What’s Wrong With 'Detropia' - A Detroit Resident’s Perspective

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by Andre Seewood
May 28, 2013 11:39 AM
21 Comments
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The critically acclaimed and celebrated independent documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady,” DETROPIA (2012)” is a beautifully photographed and brilliantly edited film about the decline and attempted resurrection of the city of Detroit that I as a long time resident of the city eagerly anticipated and couldn’t wait to see.  Yet amid the powerful images of urban decay, ironic archival footage of “the city of tomorrow” and contemporary labor/management disputes, I found this film wanting on several levels.

Unfortunately, the documentary DETROPIA does not accurately capture the true sources of the city’s long and painful suffering that in my humble opinion were precipitated 40 years ago when the Black residents of Detroit elected its first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young in 1973.  The bigoted and ultimately racist reaction to this election by Whites is what has contributed directly to the economic and political morass that has characterized the city’s slow and terrible decline.

The film, DETROPIA, while trying to put Detroit’s decline in a larger nationwide context of the erosion of manufacturing plants and outsourcing fails to mention or put into perspective the racial tensions that have long defined Detroit, segregated the mostly Black populated city from the mostly White populated surrounding suburbs and severely undermined the Black political power base that used to govern the city.

As many elderly residents, politicians and pundits who live in or near Detroit will tell you, the modern city that we know as Detroit did not come into being until just after the 1967 riots that exacerbated and polarized an already heated tinderbox of racial tensions between Whites in political power and Blacks as their subjugated victims.

Even though White flight from the city of Detroit into the surrounding suburbs had been in the process since the 1950’s, the 1967 riots arguably accelerated this White flight and the 1973 election of Mayor Coleman A. Young precipitated the segregated us v. them/White v. Black/Suburbs v. City polarization that fostered a stubborn and intractable regionalism where all would rather watch the city fall into ruin instead of accepting the fact that Detroit was and still is important to all of the residents of the State of Michigan, White and Black alike. 

From the moment in 1973 when the newly elected Black mayor Coleman A. Young uttered the infamous words,” to all dope pushers, to all rip off artists, to all muggers...  It’s time to leave Detroit.  Hit Eight mile road.” (1) His words were misconstrued by bigoted and fearful Whites, those in the suburbs just beyond the border of Eight mile road and those who wanted to flee the city, as the most important excuse that was needed to evacuate Detroit and segregate it economically and politically from the rest of the state.

DETROPIA, while skillfully documenting the current urban decay that was accelerated by Black flight into the suburbs and other States after 2001, it does not capture the background of urban decay and economic impoverishment that began directly after Mayor Young’s election.  “Ironically, the political hope of the Black community was vested in the same inexorable process that was putting the city in economic peril- the unremitting flight of White people.  Joseph Hudson of the department store chain [that once filled the Detroit skyline] said it well on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the 1967 riot: “The black man has the feeling he is about to take power in the city,” Hudson observed.  “But he is going to be left with an empty bag.” (2)

One of the secondary lessons we can learn from Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” is that after the gains of the Civil Rights Movement to bring equality to all Americans, some eternally bigoted and prejudiced Whites in power sought alternate means to continue racial segregation and inequity as a,” backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.” (3) 

In Detroit, after the election of Mayor Coleman A. Young two of the ways in which racial segregation was intensified and continued was through the tactic of Insurance Redlining which caused the cost of car, home and business insurance to skyrocket for the residents of Detroit (using exaggerated crime statistics) and media misrepresentation (which concentrated on violent crimes committed within the city while giving a more nuanced and cautionary presentation of crime committed outside the city limits).

These unfair tactics of Insurance Redlining and media misrepresentation came together to provide a convenient ruse through which Whites could evacuate the city and contribute to urban decay without guilt or recrimination: Devil’s Night.  The night before Halloween where childish pranks are practiced, known as Devil’s Night became a worldwide media circus in Detroit during the late 70’s and 80’s because of the many arson fires that were deliberately set allowing White home and business owners to cash in on their insurance policies, evacuate the city, and relocate in the suburbs while blaming the resultant urban decay on rampant crime and Black political mismanagement.

