Motor City Melancholy: DETROPIA Film Review

By at January 16, 2013 | 6:26 am | Print

3.5 / 5 stars

Detropia Movie PosterFor a passing moment in Detropia, the dying-city documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), we get a glimpse of the fallout from the 1967 Detroit riots. Burned and gutted buildings. Law enforcement in the streets en masse. An unlikely citizen brandishing a gun. It’s all positioned as a visual comparison, with painful similarities, to the current woes in the Motor City, but there’s one unspoken difference: Regardless of the sequence of events in ‘67, or reasons for them, the people of Detroit had a hand in those actions. Today’s quiet destruction of Detroit is the result of something being done to the citizens, not by them.

And that ‘something’ is the swift-kick action of big business, decimating jobs in manufacturing–and much of the entire country’s manufacturing sector–by choosing cheaper labor in other countries. As Ewing and Grady illustrate in their perfectly low-key, non-narrated style, the results are devastating, with Detroit unemployment rates zooming off the charts, and the city suffering rock-bottom bankruptcy. The film’s spooky, desolate imagery effectively conveys the city’s troubling emptiness. And it’s the greatest creative strength of Detropia, with photography and spare music that sustains a hauntingly dim tone, while suffering the occasional monotony of a documentary without a story arc.

In fact, with so many documentaries today having a last-act punctuation (a revelation, a story twist), it’s almost strange to see a film without one. But the lack of a tangible denouement in Detropia is more a reflection of the city’s reality (at least in 2010): Despite glimmers of a comeback, hope is either low or fleeting, with the Detroit population the lowest it’s been since the 1910s.

So Ewing and Grady create a greater scope of storytelling via their subjects, spending time with people who remember quite a different city, a metropolis of gleaming promise built by the world’s greatest car manufacturers. Most engaging is club owner (and retired teacher) Tommy, a welcoming host who recalls when his joint would jump after shifts at the nearby auto plant. With no more shifts–and no more plant–Tommy can only reminisce about a table of fellas who’d come in and order 50 chicken wings; he explains while donning an apron himself, making a sandwich for a patron, admiring that his Mexican workers can wrap a head of lettuce like nobody’s business. There’s no irony in his voice, by the way, and his stories about the old days have a simple pride that inspires empathy.

Crystal Starr in Detropia

The filmmaking team’s quiet, even-handed style was remarkable in a film like Jesus Camp; with a topic so sensitive, you’d think neutrality would be impossible. That same approach works here, Grady and Ewing’s choice to avoid tugging on heartstrings an admirable one, if perhaps less emotional.

As expected, Detropia has plenty to cover about jobs. In an early sequence, charismatic United Auto Workers union leader George McGregor leads a meeting with factory workers being asked to take a pay cut. McGregor, older than he was in his glory days, is literally at a loss for words in his effort to be both eloquent and clear. His fellow union members take the no-bullshit route, refusing to give in. The scene, bare and honest, feels like a piece of Harlan County, USA, the 1976 Oscar-winning documentary about coal miners strong-armed by the only industry in town. And regardless of the results in that film, we know how this showdown will end up.

We also know that the U.S. government bailed out the auto industry (to summarize it simply), and Grady and Ewing conclude with that hopeful turn of events, as well as a new influx of residents: Younger folks, hungry to buy a gorgeous loft for $25,000, embracing the city as it is, adding art rather than heartache. They may not reinvigorate an economy on their own, but who will?

DVD Notes:
The DVD for Detropia, winner of Best Documentary Feature at the 2012 Independent Film Festival of Boston, includes about 20 additional scenes not included in the final cut, as well as the film’s original trailer.

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