The Netflix documentary American Factory was the first film released under Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. It also won the 2020 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, marking the first time that legendary documentarian Julia Reichert has won an Oscar in her storied 50-year career.
Reichert and her co-director Steven Bognar both won Oscars for their work on the film. But did the Obamas? In a word: No.
Though the Documentary Feature award is won by the main directors and producers of a documentary, in this case, that was Bognar, Reichert, and producer Jeff Reichert (Julia Reichert’s nephew). The Oscars’ qualifications for who counts as a primary producer on a work are designed to reward those who do most of the actual production work on a film — securing financing, finding talent, making sure the movie actually gets made, and so on.
For a similar example to the Obamas’ relationship to American Factory, see An Inconvenient Truth. The film, built around Al Gore’s famous lectures about the impact of climate change on the planet, won the Documentary Feature Oscar in 2007. But the Oscar didn’t go to Gore; instead, it went to director Davis Guggenheim. Gore did appear on stage to stand alongside Guggenheim, but he did not take home an Oscar statuette.
In the case of American Factory, the Obamas signed on to the project after it was already made, which means they weren’t involved in the actual production of the film. Indeed, the movie was already an award winner at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and a Netflix acquisition before the Obamas signed on to executive produce. The Obamas also didn’t attend the 2020 Oscars, so they didn’t appear on stage with Reichert, Bognar, and Reichert.
This doesn’t mean the Obamas can’t win an Oscar in the future for a movie produced by Higher Ground. (Their next film screened at Sundance just a few weeks ago.) But they’d have to be more involved in the actual making of that film — likely shepherding it from inception to the screen. The Oscars would then almost certainly be happy to count them among the long list of Oscar winners.
However, did the association of American Factory with the Obamas hurt the movie’s chances with Oscar voters? Of course not. Their names popping up in the credits surely helped the movie stand out in a crowded and competitive field, where every little bit helps.