I went with wariness to the screening of the documentary Detropia for members of WDET, Detroit’s public radio station. Even as a fan of past films by directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, I anticipated nothing revelatory from this one. Media coverage about Detroit often cheerleads the city’s bright spots with unnerving simplicity, or it paints its woes as apocalyptic symbolism. Forget the “ruin porn” outrage. I’m just tired of living in a metaphor.
So it is a relief that Detropia isn’t built with thundering disembodied narration about the city’s scramble to make up for it’s profoundly diminished manufacturing base. It is a relief that no voiceover is proscribing a neat solution, even a vague one about how “we all have to pull together.”
No, the film narrates nothing. Instead, its sonic landscape is created from silence and music. Detropia is unafraid of the long watchful hush. And it is music from performers at the Detroit Opera House — not the anticipated Motown soundtrack — that scores the movie, framing it from beginning to end, and underlining this film ‘s story as one that is both artful and epic. Visually, the film eases beautifully from scene to scene, juxtaposing retro reels with the vibrant color of today’s living city with a painterly subtlety.
The voices of the film are a handful of charismatic locals: Baristas, barkeepers, union officials, artists, guys hanging out on a porch. The city’s black middle and working classes are given the most attention, in contrast to the onslaught of media that focus on young white newcomers. Subtitles, not too many, keep the story cohesive.
But really, this isn’t a documentary about Detroit so much as it is about America’s tradition of building, making and creating, a manufacturing legacy that has been exported not only from this city but from our country’s borders. This is the well-paid sector that shaped the middle class for decades, and there has yet to be seen a replacement for it on any significant scale. “We built this city!” reads the slogan of UAW Local 22, featured in the film, in a surprising echo of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s reelection campaign.
The political and economic conversation about globalization is given a sharp visual as the film shows these autoworkers facing a last-offer contract that seriously cuts their wages, under threat of moving the plant to Mexico. The shock of realizing the company really does not care about paying them a living wage — as the union was told point-blank by negotiators – shows on their faces, and it is heartbreaking. In a final measure of pride, the union refuses to vote on the contract. The plant moved to Mexico.
This is a story bigger than Detroit, and locals know it. Policies that systematically undercut citizens’ ability to afford a standard of living most would call basic — the ability to have a home, health care and a bit of savings — position cities like Detroit to take care of the consequences even as they have less funds to provide basic services.
This forces a brutal weighing of priorities. The film features fiery political conversations about downsizing Detroit in 2010 that faced a serious backlash. (Alas, the film did not update where this story has gone: Residents will not be relocated, but public services in some less-populated neighborhoods are often patchy, resulting in a default pressure to move.)
There is room for Detropia to be more provoking than it is. And it does not pretend to be an all-encompassing tale of either the city, the middle class or American manufacturing. It doesn’t carry us particularly far back or forward in time in terms of the policies that carried us from here to there. Detropia really didn’t feel revelatory to me, except in the sense that it pointed me to a blues lounge I want to visit. But living here, sometimes I forget that what’s familiar to me is not familiar to others. Maybe it’s all right for this film to be a hymn to the ambivalence of what is happening here, and to give people both here and elsewhere an opportunity to simply sit still and look. Look how much this hurts.