Detropia: Downgrading the Motor City


Detropia takes you beyond the stock market prices and technical jargon and deeply personalizes the economic recession that plagued the United States and most of the world for the last several years. As with virtually all economic downturns, certain sectors of the economy were hit harder than others. The part of the national economy that suffered the most throughout the beginning of the 21st century was also the backbone of Detroit during its golden era: industrial manufacturing. As the documentary points out, 50,000 American factories closed in the past decade, costing six million workers their jobs. The Motor City is almost legendary for being the birthplace of the modern automobile industry, the nuts and bolts of which is manufacturing. It makes more than just automobiles. During WWII Detroit’s robust manufacturing played a fundamental role in the production of war machines, so much so that there have been six ships owned by the US Navy named after the city of Detroit, Michigan.

Now, as “Detropia” makes it clear, that rich history is crumbling. In May 2012, the Department of Labor put the city’s unemployment rate at 15.8%. It is no secret that present-day Detroit suffers from high crime and poverty rates. However, there is a lesser known and a much more alarming problem facing the city that is at the center of the film. Detroit has been dismantled, people are moving out, the city lost 25% of its population within the last 10 years, and houses and buildings of all kinds are being demolished, never to be restored. Detroit issued bonds solely for the purpose of property demolition.

“Detropia” brings this crisis into focus with hauntingly up-close-and-personal detail. From the frustrated voices of city residents echoing through city halls to the eerie glow of welding tools as they cut apart buildings and vehicles to be sold for scrap metal, this documentary is a dark warning to cities throughout the nation that may think they are invincible. It is laden with emotional provocation that allows the viewer to vividly imagine what it might be like to stand in the shoes of someone suffering from the economic devastation that ravaged Detroit. Somehow, the makers of the film, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, are able to make the documentary artistic and visually intriguing while keeping the practical concerns of those in it central to the storyline. Numbers and statistics fade on and off the screen and eerie music chords provide the backdrop to union members coping with the news that they were asked to take a more than $3 decrease in their hourly pay rate. While the documentary features politicians, the spotlight is on the teacher, the business owner who runs a bar alone, the leader of a dying union, and others. Grady and Ewing also use the soundtrack to deflect the movie away from the ghetto/urban decay stereotype, utilizing a mainly opera and electric genre.

If the film has a weakness, it gives too little attention to possible solutions. The viewer may walk away from it simply feeling depressed and inclined to distract themselves from what they saw, rather than galvanized to action. It paints a beautiful picture of the past without offering much hope for the future. Maybe the goal was not to motivate people to save Detroit, but rather give people a warning of what could happen to their own cities and encourage them to stop the decline before it begins.

Overall, Detropia is an intellectually and visually provocative documentary that allows the viewer to decide what they want to do with it.

View the trailer for the film here


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