Further evidence of this continuation of racial bigotry and prejudice within Whites against the city and its residents was revealed during the 1992 murder of Black 36 year old substance abuser, Malice Green, who was bludgeoned to death for not opening his hand by two White police officers, Larry Nevers and Walter A. Budzyn.  Both officers were convicted and served prison time for his murder.  Although the convictions were overturned on appeal both were retried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter; although Nevers never accepted responsibility for his actions and remained unrepentant even to his death from cancer earlier this year.  It would seem that both officers felt like they were the victims of suspect Black leadership and media misrepresentation. 

Yet, in many ways the murder of Malice Green was an assault literally and figuratively by Whites against the notion of twenty years of Black power and leadership exercised against one of the Black community’s most vulnerable members.  We must remember that the vicious attack began with the heavy police flashlights being struck against Green’s clenched Black fist before moving on to fracture his skull repeatedly.  The bludgeoning by the angry White police officers in the middle of the night in a racially polarized city seemed to say,” How dare this nigger disobey our command!” 

On that night in Detroit in November 1992, racial bigotry, prejudice and violence had been continued through other means.   

DETROPIA while juxtaposing high art Opera performances held at the renowned Detroit Opera House with scenes of abandon houses, schools, factories and empty streets strewn with trash, the film does not address how racial segregation between Detroit and its mostly White and affluent suburbs contributed to a culture of political corruption within Detroit’s leadership and a culture of collusion between the suburbs and State leadership. Economic and political segregation forced residents, city leaders and business owners to find illegal and/or ethically compromised means to maintain their middle and upper middle class lifestyles, in the face of hostile and prejudiced media misrepresentation on the part of Whites in power that had surrounded and cordoned off the city. 

From Coleman A. Young and the Vista Sludge scandal as well as his dubious exchange of South African Gold Krugerrands from his associate, Kenneth Weiner, who was subsequently convicted of embezzlement of Police funds, to the indictment and conviction of his longtime Police Chief, Bill Hart also for the embezzlement of Police funds to Kwame Kilpatrick and his conviction on federal racketeering charges together with business owner Bobby Ferguson, the culture of corruption in Detroit’s Black leadership has its roots in the economic segregation of the city from its richer and economically viable suburbs by racial prejudices and bigotry that have festered and metastasized over 40 years.

It is a culture of corruption that was made more seductive and palatable to political leaders, business owners and residents by the winnowing of legal economic opportunities caused by the racial segregation that was continued by other means within the suburbs and the halls of the State legislature against the city.                 

So although, Ewing and Grady’s DETROPIA is beautifully photographed, brilliantly edited and even manages to sustain the eviscerated and lugubrious ambiance that haunts Detroit today, its flaw is found in its actual content which can be traced to the paradox of a Post-racial perspective.  If by Post-racial we mean looking beyond race as the sole source of human misery and social stratification in the 21st century, then such a perspective is dangerous, even reprehensible, when we look back at the past- especially a past that was predicated upon race.  Maybe the term Post-racial is itself too problematic, when what is really meant is that race is but one out of a panoply of tactics humans have at their disposal to discriminate and maintain inequality amongst one another.

In short, what’s wrong with DETROPIA is that it evades the issue of race as it documents a city that has been defined (and nearly destroyed) by racial bigotry, riots, segregation and prejudice.  If this analogy is not too farfetched, watching DETROPIA is like watching a documentary on Hiroshima where the filmmakers never mention the dropping of the atomic bomb; you just know something is missing and it’s as clear as the color of the nose on your face. 

Notes

(1) Pg. 200, in HARD STUFF: The Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young by Coleman Young and Lonnie Wheeler Viking Press, New York: 1994.

(2) Pg. 197, Ibid.

(3) Pg. 11, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander The New Press, New York: 2012.

Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.

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21 Comments

  • the man | October 31, 2013 4:47 AMReply

    I just have to say, couldnt you find another reason for the fall of Detroit as an economic power other than the white people left? I think the fact that Detroit has a population thats 60% illiterate may be a contributing factor.

