The surprise arthouse hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is one of the few recent American films to depict poverty and do so without the protection of neo-realism. In this, it finds common ground with the documentary “Detropia.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been criticized –– justly, I think –– for romanticizing poverty in the service of a libertarian political agenda. One frustrated –– and pseudonymous –– Twitter user, however, recently pointed out that the film goes no further in aestheticizing poverty than a critically lauded European film like Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth.”
Like both “Colossal Youth” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Detropia” finds beauty in slums. Directors Rachel Ewing and Heidi Grady offer up impeccably framed shots of birds resting on landfills. They fill the film with doppelgangers of themselves, and honor the considerable frustration their subjects have with the city and the fleeting moments of pleasure and grace it offers them.
“Detropia” introduces the audience to a group of Detroit residents –– restaurant owner Tommy Stevens, video blogger Crystal Starr, the head of the Detroit Opera House. As it follows them around the city, which is full of vacant lots and abandoned and burned-out homes, the film offers up some depressing statistics. In 1930, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world. Now, it’s the fastest shrinking city. Ewing and Grady’s images serve as eloquent testimony to the city’s decay, as they take in union meetings at a factory about to be closed and a public discussion about a controversial plan to move all the city’s residents into its most densely populated areas.
More than any other recent American documentary, “Detropia” recalls “The Wire.” There’s one crucial difference –– none of its subjects is a criminal. Still, it offers the same kind of panoramic view of a decaying urban landscape. The film keeps switching focus from one person to another, observing one area of Detroit at a time. While it seems most interested in poor and working-class Detroiters, it also depicts the mayor.
For all its narrative innovations, “The Wire” lacked visual pizzazz. In contrast, Ewing and Grady open “Detropia” with a beautiful montage sequence tying together Detroit street scenes and a preacher’s sermon. While they don’t shoot the entire film in this impressionistic style, they utilize expressive cinematography throughout. They’re alert to moments when the city’s grating ugliness fades, as when a man sings opera arias in an abandoned, graffiti-covered train station.
Repeatedly, “Detropia” makes the case that Detroit’s fate is likely to become America’s. In an interview, Ewing says, “Is this the end of our empire or a new phase of the American empire? Maybe Detroit's fallen further faster, but there are lessons here for the rest of us. Detroit is the canary in the coal mine that is the United States.”
On a trip to a car fair, restaurateur Stevens investigates the options available for electric cars and learns that a Chinese-made model costs half the price of a Detroit-made car. Angry at outsourcing, he sees little hope for the future of American manufacturing.
Just when the film threatens to become unbearably grim, it introduces a pair of white artists who find freedom in the low rents of downtown Detroit. “Detropia” never makes a big deal out of race, but the vast majority of Ewing and Grady’s subjects are African-American. (The main exceptions are two guys who collect scrap metal for a living, evoking Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s harrowing “Scrap or Die.”) One would have to be blind not to see that white flight has played its role in Detroit’s problems. The film ends by suggesting the beginnings of gentrification but refrains from pointing out the downside of this process. Maybe Ewing and Grady saw a reflection of their own project in these artists’ enthusiasm for their newfound home.
“Detropia” is not exactly a conventional piece of investigative journalism. It leaves out a lot that a more prosaic documentary would spend time on. There’s little mention, for example, of the effects of violent crime. Nevertheless, the film has a clear perspective: Detroit as a microcosm of the impact of global capitalism. Ewing and Grady, as well as many of their subjects, view the city as a laboratory of a world in which corporations have no loyalty to communities or countries. “Detropia” has no solutions to the problems created by this mentality, but at least it knows that they’re central to the future –– and not just in Detroit, or even in the US.
DETROPIA | Directed by Rachel Ewing and Heidi Grady | Loki Films | Opens Sep. 7 | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com