Is Detroit Our Coal Mine Canary? Detropia and Why We Can’t Ignore It.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, critically acclaimed documentary filmmakers, are best known for their 2007 Academy Award nominated  documentary “Jesus Camp.”  They also were a part of the team that created the film adaptation “Freakanomics”,  received an Emmy nomination for their work on the film “The Boys of Baraka”  and won a Peabody award for “12th and Delaware” a film about the abortion debate in the US.  Their newest film, “Detropia” takes a close look at the struggles faced by Detroit City.  They recently came in to the SiriusXM studios to sit down with Ron Bennington and talk about the film, and the issues it raises.  Some excerpts from that interview appear below.  

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Ron Bennington: The last time I saw you guys, moments later you were nominated for an Oscar.

Heidi Ewing: You guys bring us good luck. We’ve gotta hang out more often.

Ron Bennington: By the way, was it a blast going to the Oscars?

Heidi Ewing: It was ridiculous.

Rachel Grady: It was awesome. Plus on top of it, we knew we were going to lose. So we just partied it up and had a good time.

Ron Bennington: And just sat and just had that one big rock star night.

Heidi Ewing: Had a rock star night. Flirted with Clint Eastwood a lot. He’s still got it. I gotta tell you. So it was a fun time.

Ron Bennington: Now I’m glad that you brought up Clint Eastwood though because this movie reminded me of that commercial, where we were king of rising up. And your film made me wonder how long that rise is going to take?

Heidi Ewing: Well, you know what? There’s some systemic problems in Detroit that need to be addressed first. And I think the commercial is great. And I think what it did is get the whole country talking about Detroit. Looking at Detroit, wondering if it’s going to come back and what we can do about it. So that was good. But you know what? These problems were a long time coming and it’s like – sorry, but it’s not going to happen overnight, but I like the attention being paid to the city right now.

Ron Bennington: But I was also thinking, watching your film, a lot of the people who might have helped turn the city around, moved. Plenty of people have gotten out of Detroit. Mainly the middle class.

Heidi Ewing: That’s right.

Rachel Grady: Yes. Well, first the white middle class and lately it’s been the black middle class.

Ron Bennington: And the frightening thing I think for us is knowing that the middle class is shrinking in America, is there a possibility in the future that America could end up looking like Detroit?

Heidi Ewing: Detroit can be looked at as a canary in the coal mine. We like to say things like – the shrinking of the middle class, well when you look at it, you see it on the ground, hundreds of thousands of people have already slipped into what we call the working poor. People who literally have a job and they work 10 hours a day and they can’t pay their gas bill. That’s happening. So I think in some ways the film is a cautionary tale. I think as a country, we’ve got to take some collective action and make some decisions about how far we’re comfortable with our standard of living falling and plummeting.

Rachel Grady: But it’s also a place that we can look to if it is able to get back to at least a nice quality of life for it’s citizens – that we can learn a lot of lessons from it. And be applied to cities all over of America. So, it’s an important place to watch.

Heidi Ewing: They’re trying a lot of things in Detroit. A lot of interesting things. And so if they stumble across or create something new and innovative and different, then it will become a model for other cities.

Ron Bennington: And yet the people there, a lot of the people of course they hold on to the auto industry. And you could blame this president, the last president, but you’re probably wrong. It’s probably 7, 8 presidents going back, that this slide has been taken back now.

Rachel Grady: Yes absolutely. I think Detroit has been feeling this prior to the riots of the late 60s. It’s peak was probably the late 50s.

Heidi Ewing: But we sold the store in a lot of ways in the 80s as well. I mean I think some national policies have hurt places like Detroit and sort of, it’s time to pay the piper. I mean we literally – I’m not a protectionist, but we really have sold away the store. And right now, we’re in a situation where you’ve got several of the auto companies basically saying – look, we will give you our intellectual property if you give us the right to sell in your market. So now we’re not just giving away the jobs, we’re also giving away ideas and that’s really really dangerous. That’s really short sighted of a lot of these corporations. And so that’s really a kind of chilling moment.

Ron Bennington: But see, here’s what also my feeling is, a lot of that comes from Wall Street and they were always about short money. And that’s the same guys that we’re acting like are going to save us now. The same people who moved our jobs to China and Mexico and now they’re going to rally in and help us? I mean it seems to me if anyone has been un-American over the last few decades it’s been the money people.