  • Paul K | September 24, 2013 11:45 PMReply

    I always find it fascinating what people think about films, and in particular, why they feel so strongly a film is lacking. Most of these opinions are based on what they think the film should have been about and what it shouldn't have, which is either arrogant, naive, or both. Any useful critique (and there are plenty that are not) takes into consideration the aim and voice of the film. This film is far more portraiture than it is about rhetoric.

    I was born and raised in Detroit, but left when I was still quite young. So in some ways I watch this film as I would watch my hometown, but in other ways I'm observing it as an outsider. So I viewed this with a great deal of empathy, but without a lot of contextual baggage that might sway my viewing, for better or for worse.

    In addition, I'm a filmmaker, and found this to be one of the most powerful films I've seen in years (wish I'd seen it last year), and that's coming from having just attended one of the best TIFF programs of all time. While there are some people who do, I'm not one who asks of film--or specifically documentaries, to provide me with a tremendous amount of information. And what the reviewer felt was missing certainly provides a great deal of fascinating contextual information, information I can certainly appreciate, but if that were all crammed into the film this would be a history and political lesson, not a film. That's what books and articles are for, and I'll leave that to the historians and the journalists. This is cinema, and I think Ewing and Grady have produced some of the best work in their already accomplished careers.

    The film captures a broad series of very intimate moments, collectively bringing them together to give a limited portrait of Detroit, but as well as a captivating one that not only reflects the city but gives it a relationship to the rest of America. That is quite an achievement. In 90 minutes (or less), the filmmakers accomplish a tremendous amount, without hanging the film on the kind of didactic data that I would rather read about post-viewing. The voice of the film lends itself to a quiet, inquisitive observation, avoiding the kind of hand-holding that the all too often voice of God narration or "expert" interviewee lends itself to accomplishing in its overused manner.

    Also interesting are the remarks made here about who was featured in the film, who should have made it into the film, and perhaps who shouldn't have. This notion of belonging is a sensitive one, and we all come with a great deal of personal bias and emotional reasons for why a certain group can claim Detroit more authentically than others. I think if there's any lesson to learn here, it's that Detroit is far too great and complex of a city to explain it in both literal and metaphorical black and white terms. Everyone in the film, and everyone in the city, has as much right to claim Detroit as anyone else.

  • Patrick Hume | June 21, 2013 2:00 PMReply

    This whole review is predicated on the belief that black people are incapable of good on their own. That is some serious bigotry. If whites are so bad, then why isn't their flight from the city a good thing? Who wants a bunch of bigots around?

  • Andre Seewood | June 21, 2013 2:50 PM

    @Patrick Hume, "This whole review is predicated on the belief that black people are incapable of good on their own." That my dear sir is what we call "a straw man" argument that is irrelevant to the issues being addressed in this review. I bid you good day.

  • Robert | June 9, 2013 9:38 PMReply

    Having read this critique of DETROPIA and the responses to it below, I just want to throw in my two-cents and say I felt DETROPIA was a forgettable work because it was simply lazy filmmaking. It was far too facile and simplistic, like an extended segment in a television magazine show. It just didn't seem that the filmmakers did their homework. The characters they chose to interview/feature seemed like people they somewhat randomly came up with, without caring or understanding how they could paint a complex picture of a complex problem. The bit on the artists who moved into a loft in the city was ridiculous - almost laughable - and even a bit insulting, as if their moving to Detroit is definitive proof of the re-emergence of the city! Nearly everything about DETROPIA felt so terribly superficial!

