Film: Requiem for Detroit? (2010)
Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a
Genre: Documentary / Detroit / Urban Decline
Synopsis: Rather scathing chronicle of Detroit’s decline from America’s 4th largest city to its most violent and depressed.
Special Features: n/a
This BBC production has a somewhat exploitive feel, as though it was designed to hype the worst aspects of Detroit’s decline – urban, economic, and certain social messiness – so former music video director Julien Temple (Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, The Rolling Stones: At the Max, Absolute Beginners) can craft his montages of archival footage and music samples, but it doesn’t take long to realize Requiem for Detroit? is a taut chronicle of how the founding minds of the big car companies (namely Henry Ford) were significantly responsible for the racial tensions that erupted in 1967, and led to the city’s disheartneing decline.
Whereas the recent Detropia [M] (2012) deals almost exclusively with citizens struggling to maintain dignity and a roof over their families as companies pack up leave, Requiem is a scathing indictment of the companies which maintained racial divisions among whites and blacks from Detroit, and migrant workers from the South who travelled far for better paying jobs and the middle class dream; and the fostering of car consumerism (if not consumerism in general) whereby people were behaviorally shaped to wanting the newer better more expensive vehicles every few years.
According to Temple, Detroit’s singular reliance on the manufacturing, distribution, sales, and repair of cars (which Temple dubs as a ‘golden goose’ business) set it up for being unable to reorganize when there was a catastrophe, and a history of bad race relations made it a natural powder keg; when things erupted in ’67, chunks of the downtown were looted and set ablaze, lasting a week, with many deaths and injured. The remaining whites who didn’t move to the suburbs for bigger plots of land during the fifties pulled out, leaving an 8 mile tract of nothingness between the wealthy white ‘burbs, and poorer downtown core. As chronicled in Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006), Detroit’s auto giants had rejected smaller fuel efficient designs, and the spike in oil during the early seventies allowed foreign auto makers to meet the demand of affordable transportation, weakening the American firms who in turn began to close down some of the largest manufacturing plants on the continent.
Temple interweaves the past with the present, constantly contrasting the city’s glory with the ruins of the past, from flattened neighbourhoods that resemble prairie settlements, to grand hotels and office buildings. The most bitterly ironic segment covers the Detroit Michigan Theatre, the elegant movie palace built on the site where Ford crafted his first car which lost money because it lacked a parking garage, and was gutted and retrofitted for parking to make money.
The indignities to local culture also extend to the Lee Plaza Hotel, where Temple, his guide, and the camera crew can hear scrap metal plunderers removing material from the upper floors before they’re dumped down an already stripped elevator shaft for ground-level reclamation. The Lee is reportedly where Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong once played, and is in such retched condition there’s little doubt it’ll one day crumble to the ground, as was the case with the Packard Plant – then the biggest building in the world – which shows signs of advance blowtorch incisions for later reclamation.
Temple visits locations with urban explorers and is given tours by local guides, and what emerges is a very compact but detail-heavy depiction of the city’s decline and current state, with archival footage and stills complimenting some of the memories and views of the doc’s raconteurs.
Although made two years prior to Detropia, Requiem features a lot more nitty-gritty details about racism and the delusional behaviour of corporate and city forefathers, and it functions as both a complimentary work and an antidote to the less critical viewpoint of Detropia’s directors. It’s not that either party is wrong in their investigation of Detroit’s decline, but Requiem doesn’t temper the venality and hopelessness of its interview subjects. Even though a younger generation is moving into the downtown core, there’s a post-apocalyptic tone to Requiem’s interpretation of their arrival – less about cheap rent and the potential for setting down family roots, and more about exploiting the space and prairie ruins to set up their own farm-like settlements.
The veterans who’ve lived in the city also make specific corrections to popular nomenclature: the ’67 race riots were needed rebellions after decades of racism, and the city’s been abandoned by the federal government because urban decay is less audacious than a 9/11 assault, or a Hurricane Katrina.
Requiem is heavily doom-laden, and Temple frequently uses up-tempo Motown songs with happy lyrics against images of injustice and social unrest. Even the smallest of positive reclamation projects – Goodwill’s program of stripping down derelict homes for their recyclable goods – feels pointless when so much is wrong.
Not a happy film, but a provocative historical chronicle of a city’s terrible decline.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan
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