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Oscars 2020: No, the Obamas didn’t personally win Oscars tonight

"American Factory" directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert with Michelle and Barack Obama.
(Netflix)

Former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama have earned a slew of impressive honors and awards over the years, from Grammys to NAACP Image Awards to the Nobel Peace Prize. But despite backing this year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary feature “American Factory,” the Obamas won’t be adding any Oscar statuettes to their mantle. At least not yet.

Co-directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, “American Factory” chronicles a fascinating experiment in cross-cultural capitalism when Chinese auto-glass manufacturing firm Fuyao decided to establish a satellite plant in an abandoned GM facility in Ohio. The film won the U.S. documentary directing award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and took home the Oscar Sunday night.

But while Netflix released “American Factory” under the banner of the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, they themselves were not involved in making the film and were not personally nominated for it; indeed, their names don’t appear anywhere in the film’s credits. And unlike former Vice President Al Gore, who took the stage in 2007 when the climate-change doc “An Inconvenient Truth” won the Academy Award, they did not attend the show and, per the academy’s policy won’t receive Oscar statuettes.

In May 2018, the Obamas announced the formation of Higher Ground Productions as a vehicle to create and support projects that, as the former president said in a statement at the time, would “promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples,” inking a multiyear deal with Netflix to provide docu-series, documentaries and features to the streaming platform.

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Following the debut of “American Factory” at Sundance in 2019, Higher Ground, along with Netflix and Participant Media, decided to throw its weight behind the completed film as its debut release — a development that stunned the film’s directors, who are nominated along with producer Jeff Reichert.

“We didn’t know what it was going to mean,” Julia Reichert told The Times in August, shortly before the film’s release. “But we love [the Obamas] so much that we just said, ‘OK, it’s going to be good so we’re going to go with it.’ … You know, their company is called Higher Ground. They want to take the higher ground. This is a very divisive time in our country and our film tries to listen to everybody.”

When the film was nominated last month, both Obamas shared their congratulations on social media. “It’s the kind of story we don’t see often enough and it’s exactly what Michelle and I hope to achieve with Higher Ground,” the former president wrote on Twitter. But the couple have not made the rounds at Oscar season events surrounding the film, likely to avoid pulling focus away from the filmmakers and politicizing the awards campaign.

Backstage, Bognar and Reichert acknowledged the Obamas’ critical support for the film but said they had yet to hear from the Obamas immediately after their win. “Well, we don’t know anything about whether … President Obama or Mrs. Obama were told yet,” Bognar said. “But it’s safe to say they’ve probably heard the news.”

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Indeed, in the wake of the film’s win, President Obama tweeted his congratulations to the filmmakers “for telling such a complex, moving story about the very human consequences of wrenching economic change.”

Looking ahead, Higher Ground’s pipeline is stocked with high-profile upcoming projects, including an adaptation of the novel “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” an anthology series based on the New York Times’ “Overlooked” obituary column and the documentary “Crip Camp,” which debuted to positive buzz last month at Sundance — any of which could potentially put the Obamas back in the mix for future awards down the road.

Times staff writer Christi Carras contributed to this report.


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