  • Tamara | June 8, 2013 10:43 AMReply

    Everything is wrong with Detropia. How do you make a film about Detroit and not showcase the oxymoron of the city being retrograde on one level but also being home to lots of innovative creativity? No mention of Dilla, The White Stripes? etc. Detroit does not need white hipsters in lofts downtown to validate its rebirth because many artists in the city have been here all along. The narrative was disjointed and they didn't even dissect the city's economic problems and connect them to the larger global economic issues. And yes the racial polarization of the city needed to be discussed for all the reasons this article mentions. Why didn't they interview some experts on Detroit who could put the city in a context? I see where one of the directors is from Rochester Hills and that just sounds like some person from the suburbs looking at Detroit through some kind of fetishistic lens. People crying about the auto industry and that's understandable but the auto industry was hot because it was new. Detroit's rebirth will come from something new because it is a city of innovation and it could possibly be urban gardening but the only perspective offered on that topic is two guys on a porch who come across like ignorant losers. Why not interview people who are doing the urban farming and connect that to the nationwide urban farm movement? This film was nothing but shallow, ignorant ruin porn. How it became acclaimed is beyond me. Searching For Sugarman is a much better look at Detroit as far as recent documentaries are concerned.

  • Toni, Los Angeles, California | June 3, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    No offense intended, but in the time and with the combined intellect it took to dissect this movie, you may still consider making in film of your own which accomplishes all of the things you feel this film lacks. ijs.

  • CareyCarey | May 29, 2013 8:51 AMReply

    Andre, as you surely know, people receive what they are looking for. I am suggesting this article is arguably the best you've presented here at S&A, however some will not "get it".

    As I was reading the comments I was reminded of the song "I Can't Make You Love Me", the most significant lines of which are "Cause I can't make you love me if you don't. You can't make your heart feel something it won't". Again I am suggesting that although you did an excellent job of defining the parameters of this post, assessing equal "fault" to all who played a part in Detroit's present condition, some folks only ingratiated that which was not counter to their core beliefs.

    That's not an indictment against those who "disagreed" with your assessments/opinion, I am just pointing out that the mind inexplicably protects (rationalizes and justifies) that which we hold dear to our heart. Case in point, you opened with... "amid the powerful images of urban decay, ironic archival footage of "the city of tomorrow" and contemporary labor/management disputes, I found this film wanting on several levels. Unfortunately, the documentary DETROPIA does not ACCURATELY capture the TRUE sources of the city's long and painful suffering that in my humble opinion were precipitated 40 years ago when the Black residents of Detroit elected its first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young in 1973." You ended with... "In short, what's wrong with DETROPIA is that it EVADES the issue of RACE as it documents a city that has been defined (and nearly destroyed) by RACIAL BIGOTRY, riots, segregation and PREJUDICE. If this analogy is not too far-fetched, watching DETROPIA is like watching a documentary on Hiroshima where the filmmakers NEVER mention the dropping of the atomic bomb"

    Again I am suggesting some folks seem to have missed those key points.

    From my side of the table you get 5 stars and TWO BLACK THUMBS UP!

  • Marcus | May 28, 2013 11:23 PMReply

    Well as a native Detroiter, I can say from what I've been seeing, there is a lot of hate on both sides. Its sad to say that are a lot of people that want Detroit to fail, but at the same time there are even more people that want to see Detroit succeed. This a time when Detroit is going through major changes. Detroit has its issues... but the cities issues have been going for so long people generally have a pessimistic attitiude about anything that goes on... despite all the positive... but the positives outweigh the negatives... that hasn't stopped a lot of people for making something of themselves in this city and call it home. It hasn't stopped me, hell I did the opposite of what a lot people my age are doing.. I came back and settled in the city and in that process i rediscovered my hometown and found a lot of positives going on. Why don't we focus on the positives? Talking about Detroits problems is beating a dead horse. Lets do something different.

  • Karen | May 28, 2013 3:56 PMReply

    I'm from the suburbs of Detroit. The city was something I usually avoided (aside from select food establishments and downtown events). There wasn't anything "hip" or "cool" about taking a trip to Detroit. Lots of broke down streets and abandoned homes. Sad. If you wanted to hang out you stuck to downtown Royal Oak, Birmingham or Troy (Oakland Mall, Sommerset). Detroit is finally starting to appeal (and foster) a somewhat "hipster" community. I wish Detroit had a vibrant vibe of say... Chicago. But that may never happen. I'm hoping for the best though.

