The fall of Detroit is the fall of America in microcosm, and the dilapidated nature of the city may or may not portend what’s in store for the country if we don’t find a way to solve our economic woes. Vast swaths of the once-thriving metropolis are depopulated and wasting away. Crime, drugs, and joblessness run rampant. This documentary surveys the rows of crumbling, empty houses, and it looks like a post-apocalyptic piece. We see members of the community talk about what might be done to resuscitate the city, but it’s clear that this is the wrong conversation. If Detroit is to be saved, then it will take a resurrection, because this place isn’t dying – it’s dead.
But there are still many people living in this corpse, and they are what Detropia is interested in. Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing received wide acclaim for 2006′s Jesus Camp, and once again, they’ve put together a vivid, personal portrait of a vitally urgent American issue. They’ve also assembled a great array of interesting people. There’s a yuppie artist couple who have moved in for the low property costs, a history teacher with some unusual perspectives on how we came to the place we are at today, a bar owner, a union worker, and many more. We see the Mayor and his advisers struggling to come up with ideas to jump-start industry and growth. We sit in on town hall meetings and parties and trips into empty buildings. The film travels all over Detroit in search of a possibly nonexistent answer to a futile question: what can be done?
The problem is that most of these people are still stuck in an old mindset. They still view themselves through the lens of the American dreamer. Success is just around the corner, all that must be done is work for it. But that’s not a reality for them. Really, it’s never been a reality for most people. We’re more bound by our circumstances than we care to acknowledge, even in America. But living on that lie is what brought us to this economic ruin in the first place. In many ways, this movie is an examination of sustained self-delusion.
Despite all that, it’s not really a downer at all. Wherever there are people, there is a full spectrum of experience, not just hopelessness and confusion but love and laughter and joy. Even as they flounder, the characters in this movie are still making the best of what they have, and managing to get by. They embody a different kind of American ideal, one that’s a lot less glamorous, but which is still comforting to see in action. For lack of a better answer as to what can be done to save Detroit, and what can be done to stop the rest of the US from hitting its lows, the best message that Detropia has to offer is that, for better or worse, America will still be America, no matter how bad things may get. And that makes it an oddly inspirational film.