In 1955, the Ford Motor Company opened a new factory in Mahwah, New Jersey, some thirty miles from Manhattan. It was the largest auto plant anyone had built in the country up to that time, and it produced remarkable amounts of toxic waste: dioxin, lead, arsenic, Freon, and runoff from the bright, durable automative paint sprayed onto the surfaces of the cars. Beginning in 1967, Ford simply dumped the hazardous waste in the woods of Ringwood, New Jersey, which was populated by members of the Ramapough Native American tribe. This hash of poisonous industrial slop literally became part of the world of the children growing up in the area. Kids too turns sliding down what the locals, now grown up, still refer to as "Sludge Mountain"; they made mud pies out of dirt that, having been soaked in the paint, was every color of the rainbow. (Someone digging in the rocks today holds up a piece of enameled earth and marvels at the stubborn indestructibility of automotive paint: "Hey, it's still cherry red!") The brightly colored mud pies looked so good that the kids took to eating them. They apparently tasted pretty good.
The dumping continued until 1971, by which time, one former Ford employee recalls, "five or ten [truck]loads of waste" were being hauled out of the plant every day. When the company finally shut the plant down, Ford had to decide what to do with the land they'd turned into a breeding ground for mutations, so it donated it to an organization that built low-cost housing, thus washing their hands of their place and getting a tax deduction in the process. A higher than average number of the people who've lived there all their lives are now plagued with cancers, kidney problems, diabetes, ruinous skin conditions, and other ailments; less than five percent of the community have lived past sixty, indicating what one doctor in Maro Chermayeff and Micah Fink's documentary Mann v. Ford matter-of-factly refers to as "a massive die-off" rate.
Chermayeff (who worked on the PBS series Carrier and Circus) and Fink (who has directed some memorable Frontline episodes) made the film over the course of five years. They recording events as they unfolded, including the momentous occasion in 2006 when the area became the first place to be reclassified as a Superfund site by the EPA after the agency had spent a year cleaning it up and then assured the residents that it was now safe. The title refers to the efforts of the locals, who'd been screwed by a corporation and failed by the government, to get some kind of help through the courts. The leader of their legal team, Vicki Gilliam, talks frankly about the value of a good, catchy name, citing such proven crowd-pleasers as Brown v. Board of Education. They decided to use a man named Wayne Mann as the lead plaintiff for his fine character and standing in the community, all of which made him a natural representative figure for his neighbors. But they also must have liked the sound of "Mann vs. Ford", for its Davey v. Goliath undertones and the way it throws the current high-court vogue for treating corporations as citizens into ironic perspective.
Anybody who spends five years on a project like this automatically established himself as some kind of hero, or at least a martyr, to the cause of nonfiction film as muckraking tool and historical document. Following in the footsteps of such filmmakers as Barbara (Harlan County, U.S.A.) Kopple, Chermayeff and Fink aren't staging cute stunts for the camera or playing around with other people's news footage, like some of the most acclaimed and commercially successful documentary makers. They're out in the boonies, following a story they think is important, hoping that it'll take on a shape that will provide them with a satisfying narrative. They establish their right to tell this story through the sensitivity they show towards the people they're filming, especially those who are most vulnerable. When a man sitting on his couch next to his wife talks about the series of operations he's been through, and then partially disrobes, pulling up his shirt and pulling down his pants to show the camera his scars, the effect isn't exploitative or voyeuristic. You feel that the directors have earned his trust, which means that they've earned ours, too.
The weaknesses, or the danger, in the directors' approach, is most evident when the camera focuses on Vicki Gilliam, trying, in vain, to turn her into a crusading Erin Brockovich figure. The crusading spirit is there: Gilliam, a blonde with a thick Southern accent who wonders aloud if the diner where she and her colleagues are discussing strategy serves grits, has a go-for-it narrative in her background. (She talks about being trapped in a bad marriage, with a baby, when she was twenty-one, and thinking her life was over, before she proved she had to gumption to divorce her husband and apply to law school.) What she never shows is the fire that would convince you that a major corporation has reason to fear her.
One reason that Ford must have felt that it could destroy the Ramapough's land with impunity is that the tribe had been marginalized and despised by polite society for most of its existence. To make this point, Gilliam is seen reading old newspaper accounts of the "predominately dark-skinned hill dwellers", who "have been called mongrels, wretched scavengers, horse thieves, car thieves, and fearsome clan people, who shot strangers on sight." You can imagine a tough but good-hearted lawyer reading this and grinding his teeth in indignation or laughing at loud in cynical disgust; Gilliam tears up and sniffles at the cruel bigotry from yesteryear, a sight designed to make a corporation defense lawyer lick his chops in anticipation of moving in for the kill. The local journalists, Jan Berry and (especially) Barbara Williams, show considerably more grit. But it's not clear that there's a lot they can do to influence the situation. (Williams, who often seems on the verge of making a jerking-off motion with her hand, says that when they do stories about the mistreatment of the Ramapoughs, the paper receives reams of letters from readers complaining, "When are you going to tell the real story about the people up there?… Look at the way they are living. They have washing machines on their front porches!")
In the end, Vicki Gilliam never got a chance to prove the camera wrong about whether she had the savvy toughness to make Ford's lawyers squeal for mercy. As the case was finally about to go before a judge, the law firm handling the case shut down one of its offices, which led to her being replaced as lead counsel on the case. It doesn't look as if it mattered a lot one way or the other. The courtroom scene is treated as comedy, as the judge engages in an extended double-talk performance piece, the only clear message that comes through being that he really, really wants the two sides to come to an agreement rather than go through a trial. The settlement that resulted seems to have mostly inspired mixed feelings in everyone, including the filmmakers, whose five years of labor ended with an anticlimax. But even Mann v. Ford can still take its place alongside other recent memorable recent HBO documentaries, including a couple of others —Hot Coffee and The Curious Case of Curt Flood— that, taken together, amount to a tide-bucking argument for the importance of the civil courts as an avenue for citizens who can't get fair treatment or redress any other way.
Films like this used to be made for network television, They'd be shown once and never seen again, and people would complain that they were underfunded and underpromoted and not as smart or daring as they could have been, but a few of them, such as Harvest of Shame and The Selling of the Pentagon and The Guns of Autumn, actually managed to inspire conversations and piss people off, and all together, they forced network TV to still maintain some connection to real life, which was good for both parties and audiences, too. The networks have been out of the documentary business for a long time, now; what little money they still allocate for their news departments goes to keeping the shells of their evening news shows going, even though there would still be a point to producing prime time documentaries and the evening news shows, in the age of the Internet and twenty-four-hour cable news, now have no reason whatsoever to continue to exist. I don't want to make the HBO documentary lineup sound like a plate of spinach, and I kind of hate to offer the network such a back-handed compliment as to say that they're now doing as least as much as the cable news channels, and God knows a lot more than the commercial networks, to carve out a space on the air for people who want to check in the world we're all living in. I know, it sounds as of I'm high-fiving them for being such a nice boy, with every hair in place, while Tim Riggins is deflowering the homecoming queen back behind the barn. But screw it, I'm really grateful that there's somebody there who knows that man cannot live by sexy vampires alone.