Detroit is America's poster child for urban collapse. Other cities faced identical blows, but they knocked Detroit harder. And while some of those industrial giants are now rebounding, stronger and more agile, the Motor City has yet to pick itself up off the mat. Its disintegration now approaches biblical proportions, riveting tourists, who make pilgrimages to gawk at the wreckage and sometimes stay to live amid the decay.
To its credit, Detropia, the fine new documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, doesn't voyeuristically skim the surfaces of this modern ruin, but plumbs the city's misfortunes for deeper truths about America's suffering middle class, shrinking industrial base, and widening chasm of income inequality. As Pogo, the old cartoon character, might say, "Detroit is us."
Late in the film, one of the film's sages, a retired teacher and bar owner named Tommy Stephens, comes to that realization as he muses about America's foreclosure crisis. "What happened in Detroit is now spreading throughout," he warns. "This is coming to you."
Such connections are what gives the film its depth. The filmmakers portray Detroit simultaneously as a special case and an Everycity.
Detropia is a loose narrative, centered on Mayor Dave Bing's efforts to confront the city's bankruptcy after decades of population loss and dwindling tax revenues. The filmmakers tag along with several hyper-articulate characters, allowing them to speak at length on Detroit's failings and unexpected allure while they explore hollowed-out skyscrapers and wade through fields of chest-high grass.
While we see Detroit through their eyes, we also begin to see the correlation with the rest of middle-class America. A way of life is coming to an end as manufacturers pack up for cheaper shores. The jobs that once allowed low-skill assembly-line workers to purchase summer homes and pleasure boats are gone. Detroit is merely the physical manifestation of the reordering of the global economy.
Yet, listening to the plucky video blogger Crystal Starr and union president George McGregor riff on the situation, we get hints that some of Detroit's problems may be of its own making.
Unlike those American cities that have reinvented themselves by embracing the knowledge industry, Detroit is fixated on its manufacturing past.
Its citizens - both human and corporate - share an inability to adapt to a changing world. In one of the most telling scenes, union autoworkers reject proposed salary cuts even though they know the decision will cause their jobs to relocate to Mexico.
The film reveals the tragedy through impressionist sequences that feel like stanzas of epic poetry, and are shot in rich, saturated colors straight from a Renaissance painting.
There are obvious echoes of Roger & Me, Michael Moore's 1989 documentary about a similar urban collapse in Flint, Mich. But Detropia's filmmakers stay out of the picture, hanging back to allow the viewer to absorb the meaning of Detroit's fate. It is even more complex than we thought.
Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.