The trailer warns, "What happened in Detroit, is now spreading throughout."

The press materials alarmingly asks:

The woes of Detroit are emblematic of the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base. Is the Midwestern icon actually a canary in the American coal mine?
Detropia is a new documentary by the directors of Jesus Camp. After initial openings in New York City and Detroit this weekend, it will be rolled out into wider release across the country in the coming weeks.

I am a born and raised Michigander, and lived in Detroit (yes, city proper, Cass Corridor) from 1987 to 1993. I couldn't get to this film fast enough. I attended the New York City screening at the IFC center last weekend, which also hosted directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady for a question and answer session afterward.

If you're just joining us, let me inform you the city of Detroit sits on the verge of financial bankruptcy, having lost 25 percent of its population and 50 percent of its manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years. The film paints a picture of contemporary Detroit as seen primarily through the eyes of five diverse Detroiters.

  • CRYSTAL STARR: A barista and video blogger, aspiring poet from southwest Detroit.
  • GEORGE MCGREGOR: President of UAW Local 22. He arrived in Detroit in 1967 during the riots as part of the Army unit dispatched to restore calm to the city.
  • TOMMY STEPHENS: Retired schoolteacher has been in Detroit for over 40 years. He is the owner of the Raven Lounge near Detroit Hamtramck assembly plant.
  • DAVID DICHERA: General director, Michigan Opera Theater. He founded the Opera in 1971 with the help of local supporters and Luciano Pavarotti, took shuttered triple X movie palace and restored it to create the Detroit Opera House in April 1996.
  • STEVE AND DOROTA COY: Visual and performance artists in their late 20s, they are a married couple who have lived in Detroit for a few years.
The faces and voices showcased are overwhelmingly African American, which is entirely appropriate when discussing a city that is 82.7 percent African American per the 2010 census.

I've always felt the lowest form of critique is to criticize a work for not being what it is not.

It is only fair to critique a piece relevant to the artist's intention and how effectively they executed their vision.

So that said, this post does not serve as a review, perhaps more as an addendum, since much of what I will discuss involves ground left uncovered by the filmmakers. And perhaps it's sign of good filmmaking that leaves you wanting more, that sets you afire with all the thoughts and questions that a piece conjures to your mind. By that metric then Detropia is an enormously successful film.

And I should say, as a reviewer, I do recommend it without reservation to this audience at Daily Kos, most of whom I'm sure will find it thought-provoking.  

But I also did find the film was remarkable for what it did not examine, as for what it did. And in that vein, it may be a very effect conversation starter.

So let's start the conversation after the fold: Is Detroit truly emblematic of the future of the United States?

(Continue reading below the fold.)

Crystall Starr, Detroit based video blogger based in Detroit.
Crystal Starr, a video blogger based in Detroit, glances over the Detroit skyline
from the abandoned Michigan Central Station.
In some ways, the filmmakers are absolutely correct to sound the alarm that Detroit is the future of America. They correctly focus in on endemic problems with the U.S. economy; the erosion of a manufacturing base, the erosion of union power and collective bargaining rights, the inclination of big business to treat workers as expendable commodities, urban centers that have burdensomely oversized and ancient infrastructures and collapsing tax bases.

In some ways however it seems alarmist to see Detroit as symbolic. In many ways Detroit represents the outlier edge of many of these problems. That is to say, Detroit's problems are by no means unique but significantly more pronounced. Many other urban centers benefit from significantly less population attrition and a more diverse economic environment. And it's entirely possible the huge boom of the early 20th century industrial revolution was realistically never sustainable for Michigan.

But Detroit's fate does bring into sharp focus the burning question: Can America support itself if it's done actually building things?

This film can be a little frustrating for the elephants in the room it leaves unaddressed. One question in the session afterwards challenged filmmakers why they didn't mention the high crime rate in Detroit? Detroit is infamous for being frequent contender for the murder capital of the United States. This does seems like a significant impediment to robust economic development, if I may employ understatement.

Another distinctively pronounced trait of Detroit that is not mentioned is it is the most racially segregated region in the country (yes, we're counting the South too). Crain's Detroit Business explored the economic effect this has on the region. From "Detroit's divide in black and white: How can region work past racial roadblocks?"

Mistrust and deeply ingrained fears abound, and until they're overcome, say scholars, business leaders and activists, the region can't move forward.

“We have to understand that we need regional collaboration,” said Thomas Costello, president and CEO of the Detroit-based Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. “Our fates are linked. We have futures in common.”

