By Jacob Axelrad, Assitant Arts Editor
Published September 21, 2012
If James Agee were alive today, “Detropia” is the kind of work he might be producing. Like Agee, the director-producer team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (who brought us the powerful yet disturbing documentary “Jesus Camp”) combines factual reporting with a poet’s sense of lyrical beauty hidden beneath human sorrow.
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Their latest project focuses on Detroit’s downfall as a symbol for the disappearance of the country’s manufacturing base. Though, perhaps more importantly, Ewing and Grady present individuals who embody the resilience of Detroit: No matter how bad things get, no matter how many abandoned houses burn to the ground, the people shown here are Detroiters for life, wedded to the city they call home.
To its credit, “Detropia” is an exercise in restraint — never preaching, simply telling and showing. It’s not a cautionary tale. What happened in Detroit is an old story to most by this point. What it is, rather, is a snapshot — a close-up examination of the pathos and humor present within the complex web of economic problems plaguing the Motor City.
There’s Crystal Starr, an amateur video blogger, who explores and documents the wreckage of old office buildings. Like a kind of tour guide of American ruins, she describes what these sites may have looked like in their golden age. There’s George McGregor, an official from the United Auto Workers, who desperately tries to offer counsel to union members facing extreme pay cuts. And then there’s bar owner Tommy Stephens, the film’s emotional core, whose bar depends on the success of the General Motors plant down the street. Stephens’ narration rings of grandfatherly wisdom. Capitalism might be a good system, but it exploits the weak, he says. His words don’t ring of contempt or frustration, just the weary tone of a man who’s seen and been through too much struggle.
Nothing in this film is sugarcoated. Throughout the movie, facts appear on screen, reminding viewers of Detroit’s drastic population decline, of its battles with bankruptcy. We see young men razing decaying buildings for scrap metal. We see panoramic shots of Detroit’s skyline in the evening, golden rays of sun setting on structures that can still be described as majestic, metaphors for a city that just won’t quit.
In a sense, this movie is a character study of a city that refuses to fade into collective memory as a place that once was. Because, according to those depicted, it’s a place that very much still is.
At a town meeting, citizens erupt in outrage over a strange idea from Mayor Dave Bing’s office: concentrating Detroiters in the few populated areas left in the city, leaving the rest of the land open for urban farming. These people’s lives and homes are at stake. Why should they place their faith in the hands of city officials who have clearly failed them? More poignantly, a group of men are interviewed on their porch. They laugh when asked about the mayor’s urban farming initiative, noting the absurdity of a gangbanger with a gun trying to plant vegetables on a farm.
From a city-planning perspective, however, you can see how it might make sense. After all, public services such as streetlights and buses have had to be cut. Why not downsize and, to quote the over-used adage, “do more with less?” The reason, as Ewing and Grady so skillfully demonstrate, is because a city, unlike a company, is a living, breathing thing. And it can’t be fixed overnight. Change must happen organically, the movie suggests.
Employment once readily available to middle-class workers at the Big Three automakers may have been outsourced to China and Mexico.
This doesn’t stop a James Brown impersonator from falling to his knees in a small Detroit nightclub, feigning the panting sweat the King of Soul made famous. It doesn’t read as tragic or even pathetic. It’s more like a sign of hope, like the singer knows desperate times can still be overcome, if you just have faith.
“Detropia” is dedicated to those who work every day to improve the city. While a few bohemians rave about cheap housing and the numerous opportunities for artists Detroit offers, the movie doesn’t end on any sort of contrived note — it makes clear that Detroit is still hurting.
But in the final scene, as we watch an opera singer’s voice fill the now deserted Michigan Central Train Depot, it’s hard not to feel a little bit optimistic. From here, the screen goes to black, abruptly concluding. It feels cut off, unfinished. Which may in itself be a sign of hope: Detroit isn’t over. It persists. And the future of this once-great American city is a story that still remains to be told.