Detropia: Film Screening and Conversation

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Introducing New America NYC's Social Cinema series, a monthly screening series featuring social-issue documentaries followed by lively dialogue and debate.

Schwartz Fellow Reniqua Allen reports on the Social Cinema series launch:

Detroit – with its shrinking middle class, the decline of industry and the search for the American dream - was the subject of New America SoHo’s Social Cinema Series that debuted Wednesday evening. The series launched with a screening of the award winning film Detropia and a follow-up conversation with directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

We discussed the film just a day after Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose reputed anti-union stance drew nationwide protest, survived a recall election: The movie and our subsequent analysis mirrored a current debate that’s happening in several cities across the nation -- what will Post-industrial America look like?
 
Detroit, the fastest shrinking city in America,  is highly complicated, beautiful and often decaying.  The filmmakers don’t attempt to over simplify those facts or provide concrete solutions. Instead, they seem to add layers to the already complex narrative, providing several snapshots of the lives of entrepreneurs, bloggers, artists, union workers, and giving the cityscape itself a starring role.

For more than two years, Ewing and Grady, who is from the outskirts of Detroit, wrestled with how to tell the story of the city that many attribute to the birth and death of the American middle class. They say they initially envisioned a Phoenix rising story called Detroit Hustles Harder. But they quickly realized that the city was in a more transitory position than they originally thought.
 
And it’s that exact transitory moment that we see in Detropia. While several proposals like “downsizing” the city, bringing in different types of industry, urban farming, and new automobiles have all been part of plans to help save the city, none has seemingly taken hold. Therefore, the movie doesn’t advocate for any policy proposals or call for donations.  Rather, it paints a far messier and somewhat poetic picture of a city that has hope, but that is also filled with frustration, conflict, and tension as it figures out how to survive in the 21st century. Ewing and Grady don’t seem to believe that there is a particular right or wrong way to "fix" Detroit. There’s no policy, organization or corporation (or even automobile) that they seem to favor. Instead, they focus on showing us various avenues for change.
 
Grady theorizes that while Detroit is representative of many cities around the country that are facing a downfall, its problems are magnified because of an over reliance on a single industry for more than half a decade.  She says residents are still largely faithful in a second coming of the auto industry, but that “’we’re one car away from fixing everything’ mentality must be stopped.” Both seem to believe that figuring out new models for entrepreneurship seem necessary, but also, as Ewing notes, we must change the language used to talk about rebirth. She wonders why we’re so attached and worried about achieving the "American Dream." Detaching ourselves from that common idea.  she believes, may free us from the burdens of a time that’s in the past. The filmmakers said one thing was clear and very unique to Detroit: The residents are committed to staying and have hope that they can weather it through the foreclosures, plant cutbacks, and lost jobs of the past years. Detroit, it seems,  is still hustling hard after all.

FEATURING

HEIDI EWING

Director, "Detropia"
Cofounder, LOKI FILMS
Nominated for an Academy Award, best documentary feature, for "Jesus Camp"

RACHEL GRADY

Director, "Detropia"
Cofounder, LOKI FILMS
Nominated for an Academy Award, best documentary feature, for "Jesus Camp"

RENIQUA ALLEN

Freelance writer on race and social justice
Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow, New America Foundation