The honest Detropia is an elegy for Motown-era Detroit
When it comes to cost-cutting, downsizing and philosophical and practical compromise, how low is it possible to go before there's nothing left to cut — and nowhere to go but up? Detropia, the evocative new documentary from filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), is a portrait of a city that rose on utopian dreams, settled into comfortable function, and then began a long decline to its current state of life support, all in less than a century. In 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world; today, a family moves out of the metropolitan area every twenty minutes. Ewing and Grady chart how and why it's come to this, city-symphony style. Between bookends of a conductor leading an orchestra and an opera star singing a cappella in the ruins of an abandoned train station, the filmmakers collage the stories of contemporary Detroiters — a union president, a bar owner, a blogger — who are trying to make it through an ever-more-arid present while haunted by the past, and facing what increasingly seems like no future.
In Detroit's glorious past, as seen through archival footage and testified to by the film's subjects — who tell their own stories through loose, stream-of-consciousness narration and conversation — the Motor City was a Midwestern mecca of both national industry and uniquely American pop culture, both car-centric phenomena. The outsourcing of manufacturing that has drained Detroit of promise and opportunity is a process that long pre-dates the national financial crisis — but the overall shittiness of the American plight hasn't helped. That the auto bailout has had little impact on Detroit's ability to stave off attrition is evident primarily in Ewing and Grady's ample footage of burned-out and abandoned buildings, and secondarily in the story thread concerning the endangered Detroit Opera House. The tony, old-school cultural landmark, which relies on significant corporate sponsorship from the auto companies, is in dire financial straits, and if it closes, it'll have a domino effect on local businesses that depend on theater traffic.
Detropia proceeds as a portrait of a place that time is in the process of forgetting, until the city's mayor (and former Detroit Pistons all-star), Dave Bing, hands the filmmakers a structuring news event. Frankly admitting that Detroit is "broke," he announces a plan to "consolidate" the community, asking people who live in outlying, underpopulated areas to move closer to downtown so that the city can serve residents more cheaply.
What the mayor's plan ignores — and the film powerfully brings into focus — is that many of those who haven't left Detroit are bound to where they live not just by financial constraints, but by an emotional connection to their city and its history. One of the film's most colorful characters is Crystal Starr, a local blogger who stalks through abandoned buildings with a flashlight in one hand and a Flip cam in the other. She's motivated, she says, by her psychic "memory of this place when it was banging."
The filmmakers pay elegy to the Detroit of the Motown era, with its thriving middle class supported by manufacturing. At the same time, they're honest about the fact that the version of Detroit local partisans yearn for is long gone and most likely not coming back. While long-term residents fan furiously to keep the last embers of an old flame alive, Detroit is increasingly attracting newcomers who assume the city is already dead: young white artists who are colonizing downtown Detroit's dirt-cheap lofts, European tourists who blithely admit to having been attracted to the city for its "decay" — and thus, a blank slate on which they can start anew.
Detroit's story is a microcosm of America's — only, for now, slightly more desperate.
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