‘Detropia’ documentary doesn’t paper over Detroit’s darkest days, but hope manages to survive, too

Recently I had the opportunity to catch a screening of “Detropia,” the heavily buzzed-about independent documentary that examines modern-day Detroit — in all its unvarnished economic ruin and physical decay — as a kind of canary in the coal mine for the rest of the country.

It’s an excellent film, yet when I mention it, many Detroit boosters respond with some variation on the same theme: It “tells a very narrow story” that doesn’t mention any of the many good things people are doing to revitalize the city.

Well, OK. None of that is untrue. But neither is the grim reality that “Detropia” depicts. Does every documentary filmed or essay written about Detroit have to be judged on whether it incorporates the entire sweep of the city’s moment in time? Do these same critics object when positive stories about Midtown fail to mention, say, problems in the city’s schools?

Here’s how the filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, describe their project on the Detropia Kickstarter page:

The story of Detroit is the story of all of us. The city and this country are both at a crossroads. Which way will we go? The story of this epic city and its struggles can act as a springboard for a productive conversation so many of us want to have.

The story is nothing new to anyone who was paying attention over the past decade or so, when the auto industry began to crater, and especially since the financial crisis, which brought the city’s economic crisis to a head. But the film skillfully and candidly finds ways to bring the headlines home.

So for example, you gain extraordinary access to a meeting between Mayor Dave Bing and a group of urban planners, commissioned to study what to do with so much vacant land, who tell him that the city’s effective unemployment rate is probably around 50 percent. And you look on as ragtag salvaging crews dismantle decrepit buildings for metal scrap which, they explain, they’ll sell to smelting operations in China, where the metal will likely end up repurposed and sold back to the U.S. in the form of some cheap new product.

This is the reality Detroit is dealing with.

Yes, there are green shoots popping up all around town — from pop-up retail, new construction and a new wave of entrepreneurialism to urban agriculture and creative reimaginations of entire neighborhoods. But none of this has risen to the level of obscuring the staggering problems brought by decades of disinvestment and decline.

It’s also important to note that “Detropia” clearly was filmed during the very dark days during the depths of the Great Recession — a bitingly cold winter (I remember it painfully well) marked by a steady stream of factory closings and layoffs that came tens of thousands at a clip. As more evidence of this, the film at several points uses audio clips of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who left office in January 2011, talking to news outlets about what was happening in Michigan. It was a scary, extraordinary time in Detroit and it most definitely deserves more time under the microscope of history, not less.

“‘Detropia’ is no anecdote,” writes  Jeff Wattrick in Deadline Detroit. “It feels true and authentic to the time and the place. The film captures the heartbreak and despair and hope that existed here as the city stared (and continues to stare) into the abyss. “Detropia” gets the hope part especially right. It doesn’t take the easy way out and conflate hope with sunny optimism.”

Despite the obvious bleak despair, I also found plenty positive to take away from “Detropia.”

To tell its story, the film relies on three main “protagonists” — a United Auto Workers local president watching his membership’s jobs being sent to Mexico; a bar owner adapting to a steep dive in business; and a video blogger who explores the city’s ruins by night and works at a downtown coffee shop by day.  All are well chosen and allowed to flesh themselves out as living, breathing, dreaming characters that go well past their surface identities and roles. As such, they serve as spot-on authentic ambassadors for the city — eminently warm, funny, vulnerable, tough and likeable Detroiters.

The city itself manages to come across less as a squalid ghetto and more as a mesmerizing, if badly frayed, urban tapestry, a blank slate of possibility that got that way for all the wrong reasons. It’s fascinating to observe how people adapt when so many normal systems of social order have collapsed.

I’m fairly well versed in the good, the bad and the ugly of this city, but there were several points during the film where I understood how Detroit, despite its obvious problems and shortcomings, continues to exert such a powerful psychic pull for so many. Because for all its faults — and there are no doubt plenty — Detroit simply isn’t like anywhere else.

And in this day and age, when so many places look interchangeable and lack distinctive identities, that might eventually prove to be the city’s biggest ace in the hole.

You can check the film’s website for limited screening opportunities.

What did you think of “Detropia”? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Sven Gustafson

About Sven Gustafson

Sven Gustafson is a senior writer in the Office of the President at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. He enjoys food, running, soccer and exploring Detroit and Michigan at large.
 
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