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Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit

average rating is 4 out of 5


Jason Knight


Posted on:

Jul 4, 2024

Film Reviews
Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit
Directed by:
Sam Katz, James McGovern
Written by:
Nathan Bomey
Nancy Kaffer, Bill Nowling, Kevyn Orr, Brian Day

A feature-length documentary about the crisis the city of Detroit went through following the decision to file for bankruptcy on July 18 2013, which was the biggest municipal bankruptcy filing in the history of the United States.


Through many interviews, photographs, some animation and plenty of archive footage, this informative and intriguing documentary investigates this dramatic time that put the strength of this city and its citizens to the test.


Separated into chapters, the film discloses the devastating impact that this financial downfall had on the daily operations of Detroit. Examples would be that due to lack of funding the city's emergency services are unable to be efficient, people are becoming homeless and violent crime is on the rise. Particular attention is given to the effect the bankruptcy has on people's pensions, placing them in jeopardy and on the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose sale is taken under consideration in order to help pay off some of the city's debt. These terrible facts prove that bankruptcy does not harm the city just economically, it also destroys its spirit.


In order to determine why the city found itself in such a state, its history is also analysed, beginning from the 1930s, revealing a time when that place was thriving with opportunities, a strong economy and a large population. However, as the decades passed, things fell apart partly due to a lack of financial support from the federal government and the state government.


The variety of interviewees work in sectors that include journalism and politics and some are simple people living in Detroit, including pensioners. Some of these individuals are Nancy Gaffer from the Detroit Free Press, Communications Director Bill Nowling, Kevyn Orr the Emergency Manager for the City of Detroit, Detroit Historian Ken Coleman, photographer Brian Day and Dave Bing, a former Mayor of Detroit. All these people share their knowledge and experiences regarding many aspects of the city.


The animated sequences by Jacob Rivkin help understand Detroit's history and the events that led to its current unfortunate situation. The animation includes maps of the city and the surrounding areas and people inside a courtroom. The same title card appears several times, that contains the definition of the word 'debt'. Although its significance might be understood, seeing it again and again could be a bit tiring.


Commendations go to editor James McGovern for the superb and creative job and the same applies to composer Daniel Slatkin for the tense and dramatic music.


This is an informative and shocking documentary that explores a city that is suffering from bankruptcy. Those who watch this feature will learn a great deal about the challenges Detroit has faced due to lack of funds.

About the Film Critic
Jason Knight
Jason Knight
Indie Feature Film, Documentary
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