The schematic of the contemporary documentary is largely as follows: Pick a troubling topic, paint a portrait so grim it has the audience ready to jump out the window, and then drive them all in off the ledge with a ray of hope -- something that might spur the viewer into some kind of social action. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady know about message movies -- the dynamic duo's previous works include the brainwashing film "Jesus Camp"; the abortion-rights doc "12th and Delaware," and a segment of the best-seller-based "Freakonomics."
At the same time, they've never been strident. And their latest, "Detropia," brings a kind of grandeur to the tragedy of Detroit. (FYI, the title weds the city to "dystopia"). Capturing a city in physical ruins but spiritual stasis, "Detropia" finds an outrageous beauty in a crumbling landscape; when Detroit opera star Noah Stewart sings Puccini in the abandoned Michigan Central Train Depot, it's almost gilding the lily. What the film's really about, though, is the people who refuse to leave, almost out of pure defiance of a system that sucked Detroit dry and fled.
Black migration from the South and the auto industry that drew it helped Detroit to flourish; as the film tells us, it was the fastest-growing city in the world in 1930 and is now shrinking, to the point that one-quarter of its 139 square miles are estimated to be vacant. Once upon a time, Detroit sanctified America as the land of opportunity. What Ewing and Grady give us is a beautiful ghost, of something that's not quite dead, but definitely on life support.
That support comes from people rather than institutions. The three principals are inspiring: Crystal Starr, a video blogger, engages in a kind of urban archaeology; George McGregor is the president of a United Auto Workers local, and Tommy Stephens, a retired schoolteacher, runs the Raven Lounge, a restaurant-music club near a General Motors plant.
Just as the film finds an aesthetic in its dilapidated setting, the city's residents find hope in a desperate place, a place that once represented hope itself.
PLOT Downscale Detroit, symbol of the disintegration of industrial America and the middle class it produced
CAST Crystal Starr, George McGregor, Tommy Stephens
BOTTOM LINE A soulful, perversely upbeat portrait of the city that was once home base of the American dream.