If you haven’t heard, the city of Detroit isn’t doing so well. Dial back the clock to 1930 and it was the fastest growing city in North America and the center of the thriving US auto industry. Sadly, that four-wheeled empire has fallen and now the city’s population is but a fraction of what it once was. Massive buildings rot as empty structures like a disaster zone. A family moves out every 20 minutes. Construction crews work full time to destroy 10,000 houses over the next decade that the city knows will never be filled. Things have gotten so bad that Mayor Dave Bing’s current plan is to move the entire population to the center of the city because they just can’t afford to offer public services to the whole community. That’s where documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) come in. They spent a few years crafting a portrait of the city, starting during the financial collapse of 2009. The city was as low as it has ever been. Their film can be haunting, yet thankfully it’s not without a sense of hope.
Detropia has no real central character; Ewing and Grady instead follow a variety of folks in all areas of the city. They were in the mayor’s office for a meeting discussing the city-shrinking “consolidation” plans and see a collection of desperate faces unsure if this or any plan could work. They spend time with one of the last local auto manufacturer union heads and see the company refuse to pay the workers a living wage before finally shutting down production. These scenes are undeniably bleak, but the city is far from without optimists. The most compelling subject that the filmmakers found was Tommy Stephens, a retired schoolteacher who runs a struggling blues club called The Raven. He has to prepare all the food himself because he can’t even afford a cook, yet he smiles and claims to enjoy it. Stephens’ club is located on a stretch of abandoned buildings near one of the last remaining auto factories and he is convinced that it will once thrive again, bringing back his business along with it. You can call it irrational or misplaced faith, but Detropia presents a city filled with people like Tommy Stephens who refuse to leave the city love and let it die.
One of the most remarkable sequences in the movie sees Stephens visit the annual auto show to admire the new electric car that he’s hoping will save the factory, only to stumble on an electric car from a Chinese competitor that offers the same services for a significantly lower price. It’s one of those magic documentary moments with Stephens personally uncovering the impossible competition that the US’ manufacturing industry faces. On that level, Detroit is almost like a ground zero for what America could so easily become. As several subjects in the movie point out, it was the manufacturing industry that created the middle class. As the jobs disappear, so does most of that entire social class. Detroit is now a city of extreme disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished with little middle ground. As the US continues to outsource, the problem will only grow with the entire country turning into a split of skyscraper condos and impoverished shantytowns.
That’s not to say that Detropia is merely a shocking document of poverty. Ewing and Grady are far more ambitious than that. Their photography is gorgeous, editing to music in an almost lyrical way as people interact with crumbling physical spaces. They also do find small examples of growth in the community from an oddly booming tourist trade for foreign visitors fascinated by the city’s unique decay (an odd choice for a travel destination, but there you go) to the budding new community of artists in the city. With Detroit’s rent levels scraping the bottom of the barrel, enterprising artists have turned the city to their home and canvas and the filmmakers turning their cameras on a unique pair who wonder the empty streets in steampunk inspired golden gasmasks to represent the greedy, faceless suits who destroyed the urban landscape. The new community has given the Detroit art scene a boon it hasn’t seen in years and at least offers growth in one small area. The city might be beyond repair, but Ewing/Grady don’t want it to become abandoned, nor do they want the frightening images of a crumbling America ignored. The US has developed a knack for a hiding away their problems, especially during an election year. That makes Detropia is a powerful and pertinent vision of one of the US’ great dirty secrets and hopefully it will help direct as many eyeballs to Detroit as possible before the city completely collapses.