detropia

Dir. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
(2012, Not Rated, 90 minutes)

Detropia is a film with more empathy than information. Telling the story of the rise and fall of Detroit, Michigan, as a center of American industry, it takes a narrow focus, observing the changes to the city through the eyes of select residents. But their points of view are limited, and though they often, quite reasonably, lament that something must be done to reverse their city’s decline, the film doesn’t offer enough insight into that decline or any possible solutions.

One compelling subject is George McGregor, the president of the United Auto Workers, who has had a front row seat for the decimation of the city’s auto industry. In a memorable scene he explains to union members that the American Axle company demands drastic wage cuts or else it will move its plant to Mexico; the struggling union workers refuse, and the plant shutters.

Two others profiled by the film are interesting, though not particularly revealing: video blogger Crystal Starr, who mostly travels the city showing us dilapidated buildings, and teacher and bar owner Tommy Stephens, who has thoughtful opinions, but not much to add to what the film has already shown us. At one point Tommy visits a car show and wonders how American-made electric cars can hope to compete against their far less expensive Asian counterparts. “How can China do that?” he asks, but the film doesn’t analyze that question, only observes that China can do that and American manufacturing is at risk.

The film’s most interesting subject is Mayor David Bing. He seems plainspoken, doesn’t mince words, and though his policy decisions are unpopular, he isn’t the villain of the piece. He faces a city whose geography no longer matches its population, whose rapid decline has left an unmanageable amount of vacant space. He consults with urban planners and decides to consolidate the population into a smaller urban area and use the remaining land for farming. Is this a good idea? I couldn’t venture to guess. But Detroit is a city whose problems are severe enough to elicit such drastic proposals. I’m reminded of the character from Argo who said, “This is the best bad idea we have.”

An entire film could be made about Bing and his struggle to adapt his city to its changing reality. Instead, Detropia meanders around to footage of crumbling buildings, a couple of hipster artists who take advantage of crashing property values, radio sound bites without context, and a few trips to the Detroit Opera House. It’s a disorganized assemblage of scenes that doesn’t reveal much more than the fact that Detroit is in trouble and nobody knows how to fix it. A more alarming notion is that maybe nobody can.

 

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