There’s nothing new, exactly, in Gabriella Kessler and Jean-Loïc Portron’s despairing but beautiful Braddock America, but the sad truths it illuminates have rarely been put onscreen with such clarity and power. The directors tour the bottomed-out city of Braddock, Pennsylvania, letting the locals — and the general weedy decrepitude — make the argument that the powerhouse steel towns that quite literally built this country now stand as potential harbingers of its collapse. Rather than assail the policies of any political party, or blame the unions, or scapegoat immigrant labor, the Braddock residents onscreen pin the death of their mills and livelihood on something like American greed itself.
The something’s-gone-mean language of these steelworkers and city council members suggests the baffled speeches of the farmers squatting on their hams in Steinbeck, stunned that the country they believed in could so swiftly abandon them. We see them in their homes and their streets, talking at length, their thoughts uninterrupted by the off-camera interviewers. There’s no Michael Moore here, using a busted town to make his own points — here, the busted are the point, and nobody’s pretending a couple elections might sway things. Two of the men have to stop and wipe their eyes; one, in the time-honored way of white American men brought up not to show much feeling, apologizes for getting “emotional.”
The directors weave in heartbreaking vintage footage: hundreds of laborers filing out of the mill in the b&w past; kids playing in an abandoned building in the dawn-of-hard-times ’80s; a thriving downtown in the age of finned cars and middle-class opportunity, with handsome joes swanning about like the kings of the world outside a jewel of a movie house.
Demolition footage opens the film, a mill collapsing in on itself, its silo-spires coming down like bowling pins. Often we witness cops and citizens worrying over the lack of money to demolish more — the only thing flourishing in town are abandoned homes. The present-day footage truly is a tour of the devastated, something like hanging in Braddock for a week with skilled reporters as your host. The directors take us inside churches, white and black, where preachers specialize in the opposite of the prosperity gospel, soothing parishioners who don’t buy into free-market myths. We see a (mostly black) community protest against the shuttering of Braddock’s hospital, complete with “Which Side Are You On?” belted out by an activist through a bullhorn, and the half-dozen white folks lumped onto stools at a featureless bar mouthing through a sing-along of their own: “American Pie.” It builds to a communal declaration more convincing than anything at the protest: “This could be the day that I die.” (That struggle to save the hospital is more fully documented in Tony Buba and Tom Dubensky’s excellent 2013 film We Are Alive! The Fight to Save Braddock Hospital, which the Anthology is showing October 30 with Buba’s best, 1988’s Lightning Over Braddock.)
The most dramatic footage comes from a job-training program where an upbeat counselor quizzes the chronically unemployed about how they’ll present themselves to potential employers. His enthusiasm, meant to be inspiring, is a little grating. The women gaze up at him, performing attentiveness, while the men avoid his eye, performing indifference. The counselor calls on a young man, urging him into a job interview role-play: “Hey, young man, tell me a little about yourself.”
The young man stares at the ground. “That I have no work experience,” he finally says.
The counselor is undaunted. “You’re at a job interview right now. Tell me a little about yourself.”
The young man’s eyes moisten. He sits quietly. The counselor waits. The women offer suggestions, and eventually the counselor continues on, explaining something about how most people are in a “C” category of job applicant rather than an “A” category. It’s hard to tell how that’s supposed to help. A few minutes later, he goads a second young man into playacting an interview. This one goes even worse. His response to tell me about yourself? “I grew up in the city streets.”
The filmmakers cut to this (mostly black) workshop immediately after showing us decades-old footage of beaming workers, many in suits and jackets, parading through last century’s mill dust, doffing their caps at the camera. Most are holding mugs of beer. These men built a country, took care of their families, trusted that their “now” was the baseline from which life would only improve.
Those workers are all white. It’s good that the world is no longer exclusively theirs, just as it’s tragic that that world no longer values the kind of work that they did. The mills have collapsed, and nothing has replaced them, and that also seems true, in a way, of American manhood: The hardness and coolness men have long been encouraged to embody are precisely what the new economy punishes. Can you imagine a ’40s steelworker gritting his way through one of these interviews, expounding on his metaphorical toolbox? If they had to do that first, would they ever have gotten the chance to build anything?