Michael Moore’s: “Roger & Me” – A Sociological Film Review
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This documentary is written, directed and produced by Michael Moore and is about the social repercussions of capitalism as well as corporate and government issues that conflict with the basic needs of people and their families. Moore takes a liberal humanistic look at the consequences of General Motors closing down several auto plants in Flint, Michigan in the late 1980’s and what can happen when a city is almost completely reliant on a single industry that shuts down or moves away. Moore also looks at the failure of Flint city officials to reverse the effects of the closures with trends like Auto World which had little effect (Moore, 1989).
After the closures of the auto plants in Flint, the unemployment and underemployment rates increased to approximately 50% which was unprecedented in United States history. As a result of this, sociological issues such as homelessness, drug abuse, crime rates and poverty rates have all increased dramatically leaving the city of Flint in economic and social shambles. Instead of Flint being recognized as the auto making capital of the world, it is now distinctly known as the worst place to live in America.
Sociological Theory: A Marxist Perspective
The main sociological theory that is evident in this film is that of Karl Marx and the Conflict Theory. Flint can be seen as a stage in which the bourgeoisie and the proletariat battled for power. The bourgeoisie owners of General Motors exploited the proletariat workers and took what they needed for 80 years to serve their bottom line which was profits and power.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) sit down strike of 1937 was reminiscent of what Karl Marx would have called the inevitable revolution against the bourgeoisie against the oppression of the working class auto manufacturers. This strike resulted in widespread labor organization that’s purpose was to protect the workers in the future and for the most part, it did just that until the events in the documentary unfolded.
During the 1980’s, foreign competition and better economic circumstances in Mexico lead to General Motors closing down the factories in Flint. Marx may have seen this as an ultimate form of control over the workers. The factories were reopened in Mexico with an all new, much cheaper labor force that was not protected by labor unions. This once again gives the bourgeoisie owners more power and control to exploit the workers while at the same time leaving over 30,000 people out of work in Flint.
Sociological Theory: A Functionalist Perspective
There is an interesting correlation between the Functionalists Sociological perspective and the events in Flint. The functionalists would say that everything that happens in society serves a function or purpose one way or another. I find it interesting that, as a result of General Motors closing its plants in Flint, the city became one of the worst places to live in America with the highest unemployment rate; how does this serve a function you ask?
Functionalists would argue that businesses such as blood banks, moving companies and mental health institutions benefited as a result of General Motors actions; therefore it served a purpose. Other organizations that predominantly benefited from the plant closures were government organizations such as Michigan corrections facilities and the United States military.
After September 11th, 2001 the military was desperate to find new recruits. Many people who join the military do so because they need money for education or have no other options often due to sociological issues in their lives. In another Michael Moore movie, Moore illustrates how the military “would find them (recruits) all across America in the places that have been destroyed by the economy, places where one of the only jobs available was to join the army” (Moore, 2004). Moore was referring to his home town of Flint in the aftermath of the General Motors plant closures. The aftermath of General Motors closures provided an opportune recruiting ground for the marines thereby serving a valuable function of protecting the nation.
Michael Moore’s Sociological Perspective
From Michael Moore’s perspective, which I tend to share, GM owes Flint some respect and help and needs to get them back on their feet. He believes that American corporations should have a responsibility to its employees to take care of them and do what is good for the whole of the country, not just their shareholders and board members. He has a very humanistic approach to the topic, but I often ask myself, isn’t Michael Moore himself also exploiting the people of Flint by profiting from their pain and suffering as well?
It was important to me to find an answer to this and collect some information about Michael Moore as a person that would be relevant to this paper. What has he done with his fame and fortune? What has he given back to Flint, if anything? I came up with some very uplifting answers. Michael Moore made this documentary using his unemployment insurance checks totaling $100/week (Windsor, 2004). Moore also made a deal with Warner Brothers to be the distributor only after they met all of his demands. His demands included the paying of the rent for two years for the families shown in the movie as well as free tickets for the movie for anyone with an unemployment card (Arseneau, 2003). This speaks volumes to me regarding the positive motives of Michael Moore and his apparently genuine affection for his home town of Flint.
