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The woes of Detroit are emblematic of the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base. Is the Midwestern icon actually a canary in the American coal mine? DETROPIA is a cinematic tapestry of a city and its people who refuse to leave the building, even as the flames are rising. Written by
I read an article not long ago that cited the TruTV program Hardcore Pawn as one of the biggest boons to Detroit's failing economy in a long time. The pawn shop depicted in the show, American Jewelry and Loan, located in the 8 Mile, has become famous in the town of Detroit and has become a notable tourist attraction, receiving hundreds of customers a day. I can't help but find it somewhat depressing that one of the town's biggest economic successes in recent times is thanks to an exploitative, unsubstantial Television program with almost no redeeming merits when it used to not need any assistance because of its unstoppable job growth thanks to its many factories.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's new documentary Detropia opens with a frightening statistic; in 1930, Detroit, often labeled "Motor City," was the country's most booming city because of its auto industry and manufacturing plants all across its land. Today, it is one of the fastest declining cities with over 100,000 vacated homes and lots. Its economy is in shambles, its townspeople exhausted and underpaid, and overall appearance mirroring that of a desolate wasteland. Clint Eastwood starred in a Super Bowl commercial about two years ago that informed citizens of the world that it's only halftime in America and our second half was to begin shortly. Tell that to the locals in Detroit who, in 2013, still, are waiting for the buzzer to go off and for the game to resume.
"We're not in a recession, we're in a depression," says retired public school teacher Tommy Stephens, now owner of the Raven Lounge in Detroit. "They're just not saying it cause it would scare the American people." I would've loved to have this man as a teacher for any subject. He is one of the most friendly, charismatic, and intelligent documentary figures in recent memory and his final scene where he discusses the greatness of capitalism, yet recognizing its unfair treatment and exploitation of the poor is terrifically compelling. Stephens later attends a car show where he himself is being taught about how China can make an electric car appearing more stable than an American-made car for $20,000 and America makes and sells one for around $41,000. He informs the gentleman selling the $41,000 car, who is anything but happy. It is then he and we, as the audience, realize that the future may be outsourcing, but then where does that leave the United States? Looking like the metropolitan area of Detroit, I suppose.
We are not given a central moral or theme in the film, but we do not need one. We have been bombarded with news about the economic standing of Detroit for several years now that we have subconsciously blamed whoever we feel responsible, rather it be the political left, right, the town's mayor, the unions, the townspeople, whoever. Ewing and Grady aren't here to give us a moral but a somber experience with little light at the end of the tunnel. We focus on various townspeople in Detroit, including a stressed and frustrated union manager whose American Axle plant has just been closed, townspeople who sit on their porch and mock all efforts of the politicians who are trying to bring Detroit back to its roots, a Vlogger on Youtube named Crystal Starr who attends many town hall meetings and explores the ruins of the town (she goes into an empty building and looks out at the desolation that has consumed the entire town and tells us, "this place used to be bangin'"), and even the mayor, Dave Bing, who is completely at a loss, unable to cope with the ruins of the town or the immense decrease in population. He proposes solutions, like relocating people to replace some of the urbanization with farmland, to which many people are understandably disgusted at. It's the unwillingness to input change and the unwillingness to carry out change that is ruining Detroit, yet where do you go and what do you do when you're bankrupt and desperate? Had it not been for the narration and statistics, I would've went out and assumed this was a film done by the filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose Titicut Follies I don't hesitate to call one of the finest American films ever made. The filmmakers do not put us in a position to judge, blame, or accuse, but simply give us an unbiased, objective look at the guttural decay and hopelessness Detroit has accentuated over a period of several years. Ewing and Grady's approach to this delicate material is similar to the way I believe Wiseman would've approached it, by letting the townfolk tell their stories and share their opinions and do not plan on sharing your own, even if you have the liberty to.
The only faint light that we are provided with is the idea that Detroit will soon become the area of idealistic young people who want to emerge in careers of technology and the fine arts to hopefully revitalize the American spirit in the currently hopeless town. The marketing points for the film are the Coys, Steven and Dorota, respectively. They are two local artists who wear gold-painted gas masks and walk listlessly along the landscape of Detroit (which is photographed bleakly but beautifully) and hope to spread their creativity and vision throughout the land. More power to 'em.
The question we are left with is the same one we emerged with and that is how will we keep Detroit alive in these rough times? The documentary doesn't provide an answer and neither can I. Better make some more reality TV shows. Hopefully one starring Tommy Stephens.
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