Though hardly virgin docu territory, the Motor City is fortunate to get Julien Temple’s expert treatment in the informative and inspiring “Requiem for Detroit?” Unsurprisingly, given Temple’s impressive grounding in music and editing, the docu provides a superb history of “the Paris of the Midwest” from boom to bust, utilizing a heady mix of footage and tunes that keep his argument barreling forward to a hesitantly optimistic coda. First beamed on Blighty’s BBC2 in March, “Requiem” is deservedly making the fest rounds and picked up the Grierson Award in November for best historical docu.
Pic’s opening is both cleverly didactic and aesthetically striking, as old color images of Detroit are projected onto decrepit buildings. His thesis is fairly clear and largely inarguable: The early car industry created a boomtown that brought the American Dream within reach for management and labor combined. Racism, overreliance on the automotive industry, and the gleeful sacrifice of civic duty to ever-increasing profits burst the fragile bubble, making Detroit’s post-1950s decline a cautionary tale whose lessons, and possible correctives, go unheeded.
Shocking statistics punctuate the history: The city has the highest unemployment rate (28.9%) in the nation; 47% of residents are functionally illiterate; 33.8% live below the poverty line. All this is contrasted with the city’s years of promise and production, when workers flocked to Michigan thanks to Henry Ford’s policy of paying decent wages (partly to ensure that his employees were also clients). The city once boasted architectural jewels such as the Michigan Theater, Hudson’s Department Store, and the Packard Building, but white flight and gross mismanagement have doomed much of the city to decrepitude and destruction, enabling Temple to label Detroit “the first post-American city.”
It’s a good line, even if it’s not quite clear what the helmer means. Fortunately, Temple’s portentous narration, which sounds like Patrick Stewart doing a parody of an over-serious soliloquist, intrudes infrequently, allowing proper space for expert voices such as wise activist Grace Lee Boggs and Motown luminary Martha Reeves. The city’s role as nurturing ground for Motown and its indelible American sound is well integrated, and while pairing “Dancing in the Street” with images from the traumatic 1967 demonstrations may sound too easy, Caroline Richards’ terrific editing, undoubtedly closely guided by Temple, makes it feel fresh and powerful.
Surprisingly, the docu ends on a hopeful note (hence the question mark in the title), introducing devotees of the urban agriculture movement who reclaim inner-city land and farm alongside the rubble. Anyone familiar with the periodic announcements of rebirth peppering Detroit’s political landscape over the last 30 years will be a tad skeptical, especially given the region’s disturbing history of race relations (Michigan is said to have the largest number of KKK members north of the Mason-Dixon Line), yet cautionary optimism seems appropriate for a city whose most vibrant residents refuse to accept defeat.
As in “Oil City Confidential” and other docus, the helmer juggles an impressive amount of archival material and new footage, all accompanied by an almost nonstop soundtrack. Despite the multitude of images and music, he manages to keep them all balanced, pairing them perfectly to hit just the right notes of uplift, indignation, despair and reinvigoration.