30+ Semester in Detroit alumni gathered on Friday, September 14 to watch Detropia together (special thanks to the UM Office of the Provost for subsidizing tickets for our alums as well as other UM students around campus who are engaged with Detroit.) The 200-seat screening room in the Michigan Theater was packed to capacity with several seated on the floor.
The movie is bound to spark lots of different reactions in and around Detroit. The film has already gained a lot of national attention in the New Yorker, NYT, Mother Jones, Salon, etc. This is probably mainly due to the fact that the filmmaker duo of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing made the Oscar-nominated, Jesus Camp – a brilliant film that explores a group of youth evangelicals at a Christian summer camp. There are also high expectations for Detropia since it won an editing prize at Sundance earlier this year.
So how was the film? Artistically-speaking, there’s no question that Grady and Ewing and Team are highly-skilled and adept at their craft – the movie is stunning in its imagery and masterfully weaves in archival footage with the contemporary look at Detroit. The movie shows Detroit today primarily through three different subjects: a 20-something video blogger/barista, a 60-something UAW Local 22 president, and a 60-something owner of The Raven Lounge, a blues/r&b club in Hamtramck (all of whom are black). The fourth “subject” is a pair of two white performance artists (probably in their 30s or 40s) who recently moved to Detroit. [I might argue that the most powerful “subject” in the film is China – which is invoked directly and indirectly throughout the film as being perhaps the most significant reason for Detroit’s problems.]
As for the central narrative in the film – that Detroit’s enormous decline in the manufacturing industry over the past 40+ years is the central cause of Detroit’s overall decline (and a harbinger of what is coming to cities across America), who can really argue with this? In this sense, the movie provides artistic imagery that would pair well with Thomas Sugrue’s excellent 1997 book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis – which effectively debunked the tired, racist and inaccurate narrative that the 1967 riot and Coleman Young (i.e., black people) were the main reasons why so many people (mostly white) have left Detroit over the years.
Class, not race, is the primary focus of this film; a close second is the role of the state in the larger economy – not just of cities, but of the world at-large. If the US government was able to save GM and Chrysler just a few years ago (and some say, perhaps hyperbolically, capitalism itself!), then why doesn’t it also save the City of Detroit? [The voice of former Michigan Governor, Jennifer Granholm, pops up on a few occasions in the film – and she sounds a lot better at diagnosing the US macroeconomy than she ever performed as Governor.] While the movie never directly poses such questions or challenges about the role of the Government in saving cities like Detroit – it surely seems to be begging such questions.
In the end, if “Detroit” was the heart of American capitalism in the 20th century, and the US government just saved capitalism from the brink of disaster, then isn’t there some math equation showing that the US Government should also have saved Detroit itself? Should it? Could it? Will it?
Personally, I won’t hold my breath (and Obama hasn’t been reelected yet!), but the questions are very important ones, and Detropia hopefully will get a lot more people asking them.