Review: “Detropia” (2012)

The woes of Detroit are emblematic of the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base. Is the Midwestern icon actually a canary in the American coal mine? DETROPIA is a cinematic tapestry of a city and its people who refuse to leave the building, even as the flames are rising.

A Film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

“Detropia” is a documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, 12th and Delaware, The Boys of Baraka).  The film showcases the bleak and hard times Detroit has gone through.  The film follows three main Detroiters:  Crystal Starr is a video blogger and also works at a local café; Tommy Stephens is a retired school teacher who now owns the Raven Lounge; and George McGregor is the President of the Local 22 United Auto Workers Union.  Through these Detroiters you get a glimpse of what life is like in Detroit and what might be the future of the D and America.

Throughout the film you are given facts about Detroit and the United States.  People are leaving Detroit at an alarming rate.  What once was the fastest growing city in the world has now seen over 100,000 abandoned homes and empty lots in the past 10 years.  The film has an appropriately dark and depressing tone to give everyone a wake-up call to what our country is in for.  This isn’t an isolated incident.  All over the country we have seen people losing their jobs and homes every day.  Tommy Stephens gave a great analogy about helping your neighbor if their house is on fire.  If you don’t help them then the fire is coming to you.  Detroit suffered and didn’t get the help it needed and now that downward spiral is headed to the rest of the nation.  The Mayor wanted to try and start a “Detroit Works Project” to move people from sparsely populated neighborhoods to more densely populated neighborhoods.  Detroiters were outraged and didn’t think that this would make any difference.   Even though there have been many people leaving Detroit there has been an increase of adults under the age of 35 moving into downtown Detroit.  The housing is so affordable that it makes it easy for people, especially artists, to purchase a home in the downtown area.

One of the toughest things to face is the fact that over 50,000 factories have closed in the United States, and this has resulted in a loss of over 6 million jobs.  George talks about how America used to manufacture everything.  We even built planes here during World War II.  Unfortunately, most of the jobs have been outsourced overseas to cut costs.  He also talks about how the middle class was born in Detroit.  People used to flock to the city to get a job.  Now people are down and out and have turned to other avenues for income such as collecting scrap metal to sell.

Some facts about Detroit:

  • The jobless rate for Detroiters is estimated to be 30%.  Most of the positive effect of the government bailout of the auto industry has been focused in other parts of Michigan.
  • Facing a $12 billion deficit, Detroit narrowly averted bankruptcy in April 2012 by going into a consent agreement, or a power sharing deal with the state.
  • In May 2012, Detroit announced it would shut off half its streetlights due to budget woes.
  • In June 2012, 169 firefighters were laid off.
  • In 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world. (The Guardian)
  • Detroit’s population decreased by more than 25% in the last decade. (The New York Times)
  • The median Detroit home price in 2011 was about $54,000 — more than $100,000 less than the rest of the country.

I was impressed with the overall sense that Detroiters have hope for the future.  Many are extremely loyal to their city and refuse to leave.  The automakers have started to make a profit again and there seems to be more good news around the corner.  Detroiters can be an inspiration to fellow Americans in the sense that even though times are tough you have to keep your head up and have hope for a better tomorrow.

Detropia releases in New York at the IFC Center on Friday, September 7.  For screenings in New York and across the country, please click here.

To learn more about Detropia, visit the official website.

You can visit Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s production company at Loki Films.


Lotus Wollschlager is the official Her Film movie reviewer.  Find her bio on the HF.Reviews page.

2 thoughts on “Review: “Detropia” (2012)

    • You’re welcome! Thanks so much for commenting. Detroit’s such a fascinating place, and not nearly enough attention is paid to it. I live just about three hours from Detroit and feel somewhat protective of it as a mid-westerner. So glad to see there’s a new movement to bring the tech industry, arts and business back, although I know it’s still a suffering city.

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