Film: Detropia (2012)

October 11, 2012 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer:  n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a / Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Documentary / Detroit / Urban Decline

Synopsis: Portrait of Detroit’s inhabitants whose lives are still affected by population flight, a decline in jobs, and dwindling tax base for a city government already struggling to maintain basic services.

Special Features:  n/a




“Exceptionalism needs to be learnerd every day.”

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s film is essentially a cautionary tale about Detroit, Michigan, the car manufacturing heartland which chooses to rest on its laurels of being a major economic hub for millions before it was eclipsed by other cities, and  swerved from the fastest-growing city in the world (circa 1930) to a horrible case of extreme urban decay.

With a population documented in the 2010 Census at a hair above 700,000, Detroit is a far cry from its glory days, and Detropia focuses on a set of hand-picked locals who’ve refused to leave and refused to accept defeat when manufacturers beat down unions for cheaper wages only to pack up for cheaper foreign workers while the city struggles with extreme plans to save its urban core.

Mayor Dave Bing, seen in a council meeting, is well aware that once people reach the wage limits imposed by corporations, they pack up & leave, causing the city to lose valuable income and teeter near bankruptcy unless vital services are cut. At present, the city has 40 square miles of nearly vacant land, and among the proposed schemes is relocating satellite citizens within a common-use downtown core, a radical means to cut corners and stop servicing outlying areas with a barely surviving tax base. Urban farming would take over the old residential areas – an extreme shift from Detroit’s long history in manufacturing and distribution, which the head of Local 22 characterizes as an era where “We built everything. EVERYTHING.”

What Ewing and Grady present amid a mass of imagery and sounds is the basic story of what happens when complacency supplants innovation, the latter vital to remaining competitive, but unique to Detroit’s history are the race riots which in 1967 had parts of the city burning, and caused the middle class to flee, leaving the city and its tax base fallow. Remnants of its glory days lie in the elegant hotels, ballrooms, concert halls, cinemas, and vast suburban tracts which either stand empty and rot under the elements, or have disintegrated, leaving former residential streets vacant, save for the odd abandoned house, and the rare stubborn inhabitant who refuses to leave his / her home.

Perhaps the strongest visual element is the Michigan Central Station – abandoned since the 1980s and now a giant masonry skeleton, through which light pierces every floor. Towards the doc’s end a local opera singer wanders into the main lobby, and as his magnificent voice rebounds off the decaying infrastructure, the word “VOMIT,” one of several graffiti words spray painted on the walls, takes over our attention.

There are no solutions within Detropia to the complex problems of urban and industrial decay, but as the owner of a local blues club, The Raven, plainly states, “this is comin’ to you”. No great city deserves such a fate, and amid confounding statistics of flight and bare signs of new jobs – like GM’s Volt vehicle – the city continues to survive.

One caveat: Detropia isn’t a grand showcase of Detroit’s saved and forgotten architectural wonders – they’re one of several story components – so those wanting more detailed cinematographic views of the great public venues will only get a few samples – Michigan Central Station, an unnamed performance hall, a terrifying structure literally swaying in the evening wind, and what’s likely the once-gorgeous Lee Plaza Hotel – of which the bulk come from local video blogger Crystal Starr.

As a feature-length doc, Detropia starts out very strong and quickly maps out the main issues affecting Detroiters, but the film does lose a bit of momentum towards the end, hovering on interviews that tend to repeat information. (The sole exception is a group of men pulling apart a structure for its steel, as they illustrate the pillaging that occurs when there are no jobs, and one type of self-employment involves the reclamation of metals for scrap sales.) Precise details of the 1967 riots are also given some short shrift, and the riots segment perhaps should’ve appeared earlier in the film, since they’re treated like a lesser cause of the city’s slow decline. A much more thorough chronicle of the city’s race relations can be found in Julian Temple’s provocative BBC doc Requiem for Detroit? (2010) which also features more footage of the city’s iconic ruins.

Also available: a podcast interview with cinematographer / co-producer Craig Atkinson on his directorial debut, Do Not Resist (2016).



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


External References:

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