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Now and Then: In Must-See ‘Detropia,’ the Many Lives of an American City

Now and Then: In Must-See 'Detropia,' the Many Lives of an American City

It is a story we think we know already. Unions weaken. Corporations outsource. Politicians waver. The economy collapses. Public resources shrivel. A city dies. But that’s only the bird’s-eye view: in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s powerful document of an age of grief, “Detropia” is the way we live now. (The Sundance entry was shortlisted for the doc Oscar, but did not make the final five; we interviewed the filmmakers on their self-release plan.)

Detroit is not the only Rust Belt city to suffer the aftereffects of deregulation, neoliberal trade policies, the decline of organized labor, and the whittling down of the post-World War II welfare state, but the severity of its condition has made it a standard-bearer for our most recent malaise. Waves of grass churn and break over derelict playgrounds. Shells of rooms — whether high-school auditoriums or the high-ceilinged parlors of another age — echo with sounds long since gone silent. As a television news reporter says of yet another abandoned home being razed, “This is the downsizing of Detroit that you’re watching live.”

But with one family moving out of Detroit every twenty minutes, as the reporter’s guide in the film notes, the fastest-shrinking city in the United States is no freeway car chase or bad-weather report with which to break into the daytime soaps. “Detropia,” which won for Outstanding Direction at last week’s Cinema Eye Honors, is polyvocal and multi-hued; it refuses the temptation to sensationalize its subjects, to go live with the story in the midst of regularly scheduled programming. Rather, as in their film “Jesus Camp” (2006), which examined a group of evangelical Christian children over the course of a summer, Ewing and Grady dignify the portrait they weave with unerring respect and unsuspected beauty. Rich and empathic, the film becomes an astounding elegy for a city’s many lives.

Take video blogger Crystal Starr, whose footage of the tears in Detroit’s urban fabric is interspersed throughout the documentary, and whose voice is in some ways the film’s most tenacious moral force. “They’re shuttin’ down futures, basically,” she laments, her bright young face dimmed by the grain of her handheld camera, or perhaps by the sentiment she relates. “I’m daring you to come out,” she tells us, the emotion beginning to rise in her throat. It’s a dare to speak, a dare to dream, if we care about our families, our neighbors, our cities, our country. “Detropia” shows that the city as we’ve known it is dying — and by that I am not only referring to Detroit. But in the charisma and communal toughness of Crystal and the other citizens it depicts, in their slim, sparkling joy, the film also makes clear why it’s worth saving.  

Against Crystal’s spare, full-frontal declamation, the marketing of “pure luxury” through interpretive dance, in the unveiling of a new car at the North American International Auto Show, seems ridiculous and shallow and more than a little cruel. American Axle offers its workers steep wage cuts or else unemployment; the U.S. government’s auto bailout requires unions to accept a 50% decrease in salary for new hires; the “downsizing” city promises first to limit bus routes and relocate residents. If Grady and Ewing hold out hope for opportunity in the crisis, they never relinquish their skepticism of corporate and bureaucratic policy, of the bed made by decades of neglect. Detroit, they tacitly assure us, will not come back only on the back of auto company profits, and neither will the country.  

Maybe that’s why I viewed “Detropia” (in spite of its dedication to the Detroiters who continue to rebuild the city even as I write) as a still-sad tale, in which tragedy hasn’t become triumph quite yet. So, too, with this remarkable documentary’s most indelible image, a wavering, crumbling façade — a single, many-storied wall — bending and twisting in the night wind. It’s shaken out, burned, and full of holes, the flag of a forgotten country.

“Detropia” is available January 14 on iTunes, Amazon Video, YouTube, and other VOD platforms, and January 15 on DVD.

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