The Effectiveness of Detropia: Film Review

Detroit that is globally known by its metonymy, the Motor City, has become the centerpiece of cinematic attention of the last decade. Based on the observations by Yezbick, in the 2000s, at least 68 films have been founded on its lived experience. Nonetheless, it is the city’s demise that has been the primary focus of directors’ interest. Detropia filmed by H. Ewing and R. Grady in 2012 is one piece in the complex puzzle telling about the fall off the pedestal of worldwide fame of the city that used to stood on the three automaking ‘whales’, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Regardless of that this is one of the many documentaries about the impoverished US manufacturing capital, the film is a unique depiction of Detroit’s contemporary lifespan through multiple perspectives simultaneously. Specifically, the documentary narrates about the pain and sorrow of Detroiters in light of positioning the city’s fate as a potential apocalyptical warning to the entire America, like a lesson to learn from. 

The persuasiveness of the above opinion is achieved through a combination of a variety of techniques which are evaluated for effectiveness in this paper. First, the essay discusses the role of narrators in achieving the stated objective as key demanders and drivers for a change to show a somehow humane face of the US capitalism. Next, the analysis shifts to shooting and camera focus as an attempt to depict the tragic imagery of the abandoned city and people. Further, attention is paid to the intertwined nature of image, audio narration, music, and textual evidence presented to the audience for achieving a multiplied effect of persuasiveness of the message conveyed. Finally, the paper draws a conclusion about the effectiveness of all the techniques combined for communicating the key idea of the directors.


Characters: Emphasis on Local vs. National

To start with, while the documentary’s plot mostly focuses on 5 protagonists, the film’s representativeness of characters is extended to ‘faceless’ narrators emphasizing that it could be the story of every US citizen. On the one hand, the ethos of the narrative is build upon the views and ‘seeing’ Detroit through the eyes of C. Starr, a local video blogger who is in love with history, G. McGregor, the president of Local 22, United Auto Workers Union, T. Stephens, a retired teacher who owns the bar The Raven Lounge, as well as S. and D. Coy, local artists representing an artistic group Hygienic Dress League. In this way, the documentary shows the life of “the industrial landscape through a collage of iconic images and interviews of long-term residents”. These protagonists “infect a shot with special meaning, because a particular shot often implies the thoughts and feelings of whoever is doing the seeing”. Indeed, referring to these people, the directors have managed to examine the “increasing urban decay” from the perspectives of the residents and reflect their views and emotions in an objective way. What is more, this approach has allowed depiction of the effects of deterioration of Detroit’s livelihood through the prism of different spheres. To illustrate, these fields involve automaking, as the core of the city’s evolution and demise, with an explicit linkage theatrical art, small business, and freelance through the Internet domain. Due to that the protagonists are locals and had individual experiences in these areas, the credibility of the evidence they provide should not be underestimated, thus confirming this aspect of persuasiveness of the documentary.    

On the other hand, the ‘voices’ and ‘faces’ appearing in the film whose identities have not been credited broaden the scope and extent of the tragedy to American rather than merely Detroit’s regress. Specifically, the authors integrate these elements to demonstrate the boomerang effect of ignorance of the manufacturing dimension in the city on a range of related spheres, such as scrap metal trade, retail market, urban farming, education, and general survival opportunities to the citizens, to name a few. The situation appeared because of “the auto industry’s larger indifference to the value of US labor” as “the central factor in Detroit’s present economic state”. Hence, poor state management of one city’s manufacturing sites that are further deteriorating is likely to cause the negative impacts on other US residents in other US citizens. 

At the same time, whereas the characters are mostly people of color, the film adds certain racial bitterness to the depicted situation. In other words, the role models in the documentary reveal the interrelated problems of racial, social and economic nature that are likely to threaten the normal functioning of the whole country because of its multinational composition, if the circumstances will not be changed. For instance, the workers negotiating their ‘survival’ salary offered by American Axle represent the multiracial America where color skin is the determinant of the earning level and social positioning. In addition, the words about “segregation” are explicitly pronounced by ‘nameless’ narrators, such as an African American woman complaining about the cut bus line she could not use to earn her minimal wage, at least. This perspective also adds persuasiveness to the film from the standpoint of characters as universal US citizens.  

