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Movies/TV Last Updated: Dec 21st, 2012 - 13:54:24

Movie Meditations on Home
By Esther Editor
Sep 14, 2012, 12:26

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Three new independent films, “Detropia,” “Red Hook Summer” and “2 Days in New York,” offer unique meditations on home and place.

There are neighborhoods in Detroit where there is only one house in a whole city block, or one house for two entire blocks. The rest have been torn down as vast swatches of the city have turned into a prairie of waist-high weeds. Once impressive architecture, including theaters, tall brick high rises or massive warehouses are abandoned and rotting—their bare windows looking like empty eye sockets.

These are some of the arresting images in “Detropia,” a new documentary that takes a visual and visceral journey through the embers of American empire—and then shows what might rise from the ashes. Many of the facts are familiar about this once proud epicenter of the American car industry: there are 100,000 abandoned houses or empty lots in the city. One family moves out every 20 minutes. In the last 10 years, Michigan lost 50 percent of its manufacturing jobs and in 2010, the census recorded the city’s population at 713,000, the lowest in 100 years. It was once 1.8 million. The city’s 129 square miles could be compressed into 40 populated square miles.

These grim statistics appear on the screen throughout the movie but do not overwhelm it or bog it down. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady tell a story with striking images, with almost surreal musical performances at the Detroit Opera House— and with people. A video blogger, a retired school teacher, an emerging artist and a the president of a beleaguered local for the United Auto Workers Union are some of the people we meet who tell us about the history and future of the city.

Without ever spelling it out specifically, those chosen to tell their story also tell their story of Detroit as a microcosm of the social and economic ills that have befallen big American cities—be they unemployment, poverty, racism, white flight, working class flight and middle class flight. Each person becomes a walking-talking testimony about macroeconomics, including globalism. In one scene, Tommy Stephens, the retired teacher who owns a nightclub called the Raven Lounge, goes to a car show featuring foreign-made cars. He compares the $41,000 price tag for the American-made Chevy Volt to a price tag—for half that—for similar electric car being manufactured in China.

Stephens also offers his opinion on the disappearance of the American middle class. “Capitalism is great,” he says. “But it exploits the weak. The upper class needs the middle class the buffer the poor. If there is no middle class to buffer between the rich and poor, all that’s left is revolution.”

There is another way that Detroit sits at the precipice of a changing America. Despite its overall population decline, there was actually a 59 percent increase in the number of young people moving to the city center. Many of these young people are artists, who find, among the abandoned shells and streets, an economy where they can buy a new loft for $25,000 and still have money left to rent a separate art studio. “Detroit is constantly amazing me, said an artist. “It’s redefining what the value of things are—You can experiment here. Because if we fail. We haven’t really fallen anywhere.”

Clarke Peters stars in Spike Lee's new joint, "Red Hook Summer."
Also in theaters is Spike Lee’s new joint, “Red Hook Summer” about a boy who lives in a big house with his mother in Atlanta and then goes to stay for the summer with his grandfather in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.

With “Red Hook Summer,” Spike Lee makes an aesthetic segway from his 2009 film version of the stage play “Passing Strange.” Most especially, the scenes inside of the church headed by Flick’s grandfather, feel like they are on stage with super-saturated colors, tight shots and lengthy scenes emphasizing robust singing performances and praise of the church service.

Through the prism of Red Hook, Lee unpacks several issues in the Black community, including generational divides, class divides, divides in faith—be that faith in god, faith in the street hustle, faith in the hip-hop hustle or even faith in technology. Flick walks around much of the time with his ipad 2 between his face and whoever he is addressing as he catches them on video. The ultimate divide is between revelation and a devastating secret that is revealed.

Finally, you might not know that Chris Rock is in the new movie “2 Days I New York.” Rock plays a New Yorker whose home is invaded by the French family members of his live-in girlfriend. This is a funny movie.

All told, these movies offer plenty to see and think about when it comes to home—be it the hefty socio-economic issues of Detroit, a boy’s struggle with maturity and identity, or a grown man’s struggle for sanity when invaded by tourists from Paris.

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