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.
(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.