On December 20, 1989, the provocative filmmaker Michael Moore’s satirical documentary “Roger & Me” opens in theaters across the United States. (It had made a brief tour of film festivals earlier that year, before it had a distributor.) The film chronicled Moore’s unsuccessful attempts to meet Roger B. Smith, the chairman and chief executive of General Motors, who had presided over the closing of 11 factories in Flint, Michigan, during the 1970s and 80s. As a result, nearly 40,000 people lost their jobs, and Moore wanted to interview Smith about the city’s subsequent decline; Smith, perhaps understandably, chose to avoid that conversation, and his dodges and evasions provided plenty of grist for the filmmaker’s mill. “Roger & Me” earned a great deal of critical praise, and put its director into the public eye. His subsequent movies–the Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” (2002), “Fahrenheit 9/11″ (2004) and “Sicko” (2007) became some of the top-grossing documentary features in history.
In “Roger & Me,” Moore made the argument that the factory closings in Flint were not inevitable. Instead, they were the entirely predictable (and avoidable) result of the ineptitude, callousness and greed of the people running GM. Roger Smith deserved a lion’s share of the blame for these managerial disasters, according to Moore, because he had been at the company’s helm for so long: Before he was appointed CEO in 1981, he’d been on the Board of Directors for almost eight years.
Though Moore leavened his depressing movie with goofy anecdotes and absurdist set-pieces, the humor did not disguise his rage at what had been done to his hometown, a city that had once (thanks to GM) been so thriving that people came from all over the country in hopes of landing one of its thousands of blue-collar jobs that paid a middle-class wage. By the end of the 1980s, however, Flint was falling apart–in part because of mismanagement at GM and in part because of forces beyond the company’s immediate control, like deindustrialization and globalization. Abandoned factories dotted the landscape, houses fell down and displaced auto workers did anything they could to make ends meet. At the end of the 1980s, “Money” magazine called Flint “the worst place to live in America.”
In the late 1970s, GM plants employed almost 100,000 people in Flint; today, they employ fewer than 7,000. Roger Smith, who never bothered to see Moore’s film–“I’m not much for sick humor,” he said, “and I don’t like things that take advantage of poor people”–died in 2007.