Talking Heads has that doomy, edge-of-chaos song, “Life During Wartime.” “Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit? / Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?” sings David Byrne, his voice itself verging on chaos. That was 1979. Pittsburgh’s doing quite well now, and so long as oil stays above $30 a barrel, Houston has nothing to worry about. Detroit’s another story. What appeared shaky three-plus decades ago now seems in a state of near-collapse.
How such a state looks — and feels — is what the documentary “Detropia” is about. The title is an imagined word to describe a hard-to-imagine (but very real) place. Combine “Detroit” and “dystopia” (the opposite of utopia) and Detropia is what you get.
Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady show things you might expect: lots of buildings with broken windows, scenes from the city’s North American International Auto Show, meetings with Mayor Dave Bing. They also offer more than a few desperate statistics. Detroit, the fastest-growing city in the world in 1930, is now the fastest shrinking in the United States, with more than 100,000 abandoned homes and empty lots. It’s estimated that more than a quarter of its 139 square miles are now vacant.
What’s not expected would be scenes from the Detroit Opera House, including a version of “The Mikado” where the Lord High Executioner’s “I’ve Got a Little List” includes the names of foreign car manufacturers. It’s a sign of the filmmakers’ assurance that they’re willing to throw such an off-speed pitch. It’s a way to alleviate the grimness of their subject, as is the documentary’s prevailing sense of slightly moody calm.
“Detropia” doesn’t have a voice-over or any kind of through-line. Instead it offers us three Detroit residents, all African-American, as guides. Crystal Starr is a video blogger. George McGregor is the president of a United Auto Workers local. Tommy Stephens, a retired schoolteacher, is the proprietor of the Raven Lounge, a restaurant and music club that’s near a General Motors plant.
“Detropia” feels somewhere between loose (which is good) and aimless (which isn’t). Crystal, for example, sort of gets lost along the way. Association, evocation, and indirection can do wonders for a documentary, but not necessarily as operating principles. A smaller subject, or a smaller slice of such a big subject, might benefit more from such an approach.
Stephens is the star of the show. He’s smart and funny and animated. The scenes in the Raven are both a haven in an increasingly hopeless place and a reminder that life goes on in Detroit. Hundreds of thousands of people do still live there and lead undespairing lives.
Visits to the Raven are all the more welcome after we see McGregor (a pretty compelling figure, too) conduct a meeting with his workers over how to respond to demands from American Axle for severe wage cuts (e.g., from $14.35 per hour to $11). The workers unanimously agree to reject the demands. We learn the plant gets closed.
But what if “Detropia” is actually a conflation of Detroit and utopia? Obviously, that would be a stretch. Still, without overdoing it, the filmmakers inject several notes of optimism into the final portion of the documentary.
The success of the government bailout of GM and Chrysler is noted. A segment on a couple of artists who have moved to Detroit from Hawaii indicates that there’s been a 59 percent increase in young people moving into downtown Detroit. “We were able to keep our studio because everything is so affordable,” one of them says. “We can experiment here, because if we fail we haven’t really fallen anywhere.” All right, but does the first part of that sentence outweigh the second?