Rachel Grady: Let’s not forget either or pay attention to the fact that a lot of these companies in America including the auto industry, are very profitable. They’re not feeling this recession. They’re not feeling the joblessness. They’re not. And healthy businesses does not necessarily trickle into jobs. And good paying jobs.

Ron Bennington: Right.

Heidi Ewing: You’ve got companies making record profits that are still pushing for lower wages. Caterpillar last week, $4.9 billion profit last year, but they’re doing fine. But yet they force the union to accept a 6 year pay freeze. This happened a week ago. So I feel like sort of, the corporations are saying – oh look, there’s no jobs. No one’s gonna quit. We’ve got full full power right now. And they’re really really pushing the middle class even lower and it’s so short sighted. Who’s going to buy their products of these American companies if no one can afford them?

Ron Bennington: Because every business now works on the quarterly earnings.

Heidi Ewing: That’s right.

Ron Bennington: And all the guys who were in the highest offices, they answer to people who go – what are our profits this quarter? If you would remember that this country – we always used to have these films that we would see in school about the future. And all that stuff has gone away. No one sits around and wonders about the space program or what are cities going to be like? It’s always this quarter.

Heidi Ewing: What did Obama say recently? He said – I’m not trying to preside over America’s decline or trying to give it another 50 years. It wasn’t Obama. It was someone in his administration. We’re trying to hang on for another 50 years. That’s not really long term thinking. And that’s amazing to hear out of any administration or any policymaker. Maybe it was a slip or a gaffe, but we definitely don’t have a long view right now. And that short view, that short term thinking is one of the reasons that Detroit is where it is. And it’s just not Detroit, mind you.

Ron Bennington: Right. Well, I think the biggest problem that Detroit had is that they were a one industry town.

Heidi Ewing: That’s right.

Ron Bennington: And for years, some people would complain about unions. But the union guys in your film, were fighting for such small pay.

Rachel Grady: Yes.

Ron Bennington: And you’re showing parts of Detroit that are honestly gone. They’re inside the city and there’s no one there. And some of these scenes look like you’re watching “The Road”. I mean some of these scenes look like the bomb dropped 20 years ago and there’s people honestly – they’re scavengers. Scavengers in some of these places.

Heidi Ewing: Scrappers. Yeah.

Rachel Grady: That’s true. It does look like that at certain times, but we noticed was – we looked at all the films that have come out about Detroit and these photographs that are very famous and are kind of being shown around right now. And the bottom line is, yes, there is a lot of desolation. There has been a lot of abandonment. But there are 700,000 people living there. There are a lot of people living there.

Heidi Ewing: They’re just spread out.

Rachel Grady: That have lived there for a long time. And I think that they have been forgotten in a lot of ways. And kind of pushed to the side and we’re hoping that we gave those people somewhat of a voice in our film.

Ron Bennington: And that’s the kind of thing that gets me crazy about Americans, is that we think there’s going to be quick answer.

Rachel Grady: There aren’t. Especially for things like education, for job growth. These are hard – they take a really long time. As a politician, you might not get credit for it. Because it’s going to happen a long time after you’re gone. So I think that the incentive for thinking long term, especially since there’s quarterly profits, especially since there’s elections every 4 to 6 years, that there’s no incentive for these policymakers to do anything.

Heidi Ewing: And it’s also incredible what the news media can and cannot focus on. While we were filming, making “Detropia” because of these Super Bowl commercials basically, the national narrative literally changed under our eyes about Detroit. It was like – artists are moving in, the auto industry is back, Detroit is recovered, it’s all good. And there’s hope in Detroit. And I like the attention on Detroit, but guess what? We’ve got some issues, that like Rachel says, that take more than 4 to 6 years to fix. Ain’t nobody talking about those. Our fear is that after this election, we really hope that President Obama continues to focus on Detroit. He’s been visiting there a lot. Joe Biden was there yesterday. It’s an important state for an election. Everyone wants to take credit for the bailout. Okay, but you know what? Our fear is that it’s one of those places where like when the trendiness ends and we realize it’s still problematic, the politicians are going to be like – you know what? I can’t deal with this place. So we really really want to keep it on the radar even after November.

Ron Bennington: There’s so much that’s in Detroit, that’s like what we would consider the suburbs. And those places can’t sit empty long. Like when you had Manhattan in trouble, you had Brooklyn in trouble, those buildings that were built pre-war still have that cool vibe. You can bring them back. Those suburban tract homes aren’t ever going to have that. We’ve built a lot of buildings in the 1950s and 60s that I don’t think have a long shelf life.

