Published May 04, 2012This documentary opens with poignant tableaus of a city that is literally being put out to pasture. And then the facts: 10,000 homes will be demolished because no one wants to live in Detroit; one family every 20 minutes moves out of town; enough vacant land sits rotting for the entire population of Boston or San Francisco to live within; and post-apocalyptic scavenging for metal and copper is one of the few ways to earn money.
The story is told from the perspective of three Detroit citizens. All three are equally boisterous, intelligent and charismatic: there's a bar owner with his finger on the pulse of the national economy; a UAW president who outlines the struggle between labour and the auto industry; and a young female blogger/barista who dreams of Detroit's past glamour while cautiously hoping for its future.
The complexity of the dire economic situation in Detroit, Florida and, inevitably, more places in America is summed up by three lines of dialogue so simple that the best writer could not have scripted them. Bar owner: "Should we lower our standard of living?" Wife: "We're going to have to in order to compete." Bar owner: "I don't think the American people are going to like that."
In an early scene, UAW members balk at losing three to four dollars an hour on their wage of either 14 or 17 dollars. They can't believe American Axle & Manufacturing is offering a wage that won't even cover their gas bills, but, as it turns out, American Axle doesn't need to make axles in Detroit after all. The plant closes. The scene allows you to relate to the union workers while still realizing how obstinately entitled they feel to a relatively high standard of living.
All of it is pinned on the rise, and demise, of industry in a place: had industry never consumed Detroit, it would exist in a simpler, less doomed way. There'd be fewer crumbling buildings, fewer bus routes and city services required, and a closer connection to natural resources. As it is, the citizens angrily demand a freeze on cuts to desperately needed services, but the city is dead broke so the mayor can't even pretend that's an option.
The citizens feel betrayed by the auto industry, if not capitalism at large. For years people migrated to Detroit from across the U.S. because a person of any social status or education could earn a slice of the good life there: a home, a car, a yearly vacation. That's all been taken away. The wages have been delivered to Mexico and China, where their standards of living benefit slightly. On its face, that is not unfair, that's just the long-term nature of capitalism. To paraphrase one pundit from the film: just because America has been an exceptional country does not mean it has to stay one.
Most importantly, the film humanizes Detroit's struggling population. In reaction to such economic freefell it's easy to picture rampant, Robocop-style lawlessness, which exists to some extent ,no doubt. But what shines through is the goodness and decency of Detroit's people, who only want to work. (Loki)