  • anthony c | May 28, 2013 3:04 PMReply

    @Andre
    With respect, I went back and re-read it a third time. In every part of detroit's decline you put the genesis of the issue at the feet of white people.

    For example:

    "the culture of corruption in Detroit’s Black leadership has its roots in the economic segregation of the city from its richer and economically viable suburbs by racial prejudices and bigotry that have festered and metastasized over 40 years.

    It is a culture of corruption that was made more seductive and palatable to political leaders, business owners and residents by the winnowing of legal economic opportunities caused by the racial segregation that was continued by other means within the suburbs and the halls of the State legislature against the city. "

    If you believe that Detroiters have any culpability in this mess it is not expressed in your article. Thats all I'm saying.

    I've heard variations of this talking point on porch steps, walking by vacant lots, at the corner store, and from political leaders the majority of my life.

    I'm not saying it wasn't significant..I'm saying that that mindset inherently shackles the minds of people by giving them a built in excuse for not being accountable.

  • Andre Seewood | May 28, 2013 3:39 PM

    @Anthony C., with even greater respect, Yes, I would be inclined to see the genesis of Detroit's decline in the knee-jerk reactions of Whites at the beginning of Coleman A. Young's tenure as Mayor, but I don't think that the genesis of the decline is an excuse not to hold Black leadership accountable as was detailed in the article concerning the convictions of Bill Hart, Kwame Kilpatrick and Bobby Ferguson. They chose to be corrupt and they have to pay the consequences, but by the same token we can't sit blindly and not be aware of the unfair circumstances that have contributed to this "culture of corruption". Two wrongs don't make a right. And if this is true any documentary on Detroit has to go back and look at the effect of the 1967 riots and how Whites reacted to the election of Coleman A. Young, before concentrating upon abandoned buildings, houses, factories and etc. Race cannot be omitted simply to make others empathic because it was racial tensions based on a lack of empathy that got us in this mess in the first place.

  • Andre Seewood | May 28, 2013 2:31 PMReply

    @Moni, I tried to make it clear that the term "White Flight" is not as innocuous as it sounds- Many Whites who were fleeing Detroit did so under corrupt circumstances with the aid of the State Legislature and unfair Insurance Redlining tactics- in turn because of this racial segregation many African-American business and political leaders chose to become corrupt: I'm saying there is enough blame to go around on both sides White and Black. @Anthony C, I think I was pretty clear here in saying that the probelms within Detroit are both the fault of Whites and Blacks. How you were able to interpret this as me saying "It's all White people's fault," is beyond me.

  • Andre Seewood | May 28, 2013 10:59 PM

    @Moni, the fact that White chose to disvest themselves of Detroit through their own corrupt means with the collusion of State legislature and prejudicial insurance tactics, which in turn fostered a "survivalist" and ultimately cannabalistic culture of corruption on the part of Black leadership I am not convinced is a weak argument. As I state within the piece many of these Black politicians chose corruption to maintain upper middle class lifestyles that they could not otherwise have attained or maintained because of the impact of White economic disvestment and other tactics of racial segregation against the city of Detroit. I am not saying what they did was right nor am I making an excuse for their reprehensible behavior, but I am tracing the circumstances that led to the Detroit that we see in DETROPIA. As I have stated earlier there is enough blame to go around on both sides White and Black.

  • Moni | May 28, 2013 3:31 PM

    "Many Whites who were fleeing Detroit did so under corrupt circumstances with the aid of the State Legislature and unfair Insurance Redlining tactics- in turn because of this racial segregation many African-American business and political leaders chose to become corrupt"
    That argument is weak. How did racial segregation lead to corrupt Black leaders? That's the part that is missing. Perhaps you are trying to say that once the whites left en masse, corrupt black leaders were able to thrive unfettered by suburbanites or the State...there was no one to hold them accountable. That wold make sense, but the point I'm making, and I think Anthony C is making, is that no one forced those black leaders to do what they did. Those leaders took advantage of the situation, and folks who blame it all on white folks really need a reality check. That mindset has done nothing but keep the city spiraling down the drain for decades. Too many otherwise intelligent folk are so focused on keeping so called political power in black hands, even if those black hands are the ones keeping the city down.

