flint exemplifies hyperghettoization / urban poverty, a concept coined and purported by acclaimed sociologist, William Julius Wilson. Social structure of inner cities is destroyed due to an escalated concentration of underprivileged groups in that area. Its outcome is multifaceted and holistically detrimental for it derives from inadequate and limited access to suitable employment/ income opportunities as well as educational and health facilities. The social protection infrastructure has been destroyed thereby creating a violent and unhealthy environment. This is what happened in Flint as portrayed in Roger and Me. GM embodied the social and economic nucleus of the town. The closing destroyed its social structure as witnessed by the exacerbated crime rate, economic fallout due to high unemployment, housing deterioration, and a host of other ills. Roger and Me is Moore’s personal testimony. It mirrors his outrage at the havoc reaped by corporate downsizing and job outsourcing adhered to by large corporations such as General Motors and in particular US economic policies/social attitudes in general. With what has transpired in the auto industry today, Roger and Me might have been precursor of things to come.
- Grierson, John. 1996. ‘First Principles of Documentary’, in Kevin Macdonald & Mark Cousins (eds.) Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.
- Loic J. D. Wacquant and William Julius Wilson (1989). “The Cost of Racial and Class Exclusion in the Inner City”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 501: 8–25.
- New York Times Profile – Michael Moore: Web.
- Michael Moore – MSN Encarta.
- Roger and Me Official Website.