There’s a form of journalism and filmmaking known as “ruin porn” that focuses with voyeuristic glee on the photogenic decay of urban infrastructure; Detroit has become the ruin-porn capital of the world in recent years as outsiders display their morbid fascination with its poor fortune, and as a Michiganian I was ready to give up on the documentary Detropia after the first ten minutes. The first reel looks as if directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were determined to make this the Deep Throat of ruin porn, panning lovingly over tumbledown houses, abandoned neighborhoods, and great mansions gone to seed. Thankfully, I stuck around until the end and can report that while Ewing and Grady want the audience to take a long, lingering look at what has happened to Detroit, they also focus on the human consequences of the city’s downturn, making it clear that what is happening in the Motor City can and likely will happen to dozens of other American cities if nothing is done to stop it.
While Detropia spends much of its run time drifting around Detroit and documenting the wreckage that has accumulated over the past few decades, the film returns to several figures who have lived in the city for a long time and have their own views on what’s become of their hometown. George McGregor is the president of the Detroit chapter of the United Auto Workers, and he drives past what was once an auto plant as he recalls his younger days, building Cadillacs and making good money. Now, McGregor presides over a small and increasingly frustrated band of workers who have seen their wages severely cut and are told that if they want to keep their jobs from being outsourced to Mexico, they’ll have to make do with even less.
Elsewhere, Tommy Stevens is a former schoolteacher who runs a blues club called the Raven Lounge that used to be a hangout for workers who’d wrapped up their shifts at a nearby auto plant. Now the plant is closed, and while some folks still come by to drink beer and watch local bands play, money is so tight for Stevens that he can’t afford a cook: When someone orders a plate of chicken wings, he has to fry them himself. A nameless group of scruffy men support themselves by salvaging pipes, fixtures, and scrap metal from some of the 40,000 abandoned houses in town; as one of them points out, the police can hardly be bothered to deal with nonviolent crime, and it’s not as if they could get real jobs. Mayor Dave Bing presides over meetings with his staff and constituents, seemingly ground down by the frustration of trying to support a city that has lost so much of its population and tax base. (As the film notes, in 1930 Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world, but in 2010, it’s losing residents faster than any city in America.) And as the Detroit Opera House struggles to stay afloat with the auto companies cutting their funding for the arts, a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado includes a rewritten version of “I’ve Got a Little List” that cites a number of foreign auto companies and politicians Detroiters would clearly not miss, much to the approval of the audience.
Directors Ewing and Grady have given Detropia a striking and well-managed visual style -- especially by the standards of a documentary -- and cinematographers Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson have done outstanding work here, with the atmospheric images buoyed by a haunting musical score from Dial 81. While other films about Detroit have let the scenes of a city in tatters do the talking, Detropia has the good sense to let the people who live there and struggle to keep it alive take the spotlight, and what they have to say about how class, politics, and global economics have gutted Detroit is often intelligent and perceptive, while also firmly down to earth. Ewing and Grady have also peppered Detropia with plenty of facts and figures that confirm just how dire the situation for the city truly is, and without belaboring the point, the film makes clear that as the manufacturing jobs that built the middle class are leaving the rest of the United States just as they left the Midwest, the “tragedy of Detroit” is a possible preview of much of America in the years to come.
Detropia struggles to end on an up note, as the big three automakers ramp up production, some workers are rehired, and artists discover crumbling real-estate prices make Detroit a great place to live on the cheap (though the two recent arrivals profiled here don’t appear to have much to offer from a creative standpoint; there are plenty of native artists who are doing stronger and more vital work). Ultimately, Detropia doesn’t wallow in the story of a dying city, instead offering an often moving and compelling portrait of the people who -- for a variety of reasons -- refuse to give up on their hometown, even as they wonder what can or should be done to turn things around. leave a comment --Mark Deming
Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Michigan, and I’ve lived there nearly all my life. Like many Michiganians, I have a complex emotional relationship with the city of Detroit; it’s impossible to ignore the seemingly insurmountable problems it faces in the present day, but it’s just as hard to ignore its rich and remarkable history, and the fact that it was once one of America’s truly great cities. And while bad politics and a crumbling economy have reduced Detroit to a shadow of its former self, it’s still a place where good things happen, and where the city’s creative community remains a vibrant and powerful force. Detroiters are people with a fierce loyalty to their hometown, reflected in their attitudes about the city’s professional sports franchises; even if the Lions, Tigers, Pistons, or Red Wings have a bad season (not exactly unknown for any of the teams in the long term), the fans do not turn their backs on them. They believe right up to the bitter end, and they feel the same way about the embattled town they call home.