Judge Daryl Loomis feels no Detroit film is complete without a single mention of MC5.
This is the downsizing of Detroit; you're watching it live.
Modern industry in America was born in Detroit, Michigan, where Henry Ford conceived of the assembly line and the living wage (well, sort of), and the city boomed with jobs. African Americans moved en masse to the city, escaping the shadow of the South's Jim Crowe laws, turning it into one of America's major metropolitan areas and the heartbeat of the burgeoning love affair with the automobile.
It grew and grew until only a couple of decades ago, when corruption and infrastructural decline started to emerge and growth was curbed. Finally, when the national government decided to slash tariffs on imported manufactured goods, the companies that helped to build Detroit moved their operations across borders and overseas where costs were diminished and they didn't have to do such unsavory things as pay their workers a decent wage. When the jobs disappeared, so did the people, and Detroit went from boom to bust almost overnight.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the directorial team behind such documentaries as Jesus Camp and Freakonomics, take a look inside this collapse with an elegiac tone that presents an interesting take on the subject. It doesn't provide any real answers to how to fix the problems, instead relying on the faces and thoughts of those who live and work in the city.
>From the owner of an old blues bar to the head of one of the local unions to a blogger and videographer who documents the decay, Detropia is a compelling series interviews about and tours through Detroit. These people are contrasted with the local opera house, which is struggling as much as everything else, but those who run don't seem as honest with themselves about their struggles. They believe that the arts will save the city and, while I'd love to agree with that, the problems are far too broad to be fixed by opera alone. Sure, it might inject some much needed cash into the economy, but until the jobs return, the schools get fixed, and the infrastructure is reinforced, no amount of arias will get it done. The other subjects have a better understanding of this, and show the directors the places where homes and businesses used to be, all the while explaining what happened.
Ewing and Grady make clever use of all this footage, editing it all together in a dreamy, poetic way that shows the blighted city with all sorts of potential for beauty and growth. As we see when they visit a town hall meeting and a union negotiation, that potential is thwarted at every turn by talk of downsizing the city, removing services, and cutting wages. The city has been held hostage by all the same things that caused the problems in the first place, leaving viewers to wonder if there's any way to save it at all. Whether that's true or not, Detropia provides no answers. What it does offer, though, is a compelling look at deindustrialization and city decay, one that is a lot warmer than such a topic has much right to be.
Detropia arrives on DVD with a solid release from Docurama. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image transfer is strong for a documentary, with the HD camerawork lending a crisp, clean look to the film. The detail throughout the image is strong with realistic colors, and though the film doesn't show Detroit in a very good light, they make it look as nice as possible. The sound, though, is not as strong. It features a surround mix, but you can hardly tell with the lack of dynamics; it might as well be in stereo.
The disc only features one extra, but it's substantial. Nearly ninety minutes of extended and deleted footage is almost another movie in itself, though one that isn't arranged in any kind of way. Many of the same people get more screen time, but there are a number of other characters that deliver bits of insight into the world of scavenging and the history of Detroit's drug trade. The final scene of this is the most interesting one: a group of older men sit in a bar discussing what happened to their city, explaining in great detail the political and structural causes of the decline, and scarily waxing nostalgic about how much better the heroin trade was than the crack trade to come. Had this been included in the final film, it would have been one of its strongest parts.
Detropia doesn't offer much in the way of hard solutions to the problems of Detroit and there isn't a lot that will surprise anyone who has done a little reading on the subject. It does present a poetic and heartfelt look at the city, though, and sometimes poetry is as important as cold hard facts; Detropia does this very well. Recommended.
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