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About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


Detroit has been saved -- or so we’ve been told, by more than a few politicians of late. One can’t help but wonder exactly what the definition of “saved” is. If Detropia provides anything near an answer, it isn’t pretty.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s feature-length documentary about the Motor City’s rise and fall is a dreamy, moody cinematic collage and tapestry (the term the filmmakers use to define this particular documentary style). Through an array of images taken from Detroit’s past and present, from archival clips and the footage from the filmmakers’ year-long exploration of the city, we wind through glory and decay, through empire and apocalypse.

Ewing and Grady (Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp) remain firmly out of the frame, while giving voice to a wide cast of characters, focusing primarily on three Detroiters who knew the city when it was It, and who believe, that despite everything, “Detroit will be back.” There’s Tommy Stephens, owner of the storied music club the Raven Lounge; a young blogger named Crystal Starr, who leads the filmmakers through the rubble of an abandoned building; and George McGregor, who proudly holds the Presidency of UAW Local 22. More places and people are blended into the mix, collage style: scrappers, car salesmen, pyromaniacs, preachers, Swiss tourists looking to see some decay, wealthy theater-goers, the desperately unemployed, and the newly arrived artists who, at least in this film, are the only ones with snazzy homes (they boast that this is what $700.00 a month can buy, even though they seem to be amongst the very few who have that $700.00). We go from one Detroit location and drama to another: union meetings, town hall squabbles, fires, car shows, TV crews filming yet another building being demolished.

Against the backdrop of a musical score by Detroit-based sound artist Dial.81, titles appear across the screen with facts and statistics about the city: that the United States’ major export to China is scrap metal; that the bailout came with the stipulation that union workers take a 50 percent pay cut. The numbers on population decline, unemployment, and destroyed homes are staggering.

Detropia’s pacing can be slow, and with its lack of a specific narrative drive, there are moments of feeling lost in the dark -- and there’s a lot that’s dark. And yet, there’s humor and optimism here. too. In response to the influx of urban gardeners, one Detroiter talks about a new city where people will be saying, “Put the tomato down or I’ll shoot!” And amongst the scenes of abandonment and ruin, Ewing and Grady return, always, to the Detroit Opera House, which appears like a beacon of flickering light refusing to die. (It should be noted that the big three auto companies are the main support of The Detroit Opera, and The Ford Foundation a major funding source on Detropia).

Too often in Detropia, someone will tell us, in various wording, that “America better watch out, because this reality might come to a city near you, too.” It already has, of course. You don’t have to go very far outside of Detroit to see that what happened to Detroit is far from unique for an American city. What makes Detroit different is the fact that it’s Detroit, with all its mythology and glamour and symbolism. What also makes Detroit unique is that it is the city that’s getting the most attention for its demise -- almost something of a “ruin chic” label -- which indeed has not come to so many cities near you. Just ask Gary, Indiana. Or Youngstown, Ohio.

There have been changes to Detroit since the movie premiered, both for the good and the bad, including the unraveling of what went on behind the closed doors during Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s reign. For all the information that’s in Detropia -- and there is a lot of it -- there are also things that are left out. It will take more than one documentary to tell the whole story, and there will likely be more to come. Detropia may not be the seminal film about Detroit, but its heart is in the right place. And while the movie focuses on Detroit’s rise and Detroit’s fall, it doesn’t fully investigate Detroit’s rise up again. As we hear more than one person say in the movie, over and again: “We’ll be okay. We’re going to be okay.”

  1. About.com
  2. Entertainment
  3. World / Independent Film
  4. Independent Film
  5. Independent and World Films, Winter 2012
  6. Detropia - A Review of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia

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