Internal combustion

Yes, we lost our minds in Detroit Rock City.

Yes, we lost our minds in Detroit Rock City.

Rated 3.0

At the end of Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s gritty elegy to the city of Detroit, we are told that “this film is dedicated to the many Detroiters who work every day to make the city a better place.” Who those people might be, Ewing and Grady never really say. Focusing on them—or even mentioning them more than in passing—might interfere with Ewing and Grady’s grander theme of portraying Detroit as the canary in the decaying coal mine of American industry.

Ewing and Grady’s cameras, in richly colored cinematography by Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson, roam the eerily quiet streets—the music of Dial.81 adds to the spookiness—interspersing their images of a battered, crumbling, graffiti-tagged urban landscape with bright Kodachrome archival footage of Detroit in its post-World War II heyday, when the rest of the world was in ashes, and if you wanted to buy an automobile, you pretty much had to get it here.

Detroit’s population, the movie tells us, peaked at 1.85 million in 1950; in the 2010 census it had dropped to 713,777. During most of that time, the population of the six-county Detroit metro area has remained stable at about 4.2 million, but Ewing and Grady don’t tell us that. Their concern is with the 139 square miles that make up the city of Detroit itself, and they paint a picture of one of the most miserable places in America. How accurate is the picture? That’s for people who live there to say. In any case, Detropia will do little for Motor City tourism.

In the meantime, Ewing and Grady provide mosaic glimpses of Detroiters to put human faces on what they see as a microcosm of the general decline of American industry. We see Crystal Starr, a video blogger who records the broken buildings of her neighborhood, musing about what they must have been like when they were new, the beautiful view the tenants had every morning at breakfast—before the buildings fell to pieces, the walls ripped out to salvage the copper pipes behind the lath and plaster.

In her day job, Starr works as a barista at a coffee shop across the street from the Detroit Opera House; she thanks God for the theater and the business it brings downtown.

We get a more ambiguous vibe from scenes of the Michigan Opera Theatre in performance—including one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, in which Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner inserts some awkwardly catty digs at Hyundai, BMW and Honda into “I’ve Got a Little List.” On one hand, these excerpts from Verdi’s Aida and such seem like cultural islands in the storm, and the opera’s general director is shown discussing the “challenges” Detroit faces. On the other hand, there’s an ever-so-faint aroma of the upper crust of 2 percenters warbling while Rome burns, and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Ewing and Grady regard people who go to the opera—and, most particularly, the big corporations that sponsor it—as the enemy.

Detropia is more comfortable among the working class, such the president of UAW Local 22 as he presents the final offer of American Axle & Manufacturing to the workers of the company’s last Detroit plant. The proposal calls for across-the-board hourly pay cuts, and the union votes to reject the offer out of hand. We are told that American Axle closed the plant. Did the union members stand up for principle and resist a management shakedown for even more concessions in the future—or did they just cut off their noses to spite their faces? The point is debatable, but it’s clear where Ewing and Grady’s sympathies lie.

Detropia is a one-note symphony that makes its point early on: As Detroit goes, so goes the nation. The documentary then hammers the point home for another hour-and-a-quarter. It tells a number of stories, but since all of them simply illustrate the central theme, none of them quite stand out from the others, and the movie suffers from its shifting focus.

In the end, I wondered about those “many Detroiters who work every day to make the city a better place.” Why didn’t we hear more about them—and less about, say, Mayor Dave Bing’s hapless plan to turn blighted residential areas into urban farms? That might have leavened the gloom of Detropia and left us with some hope for Detroit’s future.

But perhaps hope was not the idea.