The divide between black and white in the Detroit metropolitan area is very starkly drawn, courtesy of Eric Fischer who has mapped racial statistics from the 2010 census onto a map below. Blue dots represent 25 African Americans, red dots, the white population. To better illustrate the city's position, I've super-imposed an outline of Detroit's city limits onto his original here. (You can see other cities he's mapped for context.)
Racial segregation in Detroit Metropolitan area. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Data from Census 2010. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA.
Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Data from Census 2010. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA. Eric Fischer/Flickr.
The red cluster in the city represents the city of Hamtramck, a Polish enclave, and an independently incorporated city that is entirely surrounded by Detroit. Hamtramck is also the site of General Motors plant that is currently producing the Chevrolet Volt.

This is merely my observation that it's a little strange to have an examination of the economic conditions of a struggling and overwhelming black population without even acknowledging they are surrounded on all sides by an overwhelmingly white, often well-off, even wealthy, population. Is it possible some rungs fall off the ladder of economic opportunity at precisely 8-Mile Road for some odd reason?

The film includes footage of the 1967 race riot, which required National Guard intervention. One can also see the 1967 riots marked as a data point in a presentation on socio-economic and population trends given to Mayor Bing by a consultant. But in the film there is no hint that racial tensions might still reverberate, or have an affect on the options available to the city. Consider that thanks to Michigan's emergency manager law right now, more than half the state’s black population has had their elected officials replaced with managers hand-picked by the (white) Republican governor.

The most significant sidestep, however, is the entire political discussion associated with the how, what, where, when and why Detroit came to be at this place. No one utters the acronym "NAFTA." The few instances of partisan, or politicly charged language are snippets of talk radio that are used as voiceover during montaged chapter segues. As filmmaking it's very effective. You see stark visuals of absolute urban devastation, while the voices of pundits pontificate impotently. Their platitudes of "free market" and "deregulation" (or what have you) seem ridiculously divorced from the reality of the desperate landscape you're viewing. This is Mad Max territory. The problem is clearly not over-regulation.

The film can feel at times that it's bringing a great big basket of problems to your doorstep and just leaving them there in nihilistic surrender. "Everyone's broke, everyone's poor. If you're lucky enough to have a job, the Job Creators™ want you to take a 20 percent pay cut and surrender your benefits or they'll recreate your job in Mexico or China (where workers make $2.92 and 81 cents an hour, respectively). No, you really don't have a hand to negotiate with because the Job Creators™ really don't actually want to keep your job in the United States. They want you to refuse the offer so they can more easily set up shop elsewhere."

The filmmakers were unable to persuade any of the Job Creators™ to appear on camera to discuss their policies, despite good faith invitations and negotiations.

The politics is subtext

To those of us invested in problem-solving, the effect of breezing over foundational policy issues is akin to listing symptoms and declining to offer a diagnosis. The politics is the "subtext" filmmaker Ewing said at the question and answer session, and this is true enough, and a fair artistic choice to make. At times political ramifications are made slightly more overtly, as when bar owner Stephens says, "There's no buffer left between the rich and the poor, the only thing left is revolution."

He is speaking about rising income inequality and the collapse of the social mobility ladder.

But filmmakers leave the viewers to connect the dots that there can be no social mobility without affordable, quality public education, Pell grants, affordable student loans and tuition, affirmative action, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs, Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security, unions and collective bargaining rights, among many other highly charged contemporary political issues. And on all those topics there are very clear partisan divides on how the country should proceed going forward, let us not pretend otherwise. The Ayn Rand/Paul Ryan "free market" school of thought has no interest nor intention of supplying anyone with a ladder out of poverty.

Giving short shrift to any examinations of how Detroit got where they are or what solutions are possible, or—even better—exploring what solutions are being implemented and succeeding does make watching Detropia a pretty bleak experience, where remedies seem hopelessly out of reach.

They do provide one tantalizing glimmer of hope: In the last 10 years Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35 moving to its downtown. This is a trend the New York Times reported on last year. The featured young artist couple is representative of this population, but aside from the couple themselves, we unfortunately see little of this tiny, nascent economic eco-system.

The filmmakers' choice to eschew tough policy talk in Detropia does deliver rewards as well. Not wading into partisan bickering, or the painful, uncomfortable, potentially incendiary examination of lingering racism does make the film somewhat more accessible, and probably more palatable to a larger audience. It allows the essential human stories to resonate in very touching and engaging way that they probably would not had political finger-pointing and assigning of partisan or racial blame been more than just subtext. What it lacks in political policy depth it makes up for by the depth it explores its characters, and many subjects are fascinating, engaging and admirable people.

There's really no question Ewing and Grady have made an important, very interesting, if heartbreaking film. Ewing said their intention was to keep the film focused on illustrating the real life impact these economic trends have on real people's real lives. And by that measure Detropia definitely succeeds.

It will doubtlessly be fodder for many conversations about who and where we are as a nation, and where we're going. Can we change course? Or is it too late?

Your assignment, Dear Kossacks—should you choose to accept it—is to go see this film, and take someone with you. And afterwards lead the conversation and use the opening to connect the dots that Ewing and Grady left as subtext. Consider it a patriotic duty.

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