GM & Roger Smith’s Sociological Perspective
To some people it may seem like good business for General Motors to do what they did in Flint. To me I believe it could have had the opposite for their business if enough people revolted against the use of their products; there may have been a different outcome in Flint. Roger Smith’s perspective is from that of a corporate capitalistic business owner. He answered only to his shareholders and board members and had no moral obligation to the people that were affected by his decisions. He was not a political or community leader in any way, although he surely had powerful political allies that took care of his interests and vice versa.
From his capitalistic point of view, his primary objective was only to make as much money as possible for General Motors and himself. The decision to close the auto plants would have been made with this in mind and nothing more. There is nothing legally wrong with this approach; in fact, many would say that it is the American way to do business. Similar to the conflict perspective, he likely believed that there must be a separation of social classes in order for society to function and perhaps he could be seen as a catalyst to attain this.
I disagree with all of the comments made by General Motors’ spokesman in the documentary, however I cannot really blame him because he was simply doing his job which was to protect and represent the ideology of General Motors. If he were to say anything differently, he would have found himself unemployed like the rest of the auto workers and someone else would take his place to say the exact same things. In my opinion, this man was merely a scapegoat hired to do General Motors dirty work.
Conclusion & Personal Perspective
There is something definitely wrong with the General Motors situation in Flint from a moral perspective. The first thing that comes to my mind after watching this movie is a quote from another great movie. In the movie Spiderman it is said that “with great power, comes great responsibility” (Raimi, 2002). I think this should apply in business and government as well, particularly when an industry essentially has an economic monopoly over an entire city such as Flint, Michigan. General Motors must have known that there would be dreadful consequences for the people of the city if they were to pull out, yet they did it anyway. If big corporations like General Motors were legally held accountable for the power that they possessed in Flint, perhaps they would think twice about such dramatic decisions that affected so many people.
Instead of General Motors putting millions of dollars into things like an amusement park, they should have been spending money on effective retraining of its employees. They should have spent money offering interest free business loans and education funds for ex-employees to get them back on their feet. At the very least they could have invested money into places that the citizens of Flint could actually afford to patronize, not just ride the elevator.
I find it quite disturbing to see how much of an impact one company or industry can have on a city’s entire social structure. I understand Michael Moore only gives a one sided approach in this documentary when discussing the problems in Flint, but I cannot ignore or forget the people in this movie who were real and that were hurt the most. Tricky camera angles, montage editing and an absence of a real time line do not take way from the true and honest message of desperation and despair of people like the “rabbit lady” and the heart wrenching site of little children being evicted and thrown out on the street. I can only imagine how events like this effect people that live in the city of Flint and how deeply the wounds will be passed on to future generations in the city.
While General Motors certainly should share some responsibility here, I think it is important to also note that The United States government has done nothing to protect its citizens from things like this. There should be policies in place that discourage corporations from closing shop when there is such a huge economic tie to a city like Flint. It befuddles me how a country can spend 329 billion dollars in 2001 (Hartung, 2003) on military defense to protect the same citizens that they are exploiting, neglecting, and leaving to die on the streets of Flint, Michigan.
Arseneau, A. (2003, September 24). Case #3358 Roger & Me. United States. Retrieved July 15, 2005, from http://www.dvdverdict.com/
Hartung, W. D. (2003, February 14). War without end? The costs of the new military buildup. United States. Retrieved July 15, 2005, from
Moore, M. (Director). (2004). Fahrenheit 911 [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.
Moore, M. (Director). (1999). Roger and me. [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Brothers Pictures.
Raimi, S. (Director). (2002). Spiderman [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.
Windsor, S. (2004, February 28). Prelude to the academy awards: the many roles of Michael Moore. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved July 15, 2005, from http://www.freep.com/