As far as historical, urban films goes, Requiem for Detroit is amongst the more unique. Instead of showing a linear development, the film begins by showing Detroit’s earlier days, but then also the long arc of the city’s slow, gradual devolution. For the unaware, Detroit is a major American city that has long been on the decline and is going down hard. Detroit is a wonderful, yet scary metaphor for the US in general and American industrialization in specific. Requiem takes audiences through the city’s history as a private playground for automobile barons, showing the dramatic labor clashes that formed the United Auto Workers, and the pivotal racial rebellions in the 1960s. After that point, however, the city becomes a shell of its former self, leaching its population—especially whites—to the suburbs. The largely Black population that is left behind faced capital flight, diminished social services, political neglect, increased crime and violence, and a spiral into neighborhood chaos and destruction.
As an artsy film, Requiem has many strong points. Detroit’s high point of economic and cultural supremacy in the US—represented by General Motors and Motown, respectively—are contrasted with a cornucopia of landscapes and panoramas featuring decrepit buildings. In fact, the film-makers even feature an “urban explorer” who specializes in industrial trivia and knows his way around the city’s many collapsed factory sites. The “great” apocalypse footage, however, borders on what might best be described as “devastation porn”; incredible eye-candy that stimulates our sense of desperation and awe, but is mainly empty fluff. The real human story of Detroit’s collapse is instead told, partially, by a variety of interviewees. While there are some amazing characters featured—former White Panther John Sinclair and the always-amazing Grace Lee Boggs stand-out—there is something strangely amiss. Most interviewees are whites, mainly those who fled for the suburbs. Thus, we’re left with sad stories about why their families “had to leave” the city, as opposed to sad stories about why Black families “had to stay”, likely for different and crucial reasons. This is a major problem for a film about a city with one of the US’s largest Black populations. Also, far too many of the whites are current or former auto company executives. While this may be appropriate for part of the story, it misses other dimensions. A good stylistic element of the interviews that stands out (which may or may not have been intentional) is how most of the white interviewees are filmed driving their cars around the abandoned city, while the people of color interviewees are filmed in their neighborhoods, in front of their houses.
I was hoping to see more about how Detroit contributed to some of the US’s most radical social movements—especially the 1936 sit-down strikers and the Black power-era Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). Also, we don’t get any indication that Detroit served as the cultural kitchen for some of the US’s most innovative music. Motown is represented, but the proto-punk of the MC5 and Stooges could have been showcased, as well as rap (although the white Eminem is featured), and the 1990s’ radical techno scene.
Thankfully the film ends with a “pro-active” segment, that shows how Detroiters are not only coping, but perhaps evolving (or strategically devolving or smart shrinking) the city. While this segment is a bit too short, it shows a fascinating “into the abyss” perspective, including activists who are turning Detroit into what is likely the US’s largest urban farming experiment. This ending helps to raise important questions about what happens when cities reach certain limits, or urban sprawl empties-out those cities, or (more generalizably) when peak oil hits and society has to become less auto-reliant and more locally focused. Because, of course, it all happened to Detroit first. While there’s a lot to scare audiences in Requiem, there’s also ample provocation for us to learn lessons from Detroit, too.
Topics: urban sociology, community, social change, economic sociology, social movements