Creativity, News

Detropia misses Detroit’s can-do spirit

Don’t get me wrong, Detropia – a documentary about the Motor City’s decline that recently received rave reviews from critics, including The New Yorker—is without a doubt, a beautifully shot film.

From the silhouette of a bird soaring in front of a high rise, to a child sweeping a crumbling sidewalk, to a video blogger exploring the entrails of an abandoned theater, the cinematography is nothing short of mesmerizing. But it also must be said, that this is one of the dourest films I have ever seen about Detroit, though the directors claim it is hopeful.

Watching Detropia I began to understand for the first time the fascination so many filmmakers and photographers have with the skeletal remains of the city’s structures. The lens dissects demise in a way the human eye cannot.

It sits on images of historic buildings latticed with hollowed windows and personifies them into lost souls that we can’t help but want to save.

It closes in on the peeling paint and cobwebbed corners of buildings that once buzzed with life, not unlike the Titanic footage that takes viewers on a watery tour of eroded cabins detailed with elaborate moldings.

The difference is Detroit’s icons are not underwater but enormously visible, towering titans begging us to refurbish them to their former glory each time we walk past their boarded doors.

Yet I know the camera could equally embrace and celebrate, given half a chance, the overwhelming sense of Detroit’s “can do” spirit, now palatable everywhere in both the “best” and “worst” neighborhoods of the city.

From downtown, where serious planning has led to the refurbishment of historic buildings that now house start up tech companies, newly migrated residents and retail spaces, to Brightmoor, the most blighted area, where local organizers are pulling down carcasses of homes, fixing up a community center, and planting edible gardens, the hope for the future of this city is beginning to outweigh all the lingering depression about the past.

This is not a city looking for sympathy. Though the directors of Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, did capture that courageous ethos in their in-depth interviews with a few of the city’s residents, I wish they had spoken to some of the numerous activists and organizers working to better the lives of Detroiters through social justice, the arts and neighborhood programs.

While I appreciate the filmmakers could not include the most recent improvements as they had finished filming by the time so many of these projects became a reality, one of the directors also said in a post screening discussion that to interview some of the activists and organizers in the city would have been too difficult as there are so many of them. To me that is akin to not filming a starry sky because there are too many bright lights.

Of course the “revitalization” is nowhere near fruition. There is still a long way to go. And yes, it is not yet felt by the most economically disadvantaged residents of Detroit. But all discussions about fixing Detroit include helping the worst neighborhoods, as well.

A vibrant Downtown and Midtown surrounded by sadness does not appeal to anyone, least of all those working and living in Detroit now or in the future.

On a national level, Detroit does not mind being an important cautionary poster child for what has happened to Rust Belt cities and what could still happen to other cities. One can’t begin to bring back the thousands of automotive jobs lost in this city, but we can encourage all those working on job training, education, better transport and police and fire services by highlighting their continued efforts.

Thankfully, a film called Lean, Mean and Green (its working title was Reimagining Detroit) is in the works. It offers creative ideas to the challenges the city faces by researching the good works of other cities, both domestically and globally, that have faced similar hurdles.

No one wants to ignore the problems in the city Detropia portrayed. Detroiters are not so eternally optimistic that they are in denial about the continuing challenges. On the contrary, Detroiters don’t have to go to a film to see them—they are harshly evident each day in the faces and facades surrounding them. No one thinks the odd coffee shop, colorful mural, renovated building or community garden can change this landscape overnight, but they are bright lights that show this city is far from being deserted emotionally even if much of it is still abandoned physically.

Jennifer Conlin is the founder of CriticCar Detroit, a winner of the 2011 Arts Journalism Challenge by the NEA and Knight Foundation      

About the Author

5 comments on “Detropia misses Detroit’s can-do spirit

  1. Jennifer,
    Thanks for the heads up. I am a little worried about seeing it — hope I don't get mad. But, it's showing where I live now (in WI) and I plan to go.
    (Did you mean palpable? That's how I interpreted palatable.)
    I am also glad to hear about the other film! Thank you.

  2. Jennifer, thank you for such an insightful, well-written article. You have perfectly verbalized exactly what I felt upon the conclusion of the film. I also defended the film's bleakness in the fact that it was shot at the height of Detroit's down cycle (2010), and that the film makers would have needed a lot more time to talk about all of the positive changes happening here. Which is why I am sincerely hoping that for not only the sake of the Detroit, but the sake of Michigan, they will shoot a sequel and turn what has been snippets on youtube of the positive things going on here into a full-length documentary.

  3. Oh thank heaven there is yet another documentary coming out to talk about Detroit (referring to Lean, Mean, and Green).. I mean, the attention is all well and good, but when is enough enough?

  4. Why does detropia have to tell the story of every aspect of the city? Especially when there are other films like the one you shamefully plugged in this article. Also everytime I open the NYTimes they are talking about that exact story. Detropia was refreashing to me because it was a voice of Detroit that I haven't heard from yet in the national coverage. I think it's best to judge a film on what it does do rather than what it doesnt. Unless that is the film is clamining to be the complete story of detroit which im sure the directors are not claiming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *