It seems like forever ago that I first came across the documentary work of Michael Moore. I had rented a cassette at Blockbuster (that’s how long ago it was) so I could watch his first movie, called “Roger and Me.”
I recently downloaded it from the Apple store and I liked it even more 30 years later.
Back in 1989, as a broadcast journalist, I was blown away by how personal the movie was. I couldn’t believe how well written it was. I couldn’t believe how good a storyteller Moore was.
Moore wrote “Roger and Me,” he voiced it, and he played the leading role in the documentary as he recounted what had happened to Flint, Michigan, the city he grew up in. Just north of Detroit, Flint was the city that General Motors put on the map. Flint was also the proud birthplace of the United Auto Workers Union. Michael Moore’s father and many other of his family members worked for GM. Everyone did.
Flint was where General Motors made Cadillacs, Buicks, Chevys and GMC trucks. GM made motors there, it made spark plugs and it made the Fisher bodies for the cars in Flint.
For many years, Flint epitomized what made America great – lots of well-paying jobs for lots of people. Such as 30,000 people in Flint.
In the mid-1980s, GM started to close some of the plants in Flint. In a few short years, the company closed them all, claiming the factories were too old and too expensive to modernize. The company started making cars in Mexico because there was no union there, no benefits, no pensions, and lots of cheap labour.
The documentary was called “Roger and Me” because Roger Smith was the president of General Motors at the time of the Flint plant closings. An important theme of the movie was Moore’s ill-fated frequent attempts to get an interview with Smith to explain why his still-profitable company decided to wipe out a city, leaving 30,000 people and their families with nothing but a deputy sheriff at their doors who was throwing them out of their residences because they couldn’t pay the rent.
Moore vividly demonstrated the beginning of the gigantic divide between the haves and the have-nots in the United States as he tried to track down Smith in the exclusive golf club and the posh yacht club to which he belonged. He and his camera crew were quickly shown the door by security staff. Moore was not welcome, but it was the questions he was asking that were really not welcome.
The now-famous rust-belt syndrome, that ugly legacy of the 1980s, made Flint a sad, depressing precedent for what happened in so many other American cities as manufacturing jobs disappeared in the night, turning good places into cities and towns where crime and destruction overtook the streets.
I wanted to see “Roger and Me” again in 2018 because I thought it would tell me more about the down and out people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. In fact, it told me so much more than I could have imagined. It is amazing to think a 30-year-old documentary could endure the test of time so brilliantly.
What is shocking is that it took three decades for the victims and their families to rise up and scream loud enough to be heard – their lives had become so sad, so desperate, so hopeless. That collective scream is why Donald Trump is now the president of the United States.
Thirty years is enough time to know whether or not things are going to get better. Today, Flint is a basket case. As Moore’s movie shows, all attempts to revitalize the city failed miserably. The politicians had it all wrong as they threw good money after bad, as they faced one revitalization failure after another.
Today, Flint is the city that recently had lead poisoning in its main water supply. It is the city where Netflix produced a 10-part documentary series on police attempts to tame its murderous gangs, which have taken over whole neighbourhoods.
There are too many Flints in the United States. Too many U.S. cities and regions have been wiped out, boarded up and deprived of hope.
There were certainly enough Flints in 2016 to have made Donald Trump look good in an election.