Documentary Releases: Generation Startup (2016) - Reviewed

Ever since the 2012 documentary film Detropia showed the world the decline of the beloved city of Detroit, Michigan, the region has been undergoing something of a renaissance.  Though it still has a long way to go after years of a still ongoing uphill economic battle, slowly but surely independent entrepreneurs have been seizing the boundless opportunities the fallen city presents to them.  After seeing such gems as The Michigan Beer Film, Detroit Lives, Burn and catching a glimpse of the yet to be completed Kickstarter financed Restarting the Motor City, the latest contribution to the saga of rebuilding the broken city is Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade and co-director Cheryl Miller Houser’s Generation Startup.  Tracking the efforts of six college graduates intent on going into business for themselves while giving something nourishing back to the city’s economy and community under the entrepreneurial guidance of Andrew Yang from Venture for America, the film covers everything from the early gestation of startups, the troubleshooting experienced by the entrepreneurs and above all heralds the brave risk taking efforts made to try and stake out new business territory in ground both fertile and solid.  It’s a bit of a tour guide for potential prospective entrepreneurs looking to strike a business deal in the inner city while highlighting how daunting and extensive of a fulltime job trying to startup a company can be.    

While not as richly detailed or informative as say which sunk its teeth deep into the behind the scenes blood, sweat and tears going into the formulation of an internet company that ultimately went belly up, Generation Startup has its heart in the right place.  What made so compelling was seeing how far out on a limb these businessmen were going and what a greater risk of a downfall it would be without the aid of a safety net.  In the case of Generation Startup, the tone is somewhat more relaxed although there were times when some of the central figures such as Dextina Booker couldn’t help but break down in tears over the stress and sheer frustration the swan dive into the uncharted territory of starting a business presents.  Another moment that stuck in my mind involved the two heads behind Banza chickpea pasta, Avery Hairston and Brian Rudolph, when they discover an entire shipment of their product may have been reduced to mush in the transportation process.  As a Michigan resident who grew up seeing much of the highs and lows of the City of Detroit, it doesn’t open new eyes so much as it shows why we should be proud of our city and hopeful for the prospects ahead of it.  There’s something implacably exciting about seeing old abandoned homes in the heart of Detroit being gutted from the inside out before being rebuilt as a makeshift company headquarters.

Overall Generation Startup is a well-meaning attempt to give some perspective to the once derelict city in ruins slowly being brought back from the dead as well as rally potential troops eager to get a piece of what these entrepreneurs are giving back to Detroit.  That said I wish there was a little bit more skepticism on the part of the filmmakers ala Shark Tank questioning (or debunking) the profit margin and potentiality for financial success the business or product does or doesn’t present.  As it stands, Generation Startup is somewhat nonjudgmental with the impetus that any idea is a good idea and all ideas are a benefit to the city.  There’s also a disparity between those who had to scrape the pavement to get where they are today and those who were born into wealth and more or less inherited their places in the business world.  I’m pleased to see such an amount of life and flavor being put back into the city that has long since dried up with poverty and ruin but as a Michigander it would also be nice for the filmmakers to exercise some discretion instead of embracing every idea head over heels as a great one.  That said, uncritical or not I do hope to see some positive change for the betterment of the city as a result of this documentary and the many more we’re likely to see arriving in its wake.


- Andrew Kotwicki