"Detropia:" Wandering Through Detroit As The World Passes It By
"Detropia" premiered at Wayne State University last night for the first time in the city that is its subject. The film is, in one over-simplified sentence, a movie about how Detroit is struggling with the implications of globalization.
Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady accidently capture a symbol of that struggle early on as they follow a Detroiter named Crystal Starr through the abandoned Lee Plaza in 2010. Starr is also videotaping the tour on a Flip Cam.
A couple years ago, Flip Cams were among the hottest consumer tech products on the market. Today, they’re obsolete. They literally don’t make them anymore. Cell phones now include, as a throw-in, better video cameras than the Flip. In roughly five years this device came and went, but Detroit still hasn't figured out what to do with Lee Plaza. The world seems to be passing us by.
That said, it would be a mistake to say “Detropia” is “about” anything. This is less a story and more of a rumination about a place at a specific moment in time. There’s no plot structure, no climax, no resolution, just a camera wandering through a city at the crossroads.
Frankly, after so many people tried and failed to “tell the Detroit story” (cough Chris Hansen cough), this is a refreshing and honest approach. Ewing and Grady’s film is an impressionistic visual happening rather than a traditional narrative documentary.
"Detropia" gives viewers a glimpse into a Detroit during our collective existential crisis in the aftermath of the Kilpatrick Enterprise and the near demise of the domestic automobile industry. Just for good measure, the Census Bureau was also informing us that one in four Detroiters hit Eight Mile, so to speak, during the last decade.
“When people reach a certain income, they get the hell out,” an uncharacteristically candid Mayor Dave Bing says in the film.
"Detropia’s" unorthodox structure is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, but it was also a risk. It’s not easy to convey the ethos of a significant moment in time. One runs the risk of reducing the experience to something trite—the proverbial story about ordering coffee or finishing an algebra test when it was announced JFK was shot, the Challenger exploded, or the World Trade Center fell.
It calls to mind Ouisa Kittredge's wonderful line from Six Degrees of Separation: “We become these human jukeboxes spitting out these anecdotes to dine out on like we're doing right now. Well I will not turn him into an anecdote, it was an experience. How do we hold onto the experience?”
"Detropia" is no anecdote. 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.
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” Vaclav Havel once wrote. “It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
The Detroiters featured in the film harbored no illusions of Detroit magically becoming that city on a hill, but they are all striving for a Detroit that will at long last make sense.
Right now, viewers learn, Detroit doesn’t make much sense. Half of its manufacturing jobs and a quarter of its population disappeared over the last decade.
Workers at an American Axle plant are shown forced to choose between watching their jobs go to Mexico or accepting steep concessions from a company that, according to UAW negotiators, is unashamed to say it doesn’t care if its workers make a livable wage.
There’s less of everything here except land. Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan could physically fit within Detroit’s borders. Vacant structures and unkempt fields fill the landscape.
Down the road from American Axle’s Hamtramck plant, "Detropia" introduces viewers to Tommy Stephens, owner of the Raven Lounge, a blues bar on Chene Street. Stephens sums up "Detropia’s" thematic purpose when he ponders an all too plausible future where 2% of Americans earn comfortable six-figure salaries and the other 98% subsist on poverty wages. How will that work out in the end, he wonders?
The long-term answer to that question may, frighteningly enough, come from the ghost of Bruno Hauptmann. In the short-run, the answer is people will literally deconstruct their economic infrastructure for pennies a pound.
Scrapers make an appearance, though they are less significant to the film itself than its trailer might have you believe, and are portrayed as a tragically essential part of a collapsing city’s life cycle. The forest would be littered with rotting mouse carcasses if not for vultures.
But scrapers, gathering metal from burned out hulks under the cover of darkness, are always a source of controversy. Debating the ethics of scraping potentially distracts viewers from the point. Ewing and Grady would have been better served looking at the professional deconstruction industry chronicled in Paul Clemens’ book Punching Out.
More so than the wildcat scrapers, the guys dismantling decommissioned factories so the parts can be sold overseas better reflects the inverted mercantilism that globalization has foisted upon places like Detroit. Desperate first world workers take apart the domestic industrial infrastructure so its raw materials can be sold to a third world that will, in return, produce finished goods sold in our marketplace.
But this is a small quibble. "Detropia's" reality is a post-industrial globalization that has left the working class in a lurch. Watching a couple of guys pull down a rotting metal structure with a pick-up truck to earn a few cents per pound in scrap certainly makes the point.
The industrial revolution meant fewer man-hours were required to feed this nation, so our ancestors moved to the factory. Over time, industrial conditions evolved to create a full-employment society of middle-class workers who could afford to buy the things they produced. That paradigm is gone, probably forever. Our third wave economy hasn't yet figured out what to do with the massive labor surplus caused by deindustrialization. More troubling, no one seems to give a damn.
Detroitists and sunshine pumpers may not like "Detropia." This is not a film about the heroic turnaround that is Detroit 2.0, of which we are all supposed to be believers in. By the time Detropia shows Steve Coy of Hygienic Dress League fame explaining how Detroit’s real estate surplus has made it an attractive place for artists, viewers have come to understand the high cost of Detroit’s affordable artist lofts.
We would be wise to separate optimistic visions for a Detroit that does not yet exist from the raw truth of this documentary. "Detropia" isn’t really about Detroit anymore than the Maltese Falcon was about a black statuette.
Ewing, who grew up in Farmington Hills, and Grady are, in essence, using Detroit as a device that forces viewers to consider a grim economic reality polite society tries to ignore—even as desperate bandits are stripping copper and steel from the vacant buildings around us.
The filmmakers are almost begging the rest of America to pay attention to Detroit's cautionary tale, lest in our blissful ignorance, we allow this entire country to devolve into Detroit’s East Side.