‘Detropia’ is more style than substance; relies on nostalgia, tired images of decay

Standing along a heavily traveled road in Detroit wearing gold-painted gas masks and clutching a sign that reads, “Give us your money,” two young artists who recently moved to the city seem profoundly unaware of their surroundings.

Their contrived statement on capitalism spurs an awkward glance from an older black woman in a battered pickup truck.

It was one of the few revealing moments in “Detropia,” a disappointingly shallow documentary that fixates on tired, aestheticized images of decay and the standard talking points of a city on the decline.

Storm clouds roll over the Renaissance Center; snow blankets abandoned streets unkempt grass blows in the wind.

The film, which premiered in the Motor City on Thursday night, follows a bar owner, scrappers and a union leader who reminisce of better days. Their stories are more nostalgic than revealing and are no surprise to anyone who has lived in Detroit for more than a few months.

The filmmakers avoid the painful questions of race and inequality, save for a short clip of the 1967 riots.

Viewers are left with the impression that the auto industry is the sole cause of the city’s decline, and that America is not far behind.

When hope is depicted, it’s oddly represented by the Detroit Opera House and young residents lured by cheap rent and urban grit.

Unfortunately for anyone looking for a sincere portrait of the city and its ills, “Detropia” is not the answer; it falls for the same trappings that misrepresent the city and its many layers.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.