Shooting and Camera Focus: Large-Scale Devastation vs. Emotionality

Since the directors have made the documentary observational, reference to different shot types allowed the authors presenting Detroit as part of the US for ensuring that appeal to pathos is effective. For example, usage of extreme wide shots depicting the closed industrial settings of the city while driving in a car is a vivid example of the large-scale devastation of its infrastructure. Similarly, a close-up on the face of the union’s president during this episode adds intimacy and sensitivity to the moment while his part of the face is in the left corner of the shot and Detroit’s landscape composes the right-side part of the shot. The effect is especially strong with further shift of the camera focus on the billboard stating “Stronger America” and the logo of the union claiming that “We Build This City”. Such a combination seems nonsense within the presented context, but is an extreme emotional appeal to the audience that creates persuasiveness of the message and the film as a whole. At the same time, similar effects are evident when shooting is observed from point-of-view shots when the audience observes destruction of Detroit through Starr’s or Raven Lounge master’s eyes, for example, or extreme close-ups on the faces of boycotting S. and D. Coy with golden gas masks and middle shots of their poster requiring “Give us your money”. Further in the film, the president of the union also notes, “I just love this place”, and the camera shows the abandoned places rather than his face emphasizing the connectedness with the land, or country in general, not a person. These techniques are all emotionally appealing to the audience, hence, are more than convincing.

Multifactorial Imagery as an Element of Persuasiveness

The logical constituent of effective persuasion is intertwined in a combination of image, audio narrative, background music, and textual implications depicting the multidimensional threat to the entire country rather than the target city only. This element is, probably, the most frequently used technique embedded in the canvas of the film’s persuasion strategy. For instance, the beginning of the film can be referred to as a vivid illustration of the point. While the audience is presented with an image of physical destruction of a single-family housing unit, the picture is accompanied by a small dialogue from unnamed locals stating that this procedure is an “everyday non-stop”. Further, the image and audio are supplied with the textual evidence in support of the decay by emphasizing that Detroit is “the fastest shrinking city in the United States” with “over 100,000 abandoned homes and empty lots”. All these elements are integrated by “the same foreboding brush of the electronic music score”. Indeed, the same tune, which seemingly adds tension to the overall picture, sounds throughout the entire film. When all these components are considered together, they contribute to the formulation of the logical rationale for the core idea of the film. 

In this light, the shocking statistics and factual material becomes one of the most succinct and eloquent tools for contrasting the fate of Detroit and Michigan to ongoing fatal perspectives for America at large. To illustrate, a camera focus on a few Detroiters at the deteriorating manufacturing site is contrasted to the several lines stating that “Michigan lost 50% of manufacturing jobs,” “50,000 factories closed in the US”, and “6 million workers” were unemployed as a consequence. What is more, this instrument allows making even global connections, with China, for example, as the key competitor of Detroit, in particular, and the US in general. While “metonymy [Motor City] is taken for given” with regard to Detroit, the audience is presented with evidence that the city appeared unable to further build success and stronger America. On the other hand, China has managed to “Build Your Dreams” by making low-cost cars, and America, instead of saving its industries and people, tended to become the leading exporter of scrap metal to China and seller of intellectual properly, like “selling the soul. In the context of all these controversial and dubious combinations, a motto of the film sounds eloquently, when a narrator says, “We want people to learn from our experience . . . we also want it to serve as a wake-up call to the country”. Therefore, the logos embedded in these and other elements of the documentary implicitly assert that Detropia, namely, ‘utopia’ reinforced as the core of this city once, is “both an apt descriptor of the city as well as of the impressions one is left with from the film”. 


Summarizing the findings of the critical review, it is evident that the directors were effective in development of the persuasiveness of the documentary in a manner that was apt and to the point. Foremost, this goal was achieved through reference to long-term local residents as key narrators as an element of ethos. The factor was embedded in both credited and unnamed sources of information whose opinions and views were integrated in the plot development and narrative. Second, the authors of Detropia were successful in effective use of camera focus for making self-explanatory shots as constituents of emotional appeal to the audience. Third, a well-organized combination of image, audio, and textual evidence allowed creation of the smoothly framed logos as another aspect of the rhetorical persuasiveness of the central idea of the documentary. In this way, the directors have managed to create a well-structured argument that raises the alarm of the entire America based on the example of the devastating state of the city that used to be a manufacturing giant of the global scale.

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