Heidi Ewing: I grew up in the area, in the suburbs of Detroit. My parents are Detroiters. And the idea that they just keep expanding and now it’s making it so hard to shrink it. To make it workable. The public transportation, the garbage pickup, 140 square miles, it’s too big for 700,000 residents. What do you do? It’s a mathematical problem, it’s a geographical problem. And it’s true. The suburbs, they also, they just keep expanding. So there’s no real unity between the suburbs and the city and that’s been a problem. And Detroit’s not the only place where you’ve got this divide. Well that’s not really good for anyone.

Ron Bennington: And do you feel we’re making any real progress? Or do you feel better after making the film, before you made the film?

Rachel Grady: Honestly, I don’t feel better. But feel like that at least we’re trying – you know, what we can do as storytellers, as Americans, as passionate people, to try and get a conversation going. Because I think that the conversation has just started because more and more people are feeling the hurt. More and more people are losing their jobs and getting affected by globalization. So it’s part of the conversation. It hasn’t been for a long time because everyone was doing okay.

Heidi Ewing: Yeah, it’s true. This is a moment of national anxiety. It really really is. And when people are afraid, they seem to start paying attention more. So you hear more in the ether and regular conversations, not just in New York, but around the country. People actually talking about the economy in a serious way. And it’s less fluff. And I think that’s a good sign. So I guess I feel a little bit better than I did before. We’ve gained a lot of knowledge over these 2 years and we think it’s hitting critical mass and people are actually paying attention. So we have to feel optimistic.

Ron Bennington: Well there’s another point that was made in your film by one of the folks, was about the middle class keeps the upper class safe from the lower class. That if we don’t take care of these problems now, a French Revolution type of deal won’t be that far off the table 10, 20 years down the road.

Heidi Ewing: Economic revolution.

Rachel Grady: And we’ve seen teeny tiny cracks of that. Occupy Wall Street happened while we were making this film. And it was interesting. It had been predicted by one of our characters. Like you said – he said – there has to be a buffer between the rich and the poor. That’s how societies are built. And it seems like people are noticing and getting pissed off. That that buffer is disappearing.

Ron Bennington: I think what’s also interesting is that Obama didn’t embrace Occupy Wall Street because his job is to serve the corporate people. And I think he could have gotten re-elected if he would have embraced that same anger out there.

Heidi Ewing: You sound like you don’t think he’s getting re-elected.

Ron Bennington: I don’t think he’s getting re-elected.

Heidi Ewing: Really?

Ron Bennington: Yeah. I think that you’ve got 2 parties serving the same corporate people and those corporate people have picked Mitt Romney. And I also doubt right now that the American people have the get up and go to fight. 

Heidi Ewing: Man, do we need a third party.

Ron Bennington: We need a third party.

Heidi Ewing: A fourth and a fifth party. My God, if not now, when? Everyone is so tired and nothing gets done. Sometimes I think, we’re making this film, you hear about China is building these bridges and roads and doing all this stuff and it’s like – man, dictatorships really really function pretty well. (laughs)

Ron Bennington: Well so much of it I think was handed to us in school that somehow we were blessed. I want to talk to you a little bit about the music that’s in the film. Because you went local with that as well, right?

Heidi Ewing: Yeah. We found a wonderful composer named Dial 81. His name is Blair French. He lives in Detroit. He’s never written a score before. And we feel like he captured that gritty – that analog city in a digital world. That analog…you know, record scratches and faraway voices. And he recorded everything from scratch. And it’s almost sound design and score together. And it really captures something specific about Detroit, we feel. And it’s available. And his name is Dial 81. And it’s a really special aspect of the film.

Ron Bennington: Well, congratulations to you guys for doing another remarkable film. These things aren’t easy to take on. It takes years to get going. Already you’re opening in New York at the IFC Center on September 7th which most people don’t realize just to be able to do that with a documentary film is an amazing thing. But then you really start rolling out on September 14th. And you’re going to be in 35 other cities.

Heidi Ewing: And we add cities every day. And you can check out Every city we add, we’re bringing the film to people.

Ron Bennington: And on Twitter, it’s @Detropiathefilm. Thank you so much guys.

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Follow Detropia on Twitter  at @Detropiathefilm and visit the official website.


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You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at