Julia Reichert, 1946-2022: Chronicler of Working-Class Struggles

DSA member Julia Reichert, who died late in 2022, will be remembered in the annals of U.S. cinema as a trail-blazing documentary filmmaker and educator. She came of age artistically at a moment when the independent documentary film was coming into its own as a genre, and she was particularly influential in its development. Over the course of a career that spanned more than five decades, she directed or produced fourteen award-winning films, two of which have been included in the National Film Registry. She co-founded a film distribution cooperative, New Day Films, which currently distributes over 300 films by 140 different “indie” filmmakers. For twenty-eight years she taught the craft of film making at Wright State University. The Antioch College public radio station in which Reichert began her career in media described her as the “godmother of American independent documentaries.” 

      Reichert’s career as a filmmaker was infused with a life-long political activism, centered on questions of economic and social justice. Her politics grew out of her experiences in the civil rights, anti-war and women’s movements of the 1960s, leavened by an abiding commitment to the women and men of the working class from which she herself emerged. A democratic socialist and a socialist feminist by conviction, Reichert was part of the group that organized the Mad River New American Movement (NAM) chapter for Yellow Springs and Dayton, Ohio in the early 1970s. It was in those meetings, and in the organizing work that we did together, that I first met Julia and came to appreciate her thoughtful dedication to our cause. When the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was formed out of the merger of NAM and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1982, and I stepped into a full-time national leadership role, Reichert became a member. Reichert’s earliest films – Growing Up Female (on feminist consciousness-raising), Union Maids (on rank-and-file women union activists), and Seeing Red (on the lives of American Communists)–were conceived in part as tools for political organizing, and used as such by those of us in DSA, as well as by other groups of kindred political sentiments.

     Collective action was at the center of Reichert’s filmmaking, just as it was integral to her politics: she organized and embedded herself in communities of work. After graduating from Antioch College, Reichert rooted herself in the shrinking “rust belt” city of Dayton as part of a collective engaged in media work. There she would stay for the rest of her life: as her accomplishments grew, she would turn down opportunities to leave Dayton for big city grandeur. The direction and production of Reichert’s films were collaborative efforts, involving the Dayton communities in which she participated. Of special note were her artistic partnerships with her first and second husbands, Jim Klein and Steve Bognar. 

     Reichert’s politics found expression in her cinematic craft. While some documentarians put themselves at the center of their product, Reichert’s films focused on giving voice to the working people who appeared in them. This focus on providing voice to those whose stories are seldom told was particularly evident in the capstone of her career, American Factory, which she co-directed with Bognar and her nephew Jeff Reichert. Reichert and Bognar had previously made a 2009 film, The Last Truck, which narrated General Motors’s closure of a major Dayton area automobile factory and its harmful impact on the workers who had been employed there. When a Chinese entrepreneur reopened the facility as an auto glass factory five years later, Reichert and Bognar were invited to record the relaunch. The factory began with the best of intentions, both from employer and workers, but was quickly mired in a deep clash of workplace cultures, fueled by the logic of a predatory, anti-union capitalism. By providing real voice for all involved, American Factory provided a rich vignette of that difficult process. The people who appeared on the screen were there to tell their stories; when it was employed, voice over narration would most often come from the interviewees themselves. The film would win an Academy Award, an Independent Spirit Award, and a Primetime Emmy, among other awards. 

In her last film, 9to5: The Story of a Movement, Reichert chronicled the story of 9 to 5, an organization founded in the mid-1970s to address the issues of working women, from pay disparities to sexual harassment on the job. It was a return to the socialist feminist organizing of her younger years, as a number of Reichert’s NAM comrades had been involved in organizing 9 to 5 in Ohio. Reichert wore her socialist politics easily and comfortably, as befitted someone who always saw herself as a “working class kid.” In her acceptance speech for the 2020 best documentary Oscar for American Factory, she declared, “Working people have it harder and harder these days, and we believe that things will get better when the workers of the world unite.” Delivered as common sense, without raised fist or doctrinaire invocation, the phrase from the Communist Manifesto seemed anything but out of place, even though it had most surely not been uttered in previous Oscar ceremonies. That was the power of Reichert’s filmmaking: to make solidarity among working people a commonsense solution to the travails we face. 

Few who saw it in the 1970s can forget UNION MAIDS.
Or 1983’s SEEING RED, either.