'Internal Combustion': Film Review

Courtesy of TS Productions
An enlightening personal journey through Detroit's turbulent racial history.

Paris-based Detroit native Steve Faigenbaum explores the Motor City's gradual social and economic demise in this French-produced documentary.

PARIS — There's perhaps no other place that epitomizes America's industrial decline as vividly as Detroit, its miles of abandoned houses and factories a reminder that great cities can topple as steadfastly as ancient empires, leaving blocks of ruins behind. Already featured in several noteworthy documentaries, including Detropia, When Bubbles Burst and Searching for Sugar Man (where it served as a haunting, snow-filled backdrop), the Motor City is now tackled from an angle at once personal, social and historically revealing in Internal Combustion, director Steve Faigenbaum's engaging and thought-provoking investigation of Detroit's troubled racial past.

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Tracing his family's own roots as Jewish immigrants who saw their city shift from a wellspring of opportunity to a landscape of desolation, and underlying the racially motivated factors — including deep-rooted segregation and ghettoization — that may have helped fuel the collapse, this French-financed debut feature is currently on release in Paris, where it should bring in modest numbers and strong reviews. Overseas action will include festivals and international pubcasters, while U.S. distributors specializing in documentary fare could also take notice.

With Faigenbaum himself providing a poignant voiceover and with reels of archive footage providing lots of memorable imagery, we follow his grandfather's (or zadie's) arrival in Detroit in 1913, where he settled in the predominantly Yiddish neighborhood on Hastings Street. Quickly finding employment in the auto industry, Zadie was part of a mass of men streaming into the Motor City to work for Ford or General Motors at a time when, as one interviewee puts it, "workers were heroes."

The influx of families from Eastern Europe was soon joined by a wide-scale migration of African Americans from the South, many of them leaving behind impoverished agricultural communities in the hopes of acquiring steady jobs and, if possible, their own homes. Soon Hastings Street became known as the Black Bottom, and like many other Jews, the Faigenbaums moved away, part of a recurring pattern of "white flight" that would see wealthier families settling in Detroit's ever-growing suburban sprawl created by the automobile industry and its support of massive highway construction.

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Cutting between past and present, personal and political, Faigenbaum uses his family history as a starting point to explore the greater racial divide that would plague Detroit throughout much of the century. He cites such incidents as the 1943 race riots, which revealed the ugly underside of integration in the factories and projects, and the 1967 riots (or 12th Street Riot), which resulted in 43 deaths and thousands of buildings either looted or burned down.

While such events have already been well documented, the filmmaker peppers his archives with interviews that provide several insightful first-hand accounts of what happened. He also sheds light on a lesser-known incident that occurred in 1969, when two cops were gunned down outside the New Bethel Baptist Church, where a local black militant meeting was taking place. The surviving officer, Richard Worobec, offers emotional testimony that leads to some surprising conclusions, revealing how people can be swept up by racial politics they inherently disagree with.

Although the director himself left Detroit over 25 years ago, many of his family members remained, seeing the city further decline as manufacturing jobs were outsourced abroad and property values tumbled. And while such faithful Detroiters can certainly be seen as optimists, they are well aware that their hometown may remain in the doldrums for a long while. Or, as one subject explains, referring to the Renaissance Center business hub that was built in the '70s to lure corporations back downtown: "Detroit is the only city in which the Renaissance actually precedes the Dark Ages."

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Tech credits are pro, with cinematographers Stephen M. Katz (The Blues Brothers) and Joel David capturing the rugged beauty of Detroit in the wintertime. Archive footage mixes home movies with newsreels of the race riots and other events, with veteran editors Yann Dedet (Day for Night, Van Gogh) and Nadia Ben Rachid (Timbuktu) finding clever ways to weave the Faigenbaum story into a larger urban narrative of hope and loss.

Production companies: TS Productions, Histoire
Director: Steve Faigenbaum
Producer: Delphine Morel
Directors of photography: Stephen M. Katz, Joel David
Editors: Yann Dedet, Nadia Ben Rachid
Composer: Francois Couturier
Sales agent: Doc & Film International

No rating, 86 minutes