Early in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary Detropia, a woman who spends her free time exploring Detroit’s many abandoned buildings stares out from the kitchen of a dilapidated apartment building. The room around her is falling apart, but her gaze is fixed on the far distance as she stares out across treetops and houses toward the distant city center. “Can’t leave, man,” she murmurs. “Can’t fucking leave.”
Those who can leave Detroit apparently already have. With auto-industry and other industrial jobs vanishing en masse, the city’s population has plummeted, leaving entire blocks abandoned. At times, as Ewing and Grady’s cameras prowl its empty streets, the city seems like the world’s largest ghost town. For those who remain, times are tough, and by all accounts, getting tougher. One city official estimates unemployment at 50 percent. “We’re where we were in 1929,” says the owner of the Raven Lounge, a nightclub once filled with factory workers coming off their shifts. “They’re just not saying it.”
Detropia eavesdrops on a meeting of unionized workers at the American Axle plant, where they discuss management’s proposal to cut their wages by 25 percent (they refuse; the plant closes), and follows the Raven Lounge’s owner to an auto show, where he grills a Chevrolet representative on the difference between the company’s expensive, impractical electric car, the Volt, and the Chinese model being shown a few booths away, which costs half as much and runs longer on a single charge. But the filmmakers’ observational style doesn’t allow them to explore the larger forces at work, or how the city’s dismal fortunes might be improved. It’s sobering to watch a woman who rises three hours before the start of her work day plead with city officials not to phase out her bus route; without a basic service like public transportation, she points out, Detroit would hardly be a city at all.
The movie’s attempt to position Detroit as the canary in the coal mine—there but for the grace of God goes any other city—falls flat, but it isn’t a fatal flaw. It might not happen in any city, but for it to happen to one is bad enough.