I finally got around to watching “From Poor to CEO: The Incredible Journey of Herman Cain.” Released shortly after the former restaurant executive’s untimely death last July, the hour-long documentary traces Cain’s rise from working- class roots to corporate executive, presidential candidate and, finally, public figure.
Oddly, the film leaves out Cain’s role as chairman of Black Voices for Trump. Cain, after all, was an outspoken supporter of the former president when he died from complications of Covid-19. Cain, in fact, tweeted an image of himself, maskless, at a Trump rally a month before he passed away. The widely circulated image led critics to surmise the event caused his death.
Cain, credited as Executive Producer and co-writer (with Barry Tolli, who also directed the film), simply may have wanted to avoid political controversy and focus on achievement instead. A month before he died Cain told Fox News host Stuart Varney: “So if you don’t look for excuses, you can succeed in this country, and that’s the purpose of this documentary.”
“From Poor to CEO” opens with Cain quoting 2 Corinthians 4:8 over the spiritual “Lord Remember Me.” Images of smiling black children fill the screen. You learn shortly thereafter that while Herman grew up poor in Atlanta his parents were hard-working, church-going people. “I saw a work ethic. I didn’t have to be taught it. I saw it first-hand. It had a big impression,” the narrator, Cain, explains, while tooling around his old ‘hood in an SUV.
Eventually we learn a high school teacher encouraged him to study math in college. There, he met Gloria Etchison (his future wife), who occasionally pops up offering her take on Cain’s career. She relates, for example, how she hid her disappointment upon learning the couple was moving to a small Virginia town for Herman’s first job, a “GS7 ballistics analyst” with the Navy.
Cain is often seen sharing life’s lessons at, one assumes, fairly recent speaking engagements. (Annoyingly, no subtitles identify dates or locations.) He tells a group of college students, for instance, that while working for the Navy he earned a master’s degree at Purdue University and, in the process, taught his white boss “not to judge a person by the color of their skin.” Another time he offers: “Do what you have to to continue to move forward to achieve your dream!”
Move forward Cain did. He quit his government job to work for Coca Cola and, a short time later, in 1977, he joined Pillsbury, which then owned Burger King. His restaurant career at the fast-feeder began five years thereafter. Unfortunately, “From Poor to CEO” disingenuously suggests Cain left a vice president position to flip burgers.
“One of the craziest things about Herman’s story was that at one point he left his VP job to take a job with the Burger King Corporation to work his way up, but starting as a cook, flipping burgers,” declares an on-screen Tolli.
It’s a lot more likely Cain spent a month or two as a management trainee, learning the fast-food ropes before overseeing multiple restaurants. According to Cain’s LinkedIn profile, his title was Vice President and Regional General Manager, Philadelphia Region.
Cain himself fails to mention this. Instead, he regales an audience with a story about a unit he managed where annual sales climbed from $800,000 to $1.0 million. He credits the increase to changing employee attitudes. Burger King brass in fact later recognized Cain for creating a program that encouraged employees to smile.
In 1986, Pillsbury dispatched him to fix struggling Godfather’s Pizza. As president, he closed some 250 restaurants and, two years later, acquired the chain with an investor group. “What I was able to do is get the organization focused on what’s the stuff we ought to be doing,” he tells another audience.
The documentary, curiously, overlooks Cain’s role as the National Restaurant Association’s CEO from 1996 to 1999, a notable achievement for any restaurant executive. He earned the catchy nickname “The Hermanator” while there.
The film, meanwhile, doesn’t shy away from Cain’s tribulations, including a serious bout with cancer for which he was successfully treated. His faith in God and his doctors got him through the ordeal, he explains. The cancer never returned.
Another ordeal arrives after announcing, in May, 2011, he’s running for president. The Republican was by then a popular conservative radio host, columnist and Tea Party favorite, though unknown to most voters.
Cut to Cain on an outdoor stage, arms spread, shouting the words of Martin Luther King: “We will all be able to say, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, this nation is free at last again!’” Yet the message seems out of context given his audience is nearly all white—and we never learn “free” from what.
His candidacy, though popular, was relatively brief. He suspended the campaign in December after three women accused Cain of sexually harassing them when he worked at the National Restaurant Association; elsewhere, a woman claimed they’d had a long affair. Cain denied it all.
“In America you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. No, no, no, no. They decided I was guilty, and it was up to me to prove I was innocent,” he tells an audience. “They” were the media.
We leave Cain in the kitchen of his spacious house. Gloria has just finished making dinner for their kids and grandchildren. Heads are bowed, hands are held. “We continue to pray you will spread your grace among each and every one of us, oh Lord,” Cain intones before they sit down. The gospel song “God Has Been So Good To Me” plays softly as they eat.