Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.
Detropia is the intellectual response to recent voyeuristic-level documentaries spurred by images in the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile, the rapper's acclaimed Super Bowl ad and Kid Rock's relentless promotion of the city from coast to coast.
The most condescending and disconnected of these efforts was Detroit Lives, in which Jackass star Johnny Knoxville tours Detroit's ruins and pontificates on the city's future. Once his film wrapped, Knoxville was back to groin-impalement gags in no time.
Detropia takes to task thrillseekers who risk their lives and those of others by stomping through Detroit's abandoned structures, then post their findings online. The film undoubtedly highlights many of the same locations, but in the context of a city left behind in a cloud of economic, political and social decay. Viewers gain that context through the stories of those who have fought the good fights, taken their share of knocks and never left.
Images of urban "decay" – as termed by one European site-seer – in the form of torched homes and countless abandoned structures are interwoven with colorful footage of Michigan Opera Theatre performances blocks away in Detropia, a seamless narrative of the Motor City's decline and hopes for its rebirth.
Detropia – which premiers in Michigan on 9/13 – tells Detroit's story, in large part, through a series of juxtapositions.
A retired autoworker enjoys the spoils of a generous, union-fought retirement package, while plant workers half his age fight to keep $14-per-hour jobs and health benefits.
Stories of frustration and despair among Detroit's remaining population are contrasted with laughter, music and sensuous dancing at the Raven Lounge. The owner of the Raven Lounge, located at the epicenter of where Detroit's manufacturing base lost its way, reflects at length on Detroit's past, present and future. The bar owner has the means to leave the city for a more attractive suburban life, but chooses to remain and provide a rare respite for his regulars.
The film brilliantly toggles between footage of post-1967-riots-Detroit and today's Detroit, where many buildings built before the riots stand, albeit many by threads and a handful of window panes. Forget the quality of 1967 celluloid and smoke from a smoldering downtown, and there is little noticeable difference with new footage of the city.
China enters the storyline as discussion develops on the Asian country's ability to build vehicles often faster and cheaper than U.S. automakers. Detropia portrays Detroit as a microcosm of the national recession that hit full bore following the fall 2008 market collapse. It makes clear that Detroit and Michigan had a running start in the recession, fueled by mass layoffs of autoworkers and struggles to adapt to the global economy.
The city's financial woes come into the play as Mayor Dave Bing meets with his economic team to form some sort of strategy to avoid municipal bankruptcy. Perhaps most notable in the film is Bing's failed plan to condense the city's remaining residents – less than 710,000 as of last year – into a defined area, leaving much of the remaining square mileage for what has become known as "urban farming."
The film profiles young artists who have taken up residency in Detroit at bargain-bin housing prices as a canvass for their work. Whether they remain and spur future generations to move to the city and contribute to a withering taxbase remains to be seen.
Detropia, in just 90 minutes, manages to capture the essence of America's forgotten city. —Chris Behnan