‘Detropia': The Right Movie Right Now

Truly independent doc shines harsh but beautiful light on America's biggest problems — just in time for the election

Last Updated: October 5, 2012 @ 2:59 PM

Detroit may be the best city to illustrate the problems facing America today — and the thoroughly independent documentary "Detropia" may the best movie.

In a tight, fluid 90 minutes, "Detropia" offers a hypnotic look at every major issue in the presidential election, from lost manufacturing jobs to outsourcing to the disappearing middle class. With gorgeous, unflinching images, it tracks the decomposition of one of America's greatest cities into a place where people scavenge for scrap metal to survive.

Yet somehow, it isn't hopeless. More remarkably, it isn't partisan, even though its release was timed to the presidential campaign. The film, which premiered in New York last month, arrives in Los Angeles today.

Co-directors and producers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Oscar nominees for their 2006 documentary "Jesus Camp," turned down offers from distributors who wanted to release it in only a few markets, or after the election. To ensure the film was released earlier, and across the country, they distributed it themselves.

They did it by getting $90,000 in contributions, $71,000 of them through Kickstarter. The film itself was made with grants from the Ford Foundation, Sundance, Impact Partners and the Independent Television Service, which will air it on PBS next year. None had input into the filmmaking.

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One reason "Detropia" doesn't advocate a particular solution? The filmmakers haven't found one.

"Both candidates are flailing around trying to figure out how to create jobs," Ewing, a Detroit native, told TheWrap. "If we had stumbled across what we thought was an amazing solution, we certainly would have included it. … We didn't really find any silver bullets."

The film premiered in New York on Friday, Sept. 7, the day after President Obama accepted his party's renomination at the Democratic National Convention, where the auto industry bailout was hailed as one of his biggest accomplishments. The bailout was supposed to especially help Michigan, the heart of the auto industry. Mitt Romney, whose father was Michigan's governor, strongly opposed it.

The film finds a Detroit far from rescued by the bailout, and even further from the heyday of the industry, when Romney's auto-executive father was hailed as a visionary for championing smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. George Romney became governor in 1963, and though he was one of the most progressive Republicans of his time on Civil Rights, he served during the 1967 Detroit riots that led to massive white flight from the city. So began Detroit's decline.

This could all be the basis for a very grim, assembly-line of a documentary, filled with sad statistics and voyeuristic scenes of ghetto decay. There are plenty of fans of these sorts of images: At one point in the film, we meet two European tourists who come to Detroit just to see it crumbling. 

But "Detropia," as its name suggests, looks at the hard facts of life in Detroit even as it imagines a miraculous recovery. Cinematographers Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson shoot plenty of once-glorious, now vast and abandoned buildings. But they capture their potential as well.

That potential isn't lost on a small group of mostly white artists who travel to mostly black Detroit to buy houses and studios for as little as a few thousand dollars. Those artists include the gold-gasmasked pair featured on the film's poster.

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But rather than white artists, the film's heroes are African-Americans who have spent most of their lives in the city, and who could leave but choose not to. They include a blogger-barista, a gregarious union leader, and a small business owner who offers the film's most trenchant insights, even when he's occasionally dismissed.

His name is Tommy Stephens, and he is a retired teacher who now runs a blues bar near an old auto plant. In one of the film's best moments, he goes to the Detroit Auto Show, where he has an exchange that scarily encapsulates America's problems as it competes with China.

Stephens is somewhat impressed with the electric Chevrolet Volt — until he sees a Chinese electric car, not yet available, that is expected to cost half as much as the $40,000 Volt. He asks the Chevy reps how their car can compete at twice the price.

Their answer comes from a place of extreme comfort: People will pay for the car, they explain, because it has more and better features.

It's the answer of someone who has never faced a hungrier rival. And one that forgets the millions of hungry customers who simply want cars — and won't pay twice as much for comfortable ones. (Did no one listen to George Romney?)

"Detropia" finds a city where a small portion of the population lives in comfort while the rest scrounge. Stephens offers a blunt and brilliant explanation for why the rich need a middle class more than the poor do. And the film warns that the rest of the U.S. could look a lot more like Detroit if that middle class disappears.

It shouldn't be lost on anyone that its hero is a small business owner who gives back to his community — not just by providing a place to drink and be entertained, but by buying up some of Detroit's abandoned buildings.

The existence of people like him proves the situation isn't hopeless. So does the film's final scene, which finds one Detroit artist making beautiful use of one of those big empty buildings.