  • Moni | May 28, 2013 1:03 PMReply

    I'm not quite sure how you are making the link between white flight and racial segregation to black elected and appointed leaders robbing the city blind. It was not that these leaders had no choice in the matter. They chose to lie, cheat, and steal, and let the city go to hell in a hand basket. So much of what is going on in Detroit right now is directly due to how those in power used their positions to line their pocketbooks, fund their families' vacations and homes, while destroying the lives of city residents.

  • Anthony C | May 28, 2013 2:32 PM

    With respect to the good folks who have commented..

    The writer of this piece states very definitively what he believes..in the paragraph two.

    "The bigoted and ultimately racist reaction to this (Coleman Young's) election by Whites is what has contributed directly to the economic and political morass that has characterized the city’s slow and terrible decline" -slightly edited for clarity..

    The following paragraphs in his piece lay out his case as to why he feels this way..

    I personally am not saying that it is completely without merit. But in criticizing Detrotopia for being too narrow in its scope,..or as he said..inaccurate.. he to..is open to the same critique for his "narrative" of Detroit's decline

  • Moni | May 28, 2013 2:14 PM

    Tee, the author did attempt to make that connection when he wrote that "...the culture of corruption in Detroit’s Black leadership has its roots in the economic segregation of the city from its richer and economically viable suburbs by racial prejudices and bigotry that have festered and metastasized over 40 years." His follow-up points did not support his assertion. As a native Detroiter, I have heard variations of that argument, and its weak. Especially when those in power have had the opportunity to make some real changes and instead spent all of our money and their energy trying to live large.

  • Tee | May 28, 2013 1:57 PM

    I don't think the author was trying to link white flight with black leaders misuse of power. He was simply stating both are factors in Detroit's economical decline, and both factors were missing in the film Detropia.

  • Anthony C | May 28, 2013 1:01 PMReply

    This pervasive mindset permeates the hearts and minds of Detroiters so completely.. that we exist in an alternate reality altogether. It's a quilt that we've woven, and cling to like Linus. Its our comfort blanket, allowing us to always have the default fallback position that in the end.. we have always been powerless in the face of "the man" ..

    We feel inherently slighted if in any depiction of Detroit's woes...the author doesn’t frame our city's demise with.. [It’s white folks fault].
    And as such..we hear our elected leaders..as they exit or are deposed... utter..
    "See.. I told you the white folks were out to get me"
    I watched Detropia, and thought it was a very thoughtful..well made piece. It isn't without flaws of course. And I don't believe its makers set out to create the definitive narrative on Detroit's demise. It was made by outsiders’ who stepped in to the after effects of decline that was decades in the making. Unless one set out to make a "Roots" type movie that had room to give some granular detail. That type of exposition in this length of a documentary probably wasn't realistic.

    I also believe, that it was wise to show the catalysts that they did. Because we can all agree that the loss of manufacturing jobs and the destruction of the middle class hit old time manufacturing cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburg, etc. really hard.

    So whether it was intentional or not.. the focus of the movie allows viewers of all backgrounds and ethnicities to view it with empathy and compassion instead of eliciting the worst parts of us. Detroit was overcome by a perfect storm of circumstances. If all that has happened in this city were to have been hung on that one nail (white flight/racism)..it would have diminish the greater tragedy of what happened.


    Disclaimer: I'm a 42 year old former Detroit resident who lived in the city for 35 years before moving away 7 years ago.

  • Patrick M | May 28, 2013 12:01 PMReply

    I felt the same way watching it. While the film was very beautifully crafted and the sequences of the labor negotiations were fascinating, I too felt that something was missing. that city is a complex animal, that yearns for a much deeper examination of its problems. A friend considered doing a similar film on Detroit, but solely with the music scene in mind. I was fascinated by Detroit for the same reason the young photographer moved there. I almost did the same thing. Maybe a documentary series is the solution to understanding the place.

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