Detropia (***)

There is no city in the United States more fully associated with hard economic times than Detroit. The hardships that are emblematic of many of the U.S. manufacturing issues of late are chronicled with a passionate eye in the documentary ‘Detropia’. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have made a movie that looks at the city in a matter of fact way that recalls their past effort ‘Jesus Camp’, even if the power of that film is somewhat superior to this one. Ewing and Grady don’t have a cure for the issues of Detroit, no solution that lawmakers need to follow, just a desire to highlight what’s going on in the Motor City, or more aptly what used to be the Motor City. In some ways this is just a tribute to what Detroit used to be, fully aware that it may never be that way again. That’s both a help and a hindrance to the documentary, but overall it’s done pretty well, even if the end result is more of a eulogy than anything else. Those from the area will obviously find it very moving, but any citizen of the United States will gain from watching ‘Detropia’. It’s not the happiest documentary in the world, but it’s a film that deserves to be seen. I’m not sure if members of the Academy will give it an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature or not, but it’s certainly in the hunt. The category is never easy to figure out, but something like this definitely is in play.

The documentary basically wanders around the city of Detroit, showing us the state that it’s currently in. We don’t just get glimpses at the dilapidated homes and real estate that so many of us associate with the area, but also the shiny buildings of the auto companies that seem to have mostly forsaken those who essentially made the town what it was. We see the Mayor of Detroit Dave Bing, who comes off as someone mostly out of ideas for how to save the city, as well as numerous citizens and how they’re coping with this new reality of life. The recession may be going away for many outside of Detroit, but those who call the city home realize that this may just be a permanent situation for them. There are some comments to be found about what General Motors is doing by producing their new fuel efficient cars outside of the country and some looks at the happier days of yore, but mostly the film just aims to show you what Detroit has become.

There’s a very soft touch at hand here from documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. They’re clearly most well known for the disturbing ‘Jesus Camp’, but here they’re making just as serious a point. If the documentary meanders around a bit too much, it’s also serving the purpose of showing what it’s like to live in Detroit these days. Being aimless is pretty much all you can be, unless you’re going to be a part of the dying labor unions or trying to save your failing business. There’s compassion on the part of Ewing and Grady, but this isn’t a preaching sort of documentary. The cinematography seeks to highlight both the beauty and the filth of the city, while the filmmakers throw up a number of depressing statistics on the screen throughout the runtime. It’s all effective stuff, but my sole issue is that it doesn’t quite add up to as much as you’d expect it to. Now, all that does is make this a good and not great documentary, but it’s something that I noticed and I don’t expect to be alone in that line of thinking. Ewing and Grady find a few signs of life in Detroit, but mostly they’re showing you how it’s become a shell of its former self.

Overall ‘Detropia’ is trying to show that the city that once was very much a symbol of hope has become the epitome of despair, and in that regard the documentary is successful. It’s far from a perfect film, but its heart is in the right place and I’m sure almost everyone who sees it will feel the same sadness that I did. The blame could be placed anywhere, and in many instances its rightful blame, but the fact of the matter is that Detroit may never be the same again, and that’s a real shame. It may be too small of a documentary to get that aforementioned Best Documentary Feature nod, but the Academy has been into things like this before. Time will tell, but in terms of quality it sure deserves a look, both by voters and by audiences as well. Detroit deserves to be remembered, and ‘Detropia’ is one day going to be remembered as one of the films that did so…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!