"Detropia" is an impressionistic portrait of a great American city's ignoble decay and collapse. Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world in 1930. With its huge manufacturing capacity and its plentiful jobs with union-protected wages, the Motor City was the birthplace of the mighty American middle class. Yet anyone who's watched "Roger & Me" or has simply been paying attention to the news knows that the past three decades have been tough. The Big Three have steadily been exporting jobs to Mexico and China. The population of Detroit has fallen from 1.85 million in 1950 to a shade over 700,000 in 2010. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's movie is chock-full of statistics, but their documentary is not a fiery indictment à la Michael Moore. Instead, the film is a dreamlike elegy to the international power that this city once was and the veritable ghost town that it has become.
The film opens with an abandoned house getting demolished. The guy who owns the wrecking company says that he can't keep up with demand. In some neighborhoods, only one or two houses still stand on a city block. Soon afterward, the movie catches up with Mayor David Bing, who must have one of the most thankless jobs in the world. Hoping to spare resources for the nearly bankrupt city, Bing announces a modest proposal: Move the Detroiters living in the largely deserted neighborhoods into areas with denser populations and let the rest of town go back to farm land. Not surprisingly, the plan is about as popular as a cockroach in a sugar bowl. Detroiters who have lost so much are not going to gamely give up what they still have.
A sense of betrayal by the powers that be is palpable. At one point, we see George McGregor, the cherub-faced head of UAW Local 22, present the latest contract from American Axle to fellow union members. The company pushes for a 25 percent pay cut. When McGregor asks a company representative how his people are supposed to live on that, she states bluntly, "I don't care about a living wage." The union rejects the contact, and not long afterward, the company closes the plant. At another point, the movie follows Tommy Stephens, the owner of a blues lounge, who talks excitedly about the Chevy Volt, an electric car that was supposed to be built down the street from his establishment. Yet when he visits the North American Auto Show, he is struck by how much cheaper and more efficient the Volt's Chinese counterpart is. Months later, Chevy announces that, in fact, it's going to build the Volt in Shanghai. "This global economy stinks," quips Stephens.
Full disclosure: I lived much of my life within Detroit's economic orbit. The utter indifference of the Big Three to its workers and the city has long infuriated me. At times, I wished that the movie's diffuseness would give way to a more pointed explanation of why Detroit, formerly America's fifth-largest city, has devolved into a synonym for urban dysfunction. "Detropia," however, isn't about answering questions as much as about showing the results of a series of inhuman decisions by both the Big Three and by the government. Ewing and Grady do so in a manner that is as haunting as it is moving; the film is punctuated with eerily gorgeous shots of empty streets and rotting buildings that look like "Omega Man" by way of Edward Hopper. The most memorable and emotional scene comes at the end; a singer from Detroit's financially troubled opera company belts out an aria in the city's old train station, the most grand and obvious of Motown's abandoned buildings. It sounds like he's singing a funeral dirge for the birthplace of the American dream.