Detropia may not be the film Detroit wants, but it might be the film we need
What happens when nationally-known filmmakers, one of whom grew up in Detroit, try to make a film about the city’s gritty resilience but end up creating a documentary about Detroit’s post-industrial struggles?
If a portion of the documentary is screened by a small group of professional Detroit boosters in advance of a theatrical release, chances are the filmmakers will face something of a premature backlash.
The mini-controversy over the documentary Detropia is par for the course according to Heidi Ewing, who made the film with her partner Rachel Grady.
“You don’t go into a place like Detroit to make a film and expect no backlash at all,” Ewing said.
Expected, perhaps, but disappointing nonetheless. There’s a sad irony that a city so enamored with attracting artists and creatives can so quickly forget that documentarians approach their craft with a certain artistic integrity that shouldn’t be compromised to appease the Babbitry.
Ewing says Detropia attempts to tell the Detroit story through the eyes of residents who don’t make the convention brochures, but instead face the grim realities of a city teetering on the brink of insolvency.
“We really tried to capture the essence and the mood of the city while we were here from a lot of different people,” she says. “We definitely didn’t go in and say we’re only going to focus on the new entrepreneurs or we’re only going to focus on Midtown. We really tried not to do that actually.”
Ewing says the film, which began under the working title “Detroit Hustles Harder,” grew into a larger, more universal story about a post-industrial reality that’s most obvious in Detroit. As Grady explains in their Sundance submission materials, it would have been "dishonest" to craft a Detroit-as-a-phoenix-rising narrative.
“The big theme of the film is the shrinking middle class in the United States,” Ewing says. “It’s hard to argue that the middle class isn’t shrinking. A lot of people are falling from the middle class into the working poor. It’s happened in Detroit on a grand scale and it’s happening across the country on a large scale.”
And, it should be noted, at least a couple local preview attendees dissented from the majority's negative opinion. Karla Henderson, the city’s “Planning and Facilities Group Executive,” says the film showed a side of Detroit that exists but is too often ignored.
“There are some incredibly innovation efforts taking root in a number of places in the city,” Henderson says. “But we can’t forget the majority of residents still live in challenging conditions.”
No doubt, Henderson’s job in the Bing Administration would that much easier in the short-run if Ewing and Grady focused on warm-and-fuzzy stories about Live Midtown and Matt Stafford lifting our weary spirits, but there’s so much more to Detroit than the few bright lights.
Henderson says it would be folly for anyone to ignore what so many everyday Detroiters experience: “Our neighborhoods have been suffering,” she says.
In so much as Detroit is an increasingly attractive place for baseball fans, mortgage orginators, and convention-goers, it can only remain attractive to those cohorts, over the long-term, if the whole city is included in its own revival. Detroit doesn't benefit if its most prominent leaders pretend the systemic poverty, dysfunction, and crime don’t exist or, worse, don’t really matter because the same problems can be found in Chicago.
If Detropia does nothing else but hold up the mirror that reminds of us of realities that’d we just as soon ignore, then its creators have performed an invaluable service for this city. No matter how uncomfortable it makes our boosters.
PBS will broadcast a version of Detropia, and the film will be distributed independently in September. Ewing says she expects to show the film not only in theaters, but in other settings such as churches and community centers.