Another portrait of a former manufacturing giant hollowed out by the global economy’s race to the bottom of the wage scale, Braddock America revisits depressingly familiar ground for anyone with an even cursory knowledge of the rusting of the Steel Belt. Films on this subject constitute a genre of their own, and this one stays mostly on well-trodden ground, contrasting present-day images of abandoned houses gone to seed, near-empty churches, and dynamited buildings with archival footage of the enormous steel mill that once offered the men of Braddock, Pennsylvania and their families a ladder to the American dream. Braddock America may lack the humor, creativity, and rib-jabbing cheekiness of classics like Roger & Me, but it’s also mercifully free of the ruin-porn shots that turn so many contemporary films about struggling cities into self-consciously arty exercises in the romanticization of decay. Its goal is relatively modest: to capture the story of one town as it was experienced by a number of its residents. The stories they tell, usually addressing the camera directly, form an oral history of a golden era for America’s working class—especially those who were white and male.
The people interviewed often get emotional as they talk about the thriving town they remember and the values and hard work that made them feel like part of something bigger than themselves (the mill, one man says proudly, made two-thirds of the steel needed on the Western European front during WWII.) The lack of title cards to identify the speakers, while unsettling at first, contributes to the film’s emphasis on the community rather than the individual, while the informality of the interviews—people often stop to take a call, wait for a noisy train to go by, or address a friendly remark to the unseen filmmakers behind the camera—gives them an appealingly impromptu, unrehearsed feel.
There are frequent reminders that this lost world was no paradise. One of the few African-Americans we hear from says his father never talked about his work in the mill, probably because of what African-American men had to go through there. A cop remembers that his grandmother wouldn’t hang out the wash to dry on days when the wind was blowing from the factory, since the air was so dirty then. Another man says he chose not to work at the mill because he saw too many friends’ lives get “swallowed up” by it. But the dominant mood is nostalgia for the postwar economy that worked so well for hardworking people in Braddock—and, by implication, other towns like it across America.
Equally poignant is the film’s exploration of the conservative and communal strands in human nature that make us cling to our communities even as they collapse around us. As one woman puts it, in explaining why she doesn’t want to leave Braddock for some city where she’ll be a stranger among strangers: “I want to stay here, where I feel like I’m part of what happens.” The tension between modest human desires like hers and the blind corporate hunger for greater profits, regardless of the human cost involved, is the tragedy behind the collapse of our manufacturing economy. It’s also the driving force of Gabriella Kessler and Jean-Loïc Portron’s workmanlike exposé, which is as direct and unpretentious as its subjects.