The Netflix documentary marks the first film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. Co-directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar and producer Jeff Reichert took the stage to accept the award.
After taking the stage, Reichert was quick to honor the fellow nominees, explaining that they felt honored “just being in the presence of our sister and brother documentarians who risked their lives making stories [and] bringing stories to us.”
Reichert then took a moment to honor “working people” who she said “have it harder and harder these days. … We believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite.”
The win was especially meaningful for Julia Reichert, who is undergoing chemotherapy as she battles terminal cancer at age 73. She told The Hollywood Reporter last month that “there’s no cure” for her illness and “it could be six months, a year or more,” adding, “I’ll be real honest, it would be extremely meaningful after four nominations and my age and my state of life. It would be very meaningful,” Reichert had said of the Oscar nom at the time.
The Netflix documentary follows Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, who buys an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio and reopens it as a windshield factory, Fuyao Glass America. The film captures the initial optimism of plant employees, which over time is tempered by increasing demands from management in their chase for elusive profits.
American Factory gained the support of the Obamas and Netflix after it premiered last year at Sundance. American Factory is in part a follow-up to Reichert and Bognar’s 2009 The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, which chronicled the last days of the once-thriving union shop.
The Obamas both took to Twitter to congratulate the American Factory team for their Oscar win.
“Congrats to Julia and Steven, the filmmakers behind American Factory, for telling such a complex, moving story about the very human consequences of wrenching economic change. Glad to see two talented and downright good people take home the Oscar for Higher Ground’s first release,” said Barack Obama.
Michelle added: “Congrats to Julia, Steven, and the whole crew on winning Best Documentary for #AmericanFactory, Higher Ground’s first release! So glad to see their heart and honesty recognized—because the best stories are rarely tidy or perfect. But that’s where the truth so often lies,” she wrote.
Backstage, Reichert discussed why she thought the Obamas were interested in being a part of American Factory: “because they felt it could help people listen to each other through these stories and create empathy, which helps build relationships. We sit down and tell each other our story and it creates empathy.”
The doc won the Independent Spirit Award for best documentary the day prior to the Academy Awards.
The Obamas were not in attendance at the ceremony but their absence is not a surprise given co-directors Reichert and Bognar told THR that chances of a sighting of the former president and first lady for the Academy Awards are slim. “Everything has to be checked out by Secret Service — they have many, many SUVs traveling with them, they don’t just casually go anywhere,” Reichert told THR at the DGA Awards Jan. 25, where the film won for best documentary. The Obamas didn’t attend the Spirit Awards either.
The 2020 Oscars aired live on ABC from the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood.