Recently a friend was asking for recommendations on documentary films dealing with corporate ethics (he had just been hired to teach a movie class to corporate executives – now how does one get a gig like that?) He was particularly curious if there were any good films of this type that pre-dated the Michael Moore era. One could point to Moore’s Roger and Me as leading the way for hip, entertaining documentaries that take on the greed and excess of corporate America. The sub-genre that really came into its own in the past decade: The Corporation, Super Size Me, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room are all major entries. Finally this year Inside Job was the first Anti-Corporate Documentary to pick up an Oscar.
But what documentaries were made before Michael Moore made it cool to bash big, bad corporations? One notable entry is The Business of America, directed by Larry Adelman, Lawrence Daressa and Bruce Schmeichen. Made in 1984, the film is touted as the first film to challenge “one of our most treasured economic assumptions: that private corporations can be trusted.” The hypothesis sounds kind of naive today, but watching the film, it’s startling to see how several of its observations resonate with today’s economic and labor crises.
The Business of America centers on a Pennsylvania community of Homestead in the heart of Steel Country, suffering in the midst of factory closings and mass layoffs. The film hones in on steel companies’ lack of investment in infrastructure to keep the industry competitive and profitable. The Reagan Administration lobbied for and eventually passed big incentives for businesses to help them create jobs and stimulate growth – the documentary features an amusing lobbyist film where the Founding Fathers sing and dance on behalf of deregulation and tax cuts.
Even with these incentives for growth, US Steel opted to expand into other industries rather than reinvest in its core infrastructure, leading to more factory closings and layoffs. The narration concludes, “Such projects indicate a fundamental reorientation of American corporations from manufacturing enterprises to financial conglomerates” obsessed with short-term profit over long-term investment. It’s not hard to see how this led to the explosive growth of the finance industry over the past 30 years to its point of its implosion in 2008.
Also eerily familiar are scenes of jobless US Steel workers (among 13,000 laid off at once) storming corporate headquarters, reminiscent of how the demonstrations outside the Wisconsin State Capitol as collective bargaining rights for government workers were being voted down, the latest defeat in protecting the rights and welfare of workers. In connecting the past to the present, I spoke with Larry Adelman, one of the film’s co-directors, who had this to say:
“It’s the same old story. Rather than raise all boats, the rising tide of unbridled corporate power which began during the early Reagan years when The Business of America is set (1982-84), has become a tsunami leaving destroyed lives, communities and public services in its wake. And once again, companies and the executives who run them are not called to account for the damage they’ve caused. Instead, we are supposed to somehow accept as a given that the rest of us, but especially children, the poor and public employees, pay the price to clean up their mess.”
To its credit, the film doesn’t paint the situation back then as homeless, but spends a good deal of its final act showing how Steel Country denizens actively attempt to take control of their destiny through a variety of measures: by organizing mass protests, forming local business development groups and coordinating think tanks with economists, social activists and community leaders. 27 years later, that spirit of group solidarity and resourcefulness is more needed than ever.
Watch The Business of America on Fandor.