Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Detropia: A Review

Let me tell you a story about Detroit. Once upon a time, cars were made in Detroit. Because of the cars, people had good jobs. They could afford a good lifestyle, with college for the kids and maybe a cottage up north. People flocked to Detroit from all corners of the US of A (and world) for these opportunities. And then the jobs left. They went to China or Mexico. The jobs that remained gave lower wages with fewer benefits so that no one had any money anymore. Buildings crumbled. A lot of people moved out of the city. Housing prices plummeted. Businesses suffered. 

Then people took notice of this post-industrial landscape. They came to take pictures of the buildings. They made expensive art books out of these photos. A few people started planting urban gardens. Artists moved to town. Some dude opened a barbecue restaurant called Slow’s, which I mention because every article about Detroit has to mention Phil Cooley and Slow’s despite the fact that many others have brought new and successful businesses to Detroit.

 That is the story everyone tells. Over and over again. As someone who has lived in Detroit, I’ve heard that story a million times and I’ve probably told it at least twice. Which is why I was excited for Detropia. These are, after all, the same film makers who gave us Jesus Camp, which is one of the better documentaries of the past decade.

But Detropia tells us nothing new. The narrative is the same narrative told over and over again, with a larger emphasis on art as the savior for the city than on urban farming. Indeed, urban farming as the way forward for Detroit and post-industrial American cities is given some serious side eye. Not that I don’t think urban farming shouldn’t be give some side eye (it is not the savior of Detroit), but the filmmakers present an equally high-minded solution for Detroit: art.

Art, of course, is important. Cities need art. But it is not the solution, and the way it is presented in the movie, art is presented as high-brow opera and “edgy” performance pieces featuring people in gold gas-masks. At the end of the movie, two artists LITERALLY put a bird on a building, which of course made me think of the sketch in Portlandia where two creative-types put a bird on everything as if that will add aesthetic thrill (and marketability) to objects. See this city’s economy and crumbling infrastructure? Put a bird on it!

Although Detropia does little to change the narrative of Detroit, it did attempt to highlight voices rarely heard when discussing the city. Generally, stories about Detroit are told with white voices, which is a worrying trend in a city that is predominantly African American. The filmmakers highlight the owner of a Detroit bar, a leader in the UAW, and a woman who explores buildings in Detroit: all of these people are black. Indeed, the few white voices come from the artists that will save the city (draw your own conclusions from that juxtaposition).

Also refreshing about Detropia was removing emphasis from the city’s experts. Indeed, experts are shown as not really having a helpful point of view: one cut to a city council meeting about right-sizing the city shows chaos because it is a concept that has been explored practically, with little interest given to how such a move is contextualized in terms of history and race. Statistics and facts pop up on the screen rarely. Most of the movie is given to people telling stories. Indeed, the disdain for the expert is most on display when the filmmakers record three Detroiters on their porch discussing urban farming. They conclude that it won’t work because that’s not what Detroit is.

The presence of voices from the city of Detroit is an aspect of this movie that other writers need to emulate. That said, the filmmakers never resolve the tension between the standard narrative we are given and the narrative that people within the city want to give. Indeed, they simply force the usual narrative over the voices they’ve chosen to feature so that the movie feels like a square peg trying to go into a round hole.

That said, I could have watched an entire movie of opera being sung in Michigan Central Station.

Don't forget to put a bird on it.


  1. I saw this movie last night. I felt very similar to you. I laughed out loud in the theater when they "pit a bird on it." I thought "Detroit is ugly and worthless, I know let's put a bird on it" Here is something I would add. They showed in the first parts that there are no jobs and it is very hard to make a living in detroit. Then you have some artists come and live here. What are they doing for money and work? Putting birds on walls doesn't really pay the bills. I would have enjoyed seeing that explored. Maybe they were trust fund kids? I don't know. I liked the film but became very frustrated with it. Anyways. I found this review by searching "detropia put a bird on it" lol.

  2. I didn't feel that the city proposed any solution to the problem, least of all "art." The hipster tourists were portrayed as superficial, insensitive, appropriators. We were supposed to laugh at their feeble graffiti and inane 'performance art.' Music is strongly featured (Opera, Blues, and Motown) to emphasize Detroit's rich cultural inheritance but I don't see how you're drawing conclusions where the the film hardly makes a suggestion.

  3. Apologies for the late reply, I've been moving. I see where you take issue, but I think the filmmakers make more than a even a mere suggestion and don't see my critique as an overextension. Art and music take so much weight in this movie: we have scenes from the Opera (which, despite David DiChiera's admirable work, is still a largely white and privileged institution), singing opera in the train station, and of course the blues. I don't think the use of these was merely to say Detroit has a rich cultural history. I think it was also to emphasize that cultural institutions have a very important role to play in the city's revival. But much like urban farming, these things, while they improve quality of life, will not save the city.