Cross "Detroit" with "dystopia" and you get "Detropia." But the oddly beautiful documentary made by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady is subtler and richer than its blunt title suggests.
Now in a week's run at the Siskel Film Center, "Detropia" should be seen by any Chicagoan, from Rahm Emanuel on down, who has his or her moments of worry: Could this happen here? How many American cities, coping with the dangerous opportunities of a global economy and its effects on a formerly hardy manufacturing base, are truly immune from what Detroit is enduring?
Ewing and Grady were filmmakers behind "Jesus Camp," "The Boys of Baraka" and other works. Their subject here is a city searching for its future. The list of facts appended to Detroit is like the meanest set of dominoes around. In 1930 it was the fastest growing city in the country. Today it's the fastest shrinking. In one sequence, an urban planning consultant tells Mayor Dave Bing that "real" unemployment has reached 50 percent.
There are signs of hope in "Detropia," as the film spends time with some of the young artists and loft-dwellers doing what they can to revitalize the downtown core (while enjoying amazing real estate deals). But as retired schoolteacher and blues club owner Tommy Stephens says: "No buffer between the rich and the poor? Only thing left is revolution." His club, the Raven Lounge, sits a few blocks from a formerly humming GM plant.
Shot on high-definition video, the movie's palette is paradoxically gorgeous, with the neon-soaked interiors giving "Detropia" a vibrancy you see in the eyes of its hardy survivors. Ewing and Grady let a handful of subjects trade off as de facto hosts of a bittersweet urban tour. Along with Stephens (whose trip to an international auto show reveals much about the Chevy Volt versus its lower-cost Chinese competition), there's United Auto Workers Local 22 president George McGregor, who remembers infinitely better days, and a Detroit blogger named Crystal Starr, who likewise warms to memories of her city when the city, she says, "was bangin.'" Scenes from the cash-strapped Michigan Opera Theatre's production of "The Mikado" become a choral accompaniment to the documentary's main melody line. It is not a happy one. But there's life, and stubborn poetry, in it yet.
'Detropia' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (language)
Running time: 1:31
Opens: Friday at the Siskel Film CenterCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun