Braddock America (First Run Features, NR)

dvd braddockThe real truth may be, to paraphrase folksinger Lee Hayes, that the good old days aren’t what they used to be—but then again, they never were.




Braddock, Pennsylvania, was once a thriving industrial town. There in 1873, Andrew Carnegie built Edgar Thomson Steel Works, one of the first American steel mills to use the Bessemer process. Braddock was also the location of the first Carnegie library, built in 1889 and furnished with a bathhouse so the millworkers could wash up before entering the library.

More recently, however, Braddock has fallen on hard times. The collapse of the American steel industry in the 1970s and the 1980s resulted in the loss of many local jobs, and much of the city’s population. The 2010 population found only 2,159 people living in Braddock, as compared to 20,879 in 1920 and 12,337 in 1960. Over one-third of the population was living below the poverty line, and working-age adults were in the minority, with over half the population either younger than 18 or older than 65. The loss of employment and population was accompanied by predictable declines in the quality of life, and Braddock was hard hit by the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

The decline of Braddock may be a sad story, but it’s typical of many rust belt towns, and this same general narrative has been told many times. That means that any new additions to the “industrial decline and fall” genre must bring something new to the table, preferably offering some insight that or highlighting some aspect of this story that has not been told before. Unfortunately, the documentary Braddock America, directed by Gabriella Kessler and Jean-Loic Portron, is content to follow the same well-trod path of combining archival footage from the days when Braddock was thriving with new shots showing the city’s decline, strung together with interviews with various town residents.

The best feature of Braddock America is the cinematography by Portron, which demonstrates a sharp eye for finding interesting shots in an unlikely environment, and for setting interviews in locations that reflect the life of the subject. Many shots in Braddock America would work as still photos, and the whole project might have been more successful as a photo essay rather than a film.

The most notable feature of Braddock America, and one not interrogated at all by the filmmakers, is the sense of entitlement expressed by many of the town’s residents. Those who are old enough remember the town’s prosperity when the steel mills were in full operation, but seem to feel that they enjoyed not good fortune during those years, but rewards due to them; now that the prosperity has ended, they search for someone to blame now. The most unintentionally funny moment is when one of the town’s police officers, he a government employee, says the government is to blame, while others offer up condemnations of corporate greed or simply speak of some mysterious “they” who is to blame for Braddock’s decline.

Unfortunately, hearing white people complain about their lot is no novelty, and the filmmakers’ determination to allow each subject time to get out what they have to say means they include a lot of rambling on camera. If the point is to let us know that these people feel bad about the state of their city, and of their lives, both sentiments do come through, but neither is particularly interesting or novel. More interesting are the recollections by several African-Americans, who indicated that opportunity was far from equal in Braddock, while others recall serious pollution from the mills, to the point where you had to check which direction the wind was blowing before deciding whether you could hang your laundry that day. The real truth may be, to paraphrase folksinger Lee Hayes, that the good old days aren’t what they used to be—but then again, they never were.

The only extras on the disc are a gallery of trailers for other films distributed by First Run Features. There is one serious flaw in the DVD I received, and I don’t know if it is characteristic of the film as screened or if something went wrong in the transfer. The visuals and soundtrack are frequently not synchronized, which is quite distracting in a film that relies so much on interviews. | Sarah Boslaugh

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