There are few cities that have experienced American history as dramatically as Detroit. During most of the 20th century, Detroit had a reputation as a model city, and during World War II, as an arsenal of democracy. Through the 1950s, the city’s largely integrated industrial workforce supported a prosperous middle class. At its peak population level in 1950, the city’s median household income was a third higher than the nation’s. With these facts, Deforce begins a heartbreaking history of decline and violence that not only helps explain Detroit’s current crisis, but also deeply challenges our understanding of poverty, urban politics, and especially race.
Deforce is a legal term meaning unlawfully holding the property of others—in a larger sense, displacement, alienation, loss of meaningful community. This idea of deforce, the film argues, is central to Detroit’s history, and the larger urban American experience. This is particularly true in poor black neighborhoods, where police violence, a lack of basic municipal services, and pervasive blight have damaged any connection to a larger community. Today the effects are vividly felt in a city with a higher murder rate than wartime Iraq or Northern Ireland. And while it’s tempting to view Detroit as remote or anomalous, Deforce situates it well within the history of suburbanization and the 21st century politics of urban America.
At the same time, for all its devastating perception, Deforce does not succumb to defeatism. Residents interviewed for the film talk as much about the city’s resilience as about blighted structures or food deserts. And it’s in this feeling of resilience that the film places much of its forward momentum, rather than in particular goals or proposals. There is an unmistakable sense that, even if displaced or alienated, Detroiters feel strongly about where they come from.
Deforce’s reluctance to offer specific solutions is unfortunate, but it shouldn’t overshadow the larger narrative. In exploring the deeper roots of Detroit’s ongoing crises, the film asks difficult questions of its audience that seek to break down a “conspiracy of silence about urban issues.” The implication is that urban communities across the United States suffer from some of the same illnesses, and it’s only by addressing these in a direct and meaningful way that we can begin to move forward.