Film Review: Detropia

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s lavishly photographed, impassioned elegy for the decaying American city uses Detroit as its case study for the nation’s post-industrial, permanent recession future.

“We are here at a critical time!” shouts a tent-revival preacher somewhere in the gloom of a rapidly downsizing Detroit. His is one of the many frightened, brave, saddened, still-fighting voices that Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady include as a chorus of the forgotten in their tragedy-tinted but clear-eyed look at what happens when a city’s reason for being up and leaves. Unfortunately, though the city is inarguably at a crisis point—in 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world, and it’s shrunk by over 25 percent in the last decade alone—Detropia doesn’t show any evidence of a consensus on the solution.

What the filmmakers capture is a city going in reverse. Unable to continue providing services to its many nearly empty blocks (arson and decay having laid waste to many weed-pricked neighborhoods), the city is in the process of demolishing some 10,000 homes. The mayor, who is trying to convince residents to relocate to denser areas, says with some exasperation, “The city is broke. I don’t know how many times I have to say it.” Bus service is being slashed and streetlights turned off. There is talk of the city “going back to the prairie.” Manufacturing complexes the size of small towns lie quiet, the jobs having been sent to Mexico or China. Meanwhile, as residents agonize about their lives dwindling away, performance artists creep into downtown to take advantage of cheap rents and tourists clamber into the train station’s cavernous ruin to luxuriate in the photogenic decay.

As they did in 2010’s amazing 12th and Delaware, Ewing and Grady hang back and let their subjects open up. A video blogger and coffee-shop worker agitates about the shutting down of schools, which she calls “shutting down futures.” The head of a union tries to figure out how to keep things together as management demands impossible wage cuts; the crushed looks on his workers’ faces says everything one would ever need to know about the devaluing of labor in the modern world. Most poignantly, the owner of a bar who once served auto workers wonders aloud what has come of it all, and whether there is any future but revolution. His frustration (in which he goes to the auto show, proud of the new American-built electric Chevy Volt, only to find the sales reps clueless and contemptuous of their cheaper Chinese competition) is that of many residents, who look around at their blasted surroundings and can’t understand how the currents of globalization swept their city away with such ease.

Ewing and Grady haven’t created a polemic, though; neither have they indulged in the ruin-porn aesthetic that wants to gawp at the city’s decay while ignoring the people still trying to make a go of it. Detropia is something of a tone poem soaked in the blues, with its stream-of-consciousness rhythms and impressionistic camerawork. Figures drift through the dimmed city like shades in a graveyard, while the oversaturated reds and piercing music of a neighborhood bar act as something of a refuge against the boarded-up night outside. While anger flares up at times, most of the filmmakers’ subjects appear philosophical about what’s happening, thinking that what they’ve lived through is just the tip of the iceberg. “What happened in Detroit,” one man ruminates, “it’s coming to you.”