Detropia opens on an abandoned residence being demolished as a wax-faced local reporter stands by, reporting on what most people in his audience already know – Detroit is an emptying, broken city, and it’s hard to imagine that will change any time soon. Detroit was once America’s most thriving city, a sprawling metropolis that was home to America’s most bankable manufacturing system, automobiles. But these days, the giant city (Detroit itself is a stunning 139 square miles) is home to something very different – a giant unemployment rate, a fractured citizenship, and the very real possibility that it will go bankrupt.
Documentary directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, The Boys of Baraka) attempt to tackle the many issues facing Detroit in their film, drawing from different perspectives to form a complete and complex picture of why Detroit is, as one of their subjects grimly announces, “never coming back.” With the automobile industry decamping for cheaper labor and bigger factories in other countries (mainly Mexico) and the constant threat of competitors (China and Japan specifically), Detroit has become a ghost city, one where nearly 90,000 houses lay vacant, one where their own mayor (Dave Bing) proposes a plan to relocate citizens from failing neighborhoods into ones more prone to survival in a desperate bid to keep the city operating. Detroit is, in short, a very unhappy city.
For their interview subjects, Ewing and Grady gathered a complex cross-section of different Detroit residents – blogger Crystal (who is obsessed with documenting the crumbling structures of Detroit’s past), a pair of new residents and installation artists (who like the cheap digs that Detroit can afford them), bar owner Tommy (a former school teacher trying to make ends meet), a pack of young men who collect and sell scrap metal for cash, and Union president George (who used to work in the now-gone Cadiallac factory). The film spends most of its time with Tommy and George, relying on its other three subjects to provide visuals and to sew up a thruline involving the nearly-broke Detroit Opera House. As interesting as both Tommy and George are, the imbalance never quite sits right and we’re left wanting more from the rest of the film’s players.
But while the film may disappoint on a material level, Ewing and Grady, along with their cinematographers Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson have succeeded when it comes to the technical aspects – making a truly goregous film, filled with crisp, effective visuals. The camerwork in Detropia is both extremely natural and richly kinetic, it’s a feast for the eyes, even as it tracks decay and disarray. Detroit may be in relative ruins, but it frequently looks lush and intriguingly haunted, the sort of ghost town you’d want to explore, without fear.
Anyone who is familiar with the situation in Detroit won’t find much of a takeaway from Detropia, as it never goes deeper than most other comparable investigations. Viewers who have read a recent article on Detroit or watched any sort of television special on the subject will see more of the same, though Detropia presents it in a significantly more artistic and articulate manner than most.
The Upside: A visually pleasing film with a highly compelling story to tell, Detropia sheds some much needed light on a situation that all of America should be highly aware of.
The Downside: Despite having gathered an interesting collective of individuals to weigh in on the situation in Detroit, Detropia would fare better with a tighter focus and deeper sense of investigation of facts, versus just presenting stories.
On the Side: Buy American.