Director Rachel Grady to make Q-and-A appearance

By James O’Barr

Did you know that Detroit has been the setting or shooting location for more than 80 films, and a couple of handfuls of TV shows? Probably not, given the high corn content and low production values of most of them. On the other hand, Detropia, set for the next Depot Docs screening at Garrison’s Landing on Friday, Jan. 17, is harrowing, haunting, beautiful, lyrical, and unforgettable.

DETROPIAFirst, a word about the title. There’s a shot of a sign on an auto parts store that had been reworked by an artist to say UTOPIA. Riffing on that, the film’s co-directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, came up with the clever portmanteau, leaving open the question of whether Detroit is utopia, or dystopia, in the making.

It’s a question that the film poses, but does not answer, strongly suggesting that it’s not just about one city, but about the entire American experiment. Tommy Stephens, owner of The Raven, a blues bar and grill and the film’s spiritual center, puts it parabolically: “When you see your neighbor’s house is on fire, you need to help them put it out because you know your house will be next.”

Rather than simply being the location or the setting of the film, Detroit is the lead. A glamorous showcase for the glories of the automotive age, and of American industrial hegemony, in 1930 the “Motor City” was the fastest growing metropolis in the world. An important part of that growth was the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South, which increased Detroit’s black population from under 6,000 in 1910 to 120,000.

In the words of George McGregor, president of United Auto Workers Local 22 who serves in another of the film’s featured supporting roles as historian and commentator, “The middle class – it was started right here!” And he’s not just talking about white Americans. Living on union wages, a black family could afford a decent standard of living, with ample benefits and the expectation of a dignified retirement. But serious race riots rocked the city in 1943 and again 1967, sending thousands of whites into the suburbs.

DETROPIAWhen co-director/co-producer Heidi Ewing was growing up in Farmington Hills, just outside the city, industrial decline, urban decay, and serious depopulation had begun to take their terrible toll. By the early 2000s, the city’s population had shrunk from its 1950 peak of 1.8 million to just over 700,000, mostly African-American. With a jobless rate ranging from 30 to 50 percent, the city close to bankruptcy, a third of the city’s schools closed, and basic services, like street lighting and firefighters, barely functional, Detroit was on life-support, consisting mostly of citizens unwilling to let their city die.

Enter Ewing and her business and creative partner, Rachel Grady (who will be Depot Docs’ special guest at the showing). After founding their non-fiction film production company, Loki Films, in 2001, they made several highly praised films, including the Academy Award-nominated Jesus Camp, the Peabody Award-winning 12th and Delaware, and the Emmy-nominated The Boys of Baraka.

Over the years, Ewing says she’d been hearing from her family, who still live near Detroit, how bad things were. So, in 2009, she and Grady decided to visit, do a little shooting, talk to people. They initially stayed for three days, came back, and lived downtown for a year. “We raised the money very quickly,” says Ewing. “Turned out there were other people also interested in Detroit.” And in an unusual distribution gambit, they did it themselves, raising the money through a Kickstarter campaign.

DETROPIAThe film has the feeling of “found art.” In fact, we follow one of the other supporting players, a young video blogger, Crystal Starr, as she wanders through abandoned buildings and derelict factories, filming, doing a running commentary on what she sees. The directors found her working in a coffee shop, across the street from the Detroit Opera House.

Says Ewing: “It was so nice to have a young, black Detroiter, born and raised – not a newcomer – who looks at the city with wonder.” Detropia does just that: looks at the city with wonder, and sees through all of the detritus of failure and decay, the possibility of renewal and reinvention as a work of art.

Detropia will be shown at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 17, at the Philipstown Depot Theatre, Garrison’s Landing. Rachel Grady will be present for a post-screening Q-and-A and a Depot Docs reception. For more information call the Depot Theatre at 845-424-3900. To order tickets, which is recommended, visit

Cinematography by Tony Hardmon. Photos courtesy Depot Docs

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

James O'Barr is a freelance journalist based in Philipstown.