A Movie That Asks, But Doesn’t Answer, Whether The Arts Can Save Detroit

I wanted to like Detropia, the new movie from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady about, among other things, the continued move of the American auto industry overseas; the proposed plan to contract Detroit’s footprint to save money on social services and concentrate the city’s residents in viable neighborhoods; and the role of the city’s arts community in its revitalization. All three of those things would make fascinating movies in their own right, and I think Detropia suffers from trying to do all of them at once. And I’m sorry that’s the case, because I would have been particularly curious to see a movie make the argument currently being advanced by the National Endowment for the Arts that investments in art and culture can provide the anchors that help economically revitalize blighted neighborhoods.

The movie looks at two primary examples of the arts in Detroit: the city’s financially struggling opera company, and the influx of young artists who have helped boost the city’s population of young people by 59 percent. In the former case, the opera mostly acts as a barometer in the movie for the difficulties faced by the city’s wealthy, white residents as well as the poor black ones who have been devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs. It’s not surprising to know that the Big Three automakers were largely responsible for the corporate support that long kept the opera company running. But it would have been interesting to know how the automakers made decisions to continue — or cut back — their giving, and to have a few individual donors as part of the story. And the movie ends without telling us the fate of the opera companies, or any details about its budget. It ends up feeling sidelined.

And while it’s nice to know, as one young artist tells us that “I would never be able to own a home as an artist…we can experiment here because if we fail, we haven’t really fallen anywhere.” But the movie isn’t clear about whether the very cheap rents that lure artists to the city are helping revitalize its economy, or establishing market values for real estate and other goods and services at a permanently lower level. And Detropia doesn’t put these young white artists in conversation with the black residents, be they former autoworkers or local political bloggers, who are their new neighbors, or who they’re displacing. That would be a fascinating transitional discussion. But it never happens, and we never learn anything about what sorts of institutions these young people are creating or how they’re interacting with old ones. Detropia has parts of a story, but especially on the arts, the version of it that screened at Sundance feels much more like a first act than a complete story.