Lessons from Detroit: Documentary Explores City's Struggle Out of Economic Ruin

The DNC hailed the auto bailout as a success, but 'Detropia' tells a more complicated story.

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The speakers at this week's Democratic National Convention were quick to brag about the Obama administration-sponsored auto industry turnaround. But Detroit's path to recovery was by no means a sunny one, as depicted by the haunting Detropia, a documentary film premiering Friday in New York and rolling out across the country over the course of the next few months.

The narrative being pushed on the convention stage was a simple one: the auto industry was struggling, Obama bailed out GM and Chrysler, which buoyed other domestic carmakers, and three and a half years later, Detroit is back, buzzing to the hum of an Eminem beat.

The tale Detropia tells is not so neat. The film begins in the summer of 2010, a year and a half after the bailout. Over the course of roughly a year, it follows its characters—Crystal Starr, a barista/video blogger, Tommy Stephens, a lounge owner, and George McGregor, an auto union chapter head—as they wander their fallen city: crumbling buildings, barren streets, empty houses being demolished by the thousands.

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The Michigan Opera Theatre lends the film its soundtrack. Its conductor opens the movie with a stirring sequence from Verdi's Nabucco—a jarring contrast at first: desolate streets scored by booming operatic heights.

However, the opera motif serves a two-fold purpose: illustrating that the struggling community is still committed to maintaining its institutions of great art and placing Detroit's narrative in the context of the opera's grand drama.

"It just fit so well in the sense that Detroit has got such an epic story. It's an operatic place. It's got such highs and lows. In so many ways it's a tragic place, and also a place we project our fantasies on," explained Detroit native Heidi Ewing, who directed the film along with Rachel Grady.

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Detropia flashes to the good 'ol days, with commercials of luxury cars riding the "highway of tomorrow." Its characters reminisce about bustling factories now replaced by empty parking lots.

The physical wasteland the camera captures is matched by the human one, perhaps most vividly as McGregor struggles to explain to his union members that the "final" proposal from their employer requires them to take a steep cut in their already tight wages. The members turn down the deal to hold on to their dignity, and American Axle, we learn, closes its last Detroit factory.

A Greek chorus of unseen, unidentified narrators—pundits and politicians spewing platitudes we are all familiar with by now: "We've moved to a have-and-have-not society"..."Change is difficult, change is hard work"—echo across moving shots of the landscaped littered with relics of manufacturing past.

But it's the Detroiters that tell their town's story best: from the porch potatoes joking that the plan to turn Detroit's emptying neighborhoods into urban gardens would result in "Drop the f-cking tomato right now, or I am going to shoot," to McGregor, after breaking the news to a retired auto worker that her vision and dental care are no longer covered under the terms of the bailout deal, concedes, "It can't get no worse, so it's got to get better."

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In a scene key to understanding Detroit's future, Stephens attends an international auto show—not because he is looking to buy a car, but because his lounge is near a GM factory, and the success of his business in contingent on the employment of the auto workers who patronize it. After inspecting the Chevy Volt, he studies its Chinese counterpart "BYD," or "Build You Dreams," which is some $20,000 cheaper. When he questions the Chevy representative about how he expects the Volt to compete, the rep defends the car's special features, calling the comparison "apples to oranges." Stephens reminds him that "apples to oranges" is how domestic and foreign cars were described in the 1960s. "We got our heads in the sand again," Stephens sighs.