The Citizens of the Ruins
Detropia Is the Best Documentary Yet About the Decline of Detroit
Near the end of this beautiful but also richly informative documentary, two white European men walk into a Detroit cafe and order coffee from Crystal Starr, a black American barista and video blogger. It is very cold outside, and warm and cozy inside. Starr, who is smart and wears fashionable glasses, has seen these types before. She knows they are European, she knows why they are in town, she knows they are tourists of the ruins of a once great American city. The two men don't hide this fact. They say it right to her face—they are here to see what many consider to be the end (and in a way the future) of all civilization.
When you reach this moment in the movie, which is directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp), you will realize why it currently stands as the best documentary about Detroit. In other films, the position of the viewer is the same as that of the two Europeans in the cafe—we are tourists, we want to see urban decay on a grand scale, urban decay in the state of the sublime, urban decay as the Grand Canyon. So the pleasure and value at the core of the standard Detroit doc is touristic. In Detropia, however, the viewer sees the city from the other side of the cafe's counter, from Crystal Starr's perspective. The film is not about the visitors, but the citizens of the ruins. As a consequence, the European visitors seem as crass and as soulless as the tourists visiting the land of Mickey Mouse.
Yes, the city has shrunk, it is half what it used to be, and so on and so forth. But lots of people still live and work there. Starr is one such person. She has a job, maintains a blog, and is active in city politics. There is also George McGregor, a UAW chapter president. He deeply loves the city. It raised him from black rural poverty and gave him the American dream: a middle-class life. McGregor drives a big white car, dresses like an R&B star from the early 1980s, and is frequently breaking bad news to the members of his union—they are going to get a pay cut, benefits are going to be cut, the factory is closing. And there is Tommy Stevens, a former schoolteacher who runs a joint, Raven Lounge, that did very well when people had jobs and the plants were not in Mexico. Stevens, who has the intelligent face of a black academic, buys cheap homes with the hope that one day a little of their value will recover (that day can exist only in his head). At night, he cooks in Raven's kitchen because he can't afford a chef. In another part of town, two young brothers sit on a porch, drinking beer and watching the impressively slow decline of their neighborhood.
Detropia also includes the views and perspective of two new citizens, a young white couple named Steve and Dorota Coy. They are artists who moved to Detroit because it's so fucking cheap. If you are not poor, but you want to make things that don't make money, this is the place for you. As a whole, these are the citizens of the ruins. And what we see and feel, what the directors have so brilliantly woven, is an impressionistic polyphony of their lives and thoughts. Detroit is much more than a negative Disneyland.