The U.S. Senator from Ohio will moderate a conversation with recent Oscar-winning filmmaker Julia Reichert and visual artist LaToya Ruby Frazier tonight at the Wexner Center
When U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown sat down to watch “American Factory” for the first time at a Cleveland film festival, he figured he might appear somewhere in the movie, which documents the transition of a closed GM plant outside of Dayton into an auto glass manufacturing facility for Chinese company Fuyao. The film recently nabbed the Oscar for best documentary.
Brown, a Democratic senator from Ohio, had visited Fuyao and made some remarks during a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and it wouldn’t have surprised him to see snippets from that event in the documentary. But sitting in the theater next to his wife, columnist Connie Schultz, he didn’t expect to see a Fuyao executive threaten his life onscreen.
“I’m going to have to kill a senator,” Fuyao's Dave Burrows says in one “American Factory” scene after Brown’s speech. “I’m going to take these big scissors and cut off Senator Brown’s head.”
In Brown’s remarks, he brought up his support of unions — an unwelcome topic for Fuyao executives. “I knew when I spoke at the ribbon cutting that I was surrounded by a group of conservative businessmen — mostly men, almost all white. And I knew when I spoke about unions that, at best, it would bring tepid applause,” Brown said recently by phone. “I knew it wouldn't be well received, but I knew it had to be said because I wanted management to know there are people like me watching and [saying], ‘Don't screw the union. Play it fair.’”
While the initial viewing was a shock, Brown said he finds the onscreen death threat relatively amusing now. (Burrows, who is no longer with Fuyao, later filed a lawsuit against the company, which, as of last week, was headed to mediation.) “My wife is still mad about it,” Brown said. “But I really don't hold ill will toward [Burrows]. He wrote me a letter of apology months and months later. I was fine with it. … It got me a lot of good attention from union workers. They loved it. … The best part about it was how Dave Burrows, at the end, said he needed a union.”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
More and more people are discovering “American Factory” this month after Yellow Springs filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar won the best documentary Oscar for the movie, which is streaming on Netflix. The win came after Reichert’s recent retrospective at the Wexner Center, an institution with which Reichert has a close relationship and long history.
Tonight (Tuesday, Feb. 18) at the Wex, Sen. Brown will moderate a conversation between Reichert and visual artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose current Wexner Center exhibition, “The Last Cruze,” focuses on workers at the former GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio (admission is free but RSVPs are requested).
“American Factory” would never have worked without the trust Reichert established with Fuyao workers at every level of the company. Throughout the documentary, Reichert and Bognar refuse to villainize anyone. “The way [Fuyao Chairman Cao Dewang] rallies his employees by appealing to their nationalism, we think that’s a little horrifying. But he’s proud of that. That’s their culture. And he knows it’s going to work, and it’s used all over China: ‘You’re doing this for the mother country.’ I don’t judge that,” Reichert said in a September interview with Alive. “It’s very different from what we do, and it’s not what I would like. ... I’m not saying I embrace the Chinese point of view, but it is their point of view.”
“She has done all these films that have promoted justice. … If you saw the Academy Awards — it’s the first time I've ever watched them from beginning to end — you saw just how generous she was, praising the other documentarians and everybody else. She brought five auto workers with her,” said Brown, who called Reichert before the Academy Awards to wish her luck. “She invited [Chairman Dewang] to come to the Oscars but he couldn’t. … She also was very generous towards Dave Burrows and said he's a good man. She's just an extraordinary person that way.”
While Brown has not returned to Fuyao since the ribbon-cutting (“I have not been back, and I've been told indirectly that I won't be,” he said) he plans to give more pro-union remarks, possibly to more tepid applause, at new Ohio plants soon. In Lordstown, two companies — Lordstown Motors, a manufacturer of electric trucks, and a new joint venture between GM and Korea’s LG Chem — hope to open facilities in the Northeast Ohio village. Brown said the Korea-owned company, which plans to manufacture battery cells, invited him to a groundbreaking. “So I get to go to another foreign-owned, automotive-related plant opening,” he said. “I talked to them about a union. I mean, I was very specific with them. I always am. Executives know if they want my help, they've got to treat their workers fair.”
Just as Lordstown Motors is hoping to open a plant to make electric trucks, a recent Trump administration budget proposal scraps a federal loan program for fuel-efficient vehicles and electric vehicles. (Though the company is reportedly considering pursuing a $200 million loan from the program, Lordstown Motors told the Dispatch its “business model stands on its own without [the loan].”)
“[Sen. Rob] Portman and I will fight back against [the loan program] being cut,” Brown said. “I'm not in the inner workings for that company, but I know how much they care about it."
Despite congressional gridlock and widespread partisan rhetoric during this campaign season, Brown remains hopeful that works of art such as “American Factory” and “The Last Cruze” can act as catalysts for change.
“I could make a speech somewhere in Columbus, and some people would show up, but [Reichert] can show a movie like that and teach people in ways that [I can’t],” Brown said. “Art teaches people in ways that other things don't.”