A Requiem for Detroit?

The new documentary, Requiem for Detroit?, aired March 13, 2010 on BBC2. But I didn’t view it until last week when I received the DVD (with a thank you note) from Julien Temple, the director, and George Hencken, the Films of Record producer.

In 1960, Edward R. Murrow’s documentary, Harvest of Shame, was a turning point in American consciousness because it forced us to recognize that the food we enjoy is picked by migrant agricultural workers living and working under unspeakable conditions.

Requiem for Detroit? can play a similar role in this period of transition away from an increasingly destructive industrial culture. The documentary makes very clear that Detroit’s notorious devastation is not a natural disaster but a man-made Katrina, the inevitable result of illusions and contradictions in our insane 20th century pursuit of unlimited economic growth. We witness autoworkers reduced to robots producing Henry Ford’s Model Ts—and then struggling to reclaim their humanity through sit-down strikes or battling Ford’s goons at the overpass. We meet Southern blacks who relish the “freedom” of Northern cities but also experience the racial tensions that exploded here in 1943 and 1967. Cars that grow the profits of the auto industry speed by on freeways which destroy neighborhoods to provide escape routes to the suburbs. Neighborhoods are turned into war zones as the drug trade replaces jobs that have been exported overseas.

This documentary is the odyssey of how a mode of production and transportation, once celebrated as the height of human creativity, morphed into dehumanizing consumerism at the expense of human beings and other living things.

A number of Detroiters, black and white, comment throughout. But the only named cast members are white-bearded John Sinclair, poet, former MC5 manager and White Panther Party leader; Martha Reeves, Motown’s earthy, gospel-infused singing star; Heidelberg Project community artist Tyree Guyton; and me.

John Sinclair recalls the glories of the last century as he drives through disintegrating neighborhoods. An exuberant Martha Reeves helps us understand how the distinctive Motown sound emerged from the “this is my country” euphoria of blacks who had left the sharecropping and lynching culture of the South behind them. Tyree Guyton explains that he created the Heidelberg Project to depict the destruction of his neighborhood. He also describes the rising hope of today’s Detroit as neither a white or black thing but “I” becoming “We.”

My closing comments make clear that the new American Dream emerging in Detroit is a deeply-rooted spiritual and practical response to the devastation and dehumanization created by the old dream. We yearn to live more simply so that all of us and the Earth can simply live. This more human dream began with African American elders, calling themselves the Gardening Angels. Detroit’s vacant lots, they decided, were not signs of urban blight but heaven-sent spaces to plant community gardens, both to grow our own food and to give urban youth the sense of process, self-reliance, and evolution that everyone needs to be human.

That’s why growing numbers of artists and young people are coming to Detroit. They want to be part of building a City of Hope that grows our souls rather than our cars.

I hope Requiem for Detroit? will be shown at the 2nd U.S. Social Forum (USSF) meeting in Detroit from June 22-26. It is the story behind the USSF mantra: “Another World is Necessary. Another World is Possible.” “Another World” is happening in Detroit!

Viewing it can help Detroit’s mainstream media become less shallow. It can deepen the imagination of the new generation of media makers attending the annual Allied Media Conference which precedes the USSF. These young people need this deepened imagination to do justice to the present escalating struggle between the Bings and Bobbs, scheming to gentrify Detroit by closing down neighborhood schools. And so will grassroots Detroiters who are organizing not only to save our schools, but to bring the neighbor back into the ‘hood by inventing new forms of education that motivate schoolchildren to learn through community-building activities.