Crystal Starr, Tommy Stephens, George McGregor
US theatrical: 7 Sep 2012 (Limited release)
“You’re watching the downsizing of Detroit,” announces a TV reporter, “You’re watching it live.” He’s got his back turned to the camera, actually two cameras, the local TV rig and also the documentary camera recording the event for Detropia. He and his standup team are taping while a house is demolished. The noise is loud, as a bulldozer crushes the roof and the siding collapses, metal against wood. The reporter goes on about the 10,000 homes meeting this fate in the next four years. “These are houses that are never coming back,” the reporter says. “It’s going back to the prairie, and these houses are just disappearing from the landscape.”
As the documentary camera turns up to watch a bird fly from the scene, past trees in the wind and into blue sky, a title reminds you that “In 1930, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world.” Cut back to the bulldozer, still grinding, from a longer shot, across overgrown grass, a kind of prairie, where a jungle gym still stands, as you read, “Today it is the fastest shrinking city in the United States.”
This is, essentially, the story told by Detropia, opening 7 September at New York’s IFC Center. It’s a story of loss and pain, but also resilience and determination, a story of ghosts and icons. It’s the story of a city shaped by Motown and the auto industry, US racism and class structures. Shot over two years by Motor City natives Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, this remarkable documentary follows several individuals, remembering their own pasts and inserted into the city’s present. “Detroit blogger” Crystal Starr leads the film crew through an abandoned building: “History is just one of my things, even since grade school,” she says, pointing her flashlight: “These hallways,” she says, “I’m picturing this place clean, there being, you know, people walking around and shit happening.” She looks into a mirror, so dusty and old she’s only an outline, floating in greenish grey light.
Cut to another scene, urban planners pondering a graph of the city’s declining population, from 1,865,000 in 1985 to some 800,000 now. It’s a steep angle to see, certainly, and the discussion around it, full of numbers and projections made by people with somber expressions, makes much the same point as scene in the abandoned building. “We have to start doing something,” says Mayor Dave Bing, “Something has to happen, otherwise, we’ll lose the people.”
One of the people not quite lost is George McGregor, a United Auto Workers chapter head. Driving past where the Cadillac assembly plant used to be, where he was hired in 1968, he notes, “Now it’s a place where they park dumpsters.” The plant was his first job, he says, the camera close on his face as he smiles broadly and gestures with his finger. “After the plant left, shit, the neighborhood left.” He wants to “show you something,” he says, the camera pointed out the car’s windows at another void, where his current employer American Axle used to have a plant. Now buildings stand empty and grasses grow wild. “They built a new plant in Mexico and took all the jobs to Mexico,” he says, “That’s where it’s at.” George’s present crisis is a contract negotiation for UAW Local 22. American Axle is threatening to close the remaining plant, and their last proposal offers to reduce everyone’s wages, to the point where they’re no longer “livable.”
It’s a word that hangs in the air, even as the union members debate how to fight back. Vague and changeable, “livable” doesn’t begin to describe what you’re seeing, the frustrated expressions and broken windows. To live, that is, to survive, retired teacher Tommy Stephens has bought a blues bar; here the music is smooth and the chicken comes on white bread, and Tommy does his own cooking. “Capitalism is a great system, I love it,” Tommy insists, “but it exploits the weakest, always does. Take the middle class away, the upper class will respond and take it out on the lower class.” Tommy’s own maneuvering of energy and time to make it through each day, along with his refurbishing of foreclosed homes on his block, provide a kind of parallel story to efforts by the Detroit Opera House to stay open. The film cuts between the bar and the opera, linked by their colored lights and dark interiors, their stages and audiences, even as they represent disparate experiences.
These experiences converge, after a fashion, in the city’s waning. A people’s parade, featuring marchers dressed like houses apartment buildings, make their way through a desolate city street, marked with closed down storefronts and graffitied walls. The marchers hold a handmade manner with their collective name, “A City in Exile,” and they pass by an abandoned theater’s marquee, its letters tattered and rearranged to read, “I’m a believer.”
It’s a concept that resonates, even if you don’t know who believes or in what. Belief can be foundational and sustaining, as well as a benefit of privilege. Where the film’s black subjects—Crystal and Tommy and George—keep on, working multiple jobs, searching out and preserving the city’s past, a young white couple, a pair of installation artists recently arrived from Hawaii, find opportunities. Unlike New York, they can afford a studio’s rent here, they report, a newly appointed kitchen and materials for their street art. They pose wearing gasmasks they’ve painted gold in front of broken buildings, they make art of ruin and about it. “I feel like we’ve assimilated into the community of artists who are coming here,” one of them says, as you see them with each other, their faces hidden, a snowy expanse stretching into the background.
Removed from the “space” of Detroit, as well as exploiting and reflecting it, the artists’ activities mirror that of the film but also provide it with a means of self-critique. Beautiful and strange, more impressionistic than instructive, Detropia contemplates lives damaged and determined, exploited and evolving. It connects context and aspiration, effort and consequence, urging you to engage.