Family lore holds that my mom and dad met as teenagers during Detroit's heyday in the 1950s, when the Motor City was an enviable American metropolis. Mom worked at a diner downtown. Dad raced hot rods up Telegraph Road. She calmed his ass down and we settled in the suburbs, six blocks from Detroit's famous 8 Mile Road.
My dad worked as a truck driver in the city for the next 40 years, often shuttling parts between auto plants. A dedicated union man, he clocked overtime pretty much every day and made enough money so that my mom didn't have to work and us kids all had the chance to go to college.
I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but my family was among the last beneficiaries of Detroit's Golden Age.
Detropia — the darkly fascinating documentary new this week to DVD, digital and cable VOD — poses the simple, awful question: What happened? Over the last several decades, Detroit's economic collapse has been so severe it's practically science fiction. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Detroit now has half the median income and three times the poverty rate of the nation as a whole. The average home price? $9,562. In the national and international consciousness, the city of Detroit is an object of pity — too sad to even be a punchline anymore.
Detropia profiles an assortment of Detroit natives and newcomers and finds episodes both despairing and cautiously hopeful. But that shell-shocked central question — what happened? — is always pulsing underneath.
Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) spent a year in the city making the film, chasing down stories and homing in finally on a handful of personalities. This is a ground-level view, told by people in the thick of it: A blues bar owner, a U.A.W. rep, a pair of young avant-garde artists who have moved to the city for the impossibly cheap rent.
Video blogger and poet Crystal Starr provides the film's most lyrical moments as she fearlessly scales abandoned office buildings to look over her devastated city. As you might expect, the film's images are desolate — miles upon miles of gutted homes and empty lots. The images are also sadly familiar: Footage of Detroit's smashed urban landscapes spawned the online meme and veritable visual genre now known as "ruin porn."
The filmmakers occasionally check in with the city's honchos. One meeting, between mayor Dave Bing and a team of urban planners, suggests a city stuck in permanent triage. A fundraiser at the Opera House summons up ghosts of Detroit's rich cultural past.
Detropia has been shortlisted for this year's documentary Oscar. It's also received a fair amount of criticism for its ultimately despairing depiction of the city. When the film screened at last year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, the movie's reps endured a surprisingly hostile Q&A session afterward. The sold-out screening was clearly packed with D-town natives — I was there with several expats myself. Many in the Detroit contingent wanted to know why the film didn't focus on the bright spots — the artistic renaissance, the urban gardening initiatives, the ambitious renewal plans.
I've been away from my hometown for way too long to have an opinion on these things. What resonated for me, in Detropia, was the suggestion that the city is a kind of distant early warning; that gathering class and economic superstorms are just over the horizon.
Blues bar owner Tommy Stephens makes this case late in the film, grabbing the bully pulpit to offer an unsentimental prognosis. Detroit is dying because the jobs are gone. And the jobs are gone because corporations make more money when the factories are in Mexico. A working middle class isn't profitable and that's just how it is.
"What happened in Detroit is now spreading throughout," Stephens says. "There’s no buffer between the rich and the poor. Only thing left is revolution."
DVD Extras: More than 90 minutes of extended and deleted scenes.
Also New This Week:
The Possession, starring Jeffrey Dean Stanton and Kyra Sedgwick, is yet another variation on the Spooky Little Girl movie, pioneered by The Exorcist in 1973. The movie has some pretty good scares and an interesting hook in the concept of the dibbuk box, a Hebrew ritual artifact used to trap the souls of troublesome demons.
Liam Neeson continues his late-career renaissance as action hero with Taken 2, sequel to the 2008 thriller about an ex-CIA officer whose family is threatened by international bad guys.
Director Woody Allen's latest comedy, To Rome With Love, stars Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Roberto Benigni and Greta Gerwig in four interrelated vignettes.
Plus: Diane Kruger as Marie Antionette in Farewell, My Queen; Russo-American sci-fi in the anti-capitalist Branded; and Criterion's reissue of the early Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much.
TV-on-DVD: Season collections from Merlin, HBO's Life's Too Short, and Ray Ramano's underrated sitcom Men of a Certain Age.