Lightning Rod of the Left
|Michael Moore is an outspoken
critic of big corporate greed, America’s gun culture, major-party
politics as usual and wartime fear-mongering, as well as a passionate
advocate for the rights of the common man.
In person, he seems an unlikely candidate for the title of one of America’s most famous and infamous liberal commentators and documentary filmmakers of the last 25 years. He is tall, corpulent, bespectacled, unshaven, and usually dressed in baseball cap and baggy jeans. His unkempt appearance and affable manner has disarmed many an unsuspecting interview subject, while he uses humor and a passive-aggressive interview style to elicit the information he wants.
Moore was born in Davison, Michigan, just outside Flint, in 1954. His mother and father were both Irish Catholic, and working class. Both his father and grandfather worked for General Motors, the largest employer in the area. Moore attended parochial school until he was 14, and then attended Davison High School, where he was on the debate team and worked with the student government.
From Student Activist to School Board Member
Moore often came into conflict with his high school principal over school rules and resented his authoritarian manner. In 1972, when 18-year-olds were given the right to vote, he ran for and won a seat on the Flint School Board on the platform of getting that principal fired. He had become the youngest elected official in the country and nine months after he took office, the principal was gone.
Moore came into conflict with other members of the school board over his support for student rights and a teacher’s union. He discovered that administrators were awarding contracts illegally, so he reported them to the local prosecutor. He successfully sued the school board for the right to tape-record their meetings. Moore was constantly battling with the other members of the school board over things like student rights, school rules and administration that they began holding meetings in secret without telling him. Moore reported them to the State Attorney General and they were hauled into court.
When Moore tried to get an elementary school named after slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King in a district that was 99% white, local business leaders and the school board started circulating a recall petition to have him removed. Even though many of the signatures they collected were declared invalid, a judge allowed the recall election to proceed. It seemed certain that Moore would be ousted, but a groundswell of support caused the recall effort to be defeated.
Meanwhile, he briefly attended the University of Michigan-Flint, but dropped out because he was so busy with legal actions against the school board and the city of Flint he couldn’t concentrate on his studies.
He began as a writer for The Flint Voice, an alternative weekly
newspaper and soon became its editor. He expanded the coverage and the
name to The Michigan Voice and served as its editor for 10 years. He
tackled volatile subjects that no other newspaper would touch and that
caught the attention of the publisher of Mother Jones magazine who
offered him the job of managing editor. Mother Jones had once been a
very important voice for the working class, but over time the magazine
had forgotten its roots and was catering to "yuppies" because
that demographic was more attractive to advertisers. Moore was hired to
reshape the content of the magazine to appeal to a more liberal
audience, so that the magazine would be true to its origins and still be
attractive to a desirable demographic.
Moore had become disillusioned with mass-market print media, so after a brief stint working with a Ralph Nader organization, he tried his hand at documentary filmmaking. His first documentary, Roger and Me was released in 1989. The title refers to Moore’s unsuccessful attempts to interview Roger Smith, the Chairman of General Motors. The film is about General Motor’s decision to shut down their facilities in Flint, the main source of employment for its citizens, and how that decision turned a once-thriving city into an industrial ghost town. The film detailed how the effects of corporate greed and Republican "trickle-down economics" had robbed the middle class of its job security and economic status.
During production, Moore ran out of money and had to sell his house and hold bingo games in order to raise enough money to complete the film. His sacrifices paid off though, because Roger and Me went on to be the most successful documentary of its time.
He followed that up in 1992, with a short film called Pets or Meat: the Return to Flint, where he went back to Flint to check on many of the characters that were introduced in Roger and Me. The title refers to a sign in the driveway of Rhonda Britton, aka the Rabbit Lady, who earned money by raising rabbits until Flint authorities shut her down. The film showed that Rhonda and most of the other residents of Flint were continuing in the downward economic spiral that began with the closing of the General Motors plant.
In 1994, Moore produced a news-magazine style television show called TV Nation for NBC. Moore was allowed a lot of freedom by NBC, which maintained a hands-off policy, but the ratings weren’t what NBC had hoped and the show was in danger of being cancelled when it was picked up by FOX. Unfortunately FOX executives tried to exert a lot of control over Moore and the show. After many battles with Moore, the executives cancelled the show at the end of its second season.
In 1995, Moore produced his first fictional film, a comedy called Canadian Bacon. The film was about an American president who decides he can improve his waning popularity by invading Canada. The film’s release was delayed for two years because one of the film’s stars, comedian John Candy died. By the time it was finally released, another very similar film named Wag the Dog came out shortly thereafter and was much more popular.
In 1996, Moore published his first book, Downsize This!: Random Threats from an Unarmed American, a collection of scathing political essays. Moore decided to film a documentary of his 47-city book tour that was released in 1997 and called The Big One. During the tour, Moore managed to get himself banned by the Borders Chain for an incident at the Borders Bookstore in Philadelphia. Moore didn’t want to cross a picket line of workers who were demonstrating for a union, so he invited the workers into the store with him and let them speak to the assembled crowd after he finished. Even though he had gotten the store manager’s permission, Borders executives retaliated by banning him from entering any Borders outlet.
Moore returned to television with a program called The Awful Truth for Channel 4 in Great Britain that was very similar in format to TV Nation. It was eventually picked up by the Bravo network and broadcast in the US.
In 2000, Moore campaigned for Ralph Nader, promoting his belief that
there was little difference between the two major parties. Nader
didn’t have a chance of winning, but to Moore’s chagrin, he took
enough votes away from Al Gore to get George W Bush elected.
Liberal Propagandist or Documentary Filmmaker?
After the massacre at Littleton Colorado’s Columbine High School in
2002, Moore decided to do a documentary about the causes of the
massacre, which he believed were rooted in America’s obsession with
guns and violence. Bowling for Columbine was released in the fall of
2002, and it became the most successful documentary in history as well
as winning the Oscar for Best Documentary.
Moore understood that his support of Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential election had taken a lot of votes away from Al Gore and was instrumental in electing George Bush, so during the 2004 election he put all of his efforts into defeating George Bush. He produced Fahrenheit 9/11, a scathing indictment of the Bush Administration and its justifications for the war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.
The Disney corporation decided the film was too controversial for them and they would not allow their Miramax subsidiary to distribute it. Eventually a distribution deal was completed with IFC and Lion’s Gate. As the June 2004 release date for Fahrenheit 9/11 approached, Bush supporters mobilized to block theater chains from showing it and tried to get the Federal Election Commission to prohibit advertising the film based on campaign finance laws that prohibit third-party advertising for or against a candidate so close to an election.
Conservatives called him a propagandist and a leftist flamethrower, and they mounted a substantial effort to discredit him. Right-wing pundits went on all the talk shows and condemned the film. Talk show host Bill O'Reilly likened Moore to Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels. A plethora of anti-Moore books and films were produced and there are nearly one million web pages containing the words "Michael Moore" and either lie or lied or liar.
Despite all their efforts, or perhaps in part because of all the good and bad publicity, the film made nearly $22 million in its first weekend, breaking the record previously set by Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. Since its release Fahrenheit 9/11 has become the highest-grossing documentary of all time.
Moore seems to enjoy his new status as the conservative’s favorite whipping boy, and he can trade shots with the best of them:
"These so-called patriots hold the flag tightly in their grip and, in a threatening pose, demand that no one ask questions. Those who speak out find themselves shunned at work, harassed at school, booed off Oscar stages. The flag has become a muzzle, a piece of cloth stuffed into the mouths of those who dare ask questions."
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