Barack & Michelle Obama Open Up About First Netflix Project: 'We're Part of This Larger Thing'

American Factory hit Netflix and select theaters on Wednesday

Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are hoping that the first film released through their highly anticipated production deal with Netflix can help viewers “get outside of themselves.”

American Factory, a documentary on post-industrial Ohio, hit Netflix on Wednesday, marking the first project from the former first couple’s Higher Ground production company.

In a special conversation with the film’s directors, Mr. Obama, 58, and Mrs. Obama, 55, explained their decision to select American Factory as part of their slate, noting that it accomplished the important feat of classic storytelling.

“One way of looking at what we’ve both been doing for the last 20 years, maybe most of our career, was to tell stories,” Mr. Obama says over coffee in the clip. “You want to be in relationships with people and connect with them and work together with them.”

That idea particularly struck directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who said their aim in making the documentary was to give a voice to the voiceless — in this case, blue-collar workers employed at a factory opened by a Chinese billionaire at a former General Motors plant.

<a href="" data-inlink="true">Barack Obama</a> <a href="" data-inlink="true">Michelle Obama</a> American Factory Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar
Michelle and Barack Obama. Netflix

The concept was familiar for Mrs. Obama, who said the beginning of the film reflected the life of her late father, Fraser Robinson III, who worked at a water filtration plant in Chicago.

“Those first scenes of those folks on the floor in their uniforms, that was my background, that was my father,” she says. “And that was reflected in this film.”

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, stressed the idea of getting viewers to learn how to relate to those with whom they didn’t have things in common.

“We want people to be able to get outside of themselves and experience and understand the lives of somebody else, which is what a good story does — it helps all of us feel some sort of solidarity with each other,” he says. “Let’s see if we can all elevate a little bit outside of our immediate self-interest and our immediate fears and our immediate anxieties and kind of take a look around and say, ‘Huh, we’re part of this larger thing.’”

<a href="" data-inlink="true">Barack Obama</a> <a href="" data-inlink="true">Michelle Obama</a> American Factory Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

The former president and first lady announced a production deal with Netflix in May 2018.

In April, they revealed their initial slate of projects, which covered everything from TV series to films and documentaries, both fiction and nonfiction.

Among those are a children’s show for preschoolers called Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents, a narrative film adaptation of the biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, and a new series from Nashville creator Callie Khouri called Bloom.

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A news release at the time said the various movies and shows would be released on Netflix “over the next several years.”

“We love this slate because it spans so many different interests and experiences, yet it’s all woven together with stories that are relevant to our daily lives,” Mrs. Obama said in a statement at the time. “We think there’s something here for everyone — moms and dads, curious kids, and anyone simply looking for an engaging, uplifting watch at the end of a busy day. We can’t wait to see these projects come to life — and the conversations they’ll generate.”

American Factory, which won the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, hits Netflix and select theaters on Wednesday.

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