Year Released: 2011
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 90 minutes
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I’ve become increasingly weary of “Chicken Little Documentaries” in which a threat to humanity, peace or the environment is used to create a film that is guaranteed to upset the viewer. While in no way do I mean to dismiss the power of film or the “importance” of many of these docs, they’re just starting to feel like a genre unto themselves in which liberals can see them and then post to Facebook or put a bumper sticker on their car about how outraged they are. “Detropia,” by directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, isn’t that sort of film but it is an important documentary that captures what is happening in the city of Detroit, not what might happen if we don’t pay attention.
I’ve known that the city of Detroit was under immense financial strain but had no clue how bad it was until I saw this film. For instance, in 1930, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the U.S. and now, it’s the one that more people are fleeing than any city in history. You can buy a large downtown flat outright for $25,000 or a small house in a rapidly declining neighborhood for $6,000. The rub is, there are no jobs as the automakers have outsourced their work and this is an industry that was so huge it basically employed the whole city.
Without “The Big 3” automakers, there is no Detroit, which is what we have now. The city is in such disarray that the mayor’s course of action is to forcibly move people to the same areas so the city can provide proper services. I’ve never heard of such a thing. But on the plus side, property prices are dirt cheap.
But seriously, “Detropia” captures the decimation of the middle-class on camera, which is a threat that’s been bandied about in politics for a few years now. This is a reality for Detroit, not a hyperbolic talking point. I liked the film because it’s not threatening something, it’s showing something that’s actually happening as we’re (not) watching and it shows what can and will happen when American greed fails to trickle down. Any major city in America that loses its main employer can suffer the same fate as Detroit.
Ewing and Grady are talented filmmakers and “Detropia” is beautifully shot. Detroit is like a city from a parallel universe that was hit by an Armageddon, with a colossal train station and garish mansions sitting in various stages of decay with no one there to keep people from trespassing. Artists and photographers flock to the city because they can basically do anything they want in a huge metropolis that is basically abandoned. The architecture and cityscape are beautiful in Detroit and I’ll admit the idea of having a huge city to yourself is kind of cool. But it’s also terrifying as you have to wonder where all these people ended up and what they were forced to leave behind.
Ewing and Grady choose fairly disparate personalities to follow, including the head of an auto union, a retired schoolteacher who runs a bar, irritating hipster “artists” and a local blogger who in my mind is like a nouveau Paul Revere, trying to shout warnings from the Internet as her city crumbles around her. These people are all fairly optimistic which is inspiring but the filmmakers aren’t painting a rosy picture. Political actions to help the city are clearly falling short and it’s completely expected that Detroit will be bankrupt at any moment.
“Detropia” is a fascinating look at where our country is headed, not where it might be headed. It’s an almost picture perfect portrait of “the 99%” that the Occupy movement is speaking for but in the case of Detriot, it appears to be too late. In the end this is an important documentary not only for what it says about our country now, but it’s also a well-crafted cinematic time capsule that shows a once bustling metropolis on it’s very last legs.
Posted on January 22, 2012 in Reviews by Don R. Lewis
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