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.
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.
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."
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.
In the context of Detropia, the one line from the Democratic Convention that rings truest was Bill Clinton's: "The old economy is not coming back. We've got to build a new one and educate people to do those jobs."
Discussing her film weeks before the convention, Ewing hit a note similar to Clinton's: "What we are realizing is that a lot of those jobs are never coming back, even with the recovery, so what happens to these low skilled laborers? There's no jobs for them anymore. And that's where education comes in and that's why when you look at a place like Detroit, you have an incredibly subpar education system."
As winter thaws to spring, a Detroit different than the one of manufacturing and Motown lore emerges, as depicted by two artists who have moved there to join its' burgeoning artist community. While it's total population has fallen to the lowest in a century, Detroit's downtown has seen a 59 percent increase in young people.
"I would never be able to own a home as an artist, yet here I am, with a studio and an apartment, in a major city, functioning for $700 a month," one such young person explains.
But just because a new crowd has come to town doesn't mean the old one has let go entirely—perhaps best symbolized by a slab of glass clinging to a ruin of a train station. "I'm not falling. I refuse to fall of this f-cking train. Ever," as a Detroiter describes.
McGregor and his union cohorts celebrate a newspaper headline: "GM Back in the Game at Full Throttle." A cheerful McGregor drives through a greener Detroit bubbling, "I just like this place, I just love it. I just love it. I love it."
Stephens's assessment towards the end of the film is far more tempered, remarking that his brother in Florida is now complaining about the dire economic situation that he had seen first in Detroit. "What happened in Detroit is spreading out. It's coming to you."
As the filmmakers see it, the rise of America in the 20th century went hand in hand with the rise of Detroit, from the expansion of the middle class to the development of Motown music, and thus the country at large should pay heed to Detroit's struggles.
"It's been an important of the American story. I would say that it's at the very heart of the American identity as far as our definition of the middle class, which is a definition that has been exported to the rest of the world. I believe a good part of it was invented, formed, sculpted in Detroit," said Grady. "If Detroit can find its way out of these troubles, then maybe we are all going to be OK."
But whether it has found its way is an open question not answered by Detropia, and unlikely to be answered by November, either.
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