Hamtramck, USA highlights one municipal election in the midwestern United States, and how various ethnic communities within the town work together to maintain a functioning democracy. To a lot of people, the Midwest conjures up a certain image. Lily white, chock full of apple pie, baseball, and the sort of the classic Americana that conservatives always seem to be hearkening back to. But Hamtramck, Michigan, by its mere demographic makeup, defies the stereotype.
The Detroit suburb was traditionally a haven for Polish-Americans, and while their cultural influence remains deeply felt, more recent influxes of refugees and immigrants have left a profound mark on their local community. First Bosnians fled civil war in the early 1990s, then later Bangladeshi and Yemeni immigrants moved into the area. The practical result of this is the almost accidental creation of the first Muslim-majority town in the United States.
At the center of the film are a handful of mayoral and city council candidates all vying for a seat at the table, an opportunity to represent the interests of their specific communities. Although Hamtramck, USA might have benefitted from a tighter focus on some of the key candidates, its wider approach is nonetheless fascinating. It’s a work of relentless optimism, that despite the loyalty each candidate feels to their own community, they form relationships and coalitions that extend beyond ethnic or religious lines. They support one another based on their visions for the future of the town rather than simply defaulting to where they came from.
The stars of the piece are equally harmonious: one who represents the past of the Hamtramck community, and one who represents the future. Karen Majewski is the Polish-American incumbent mayor of the town who has maintained her position in government through what can only be described as a genuine celebration of the town’s diversity. She is shown reaching out to all members of the community, speaking at mosques as well as Polish heritage activities, and seems like a constant presence walking through the streets of town to interact with her constituents.
If there is any tension between the white Christian inhabitants and their Muslim neighbors (which, based on news footage of a contentious municipal decision to allow the traditional Islamic call to prayer to played through loudspeakers around town, seems likely to have been the case some years ago), she seems willing and eager to overcome it with a sort of stubborn positivity. Still, she acknowledges the very real possibility that she may be the last ever Polish-American mayor of Hamtramck. Mejewski seems unbothered by the fact, almost more fascinated by the process of demographic shift from an academic perspective than anything else.
Her counterpart is Fadel Al-Marsoumi, a member of the substantial Yemeni community in Hamtramck. He is young, civic-minded, and is eager to build a coalition in Hamtramck that reflects its diversity rather than fighting for a city council composed only of people who look, speak, and think like him. Fadel canvasses with a Bengali city council hopeful, correctly surmising that between the two of them, they can communicate with a wider proportion of Hamtramck residents than either could hope to on their own.
Together, their efforts to represent all of their constituents regardless of ethnic or religious backgrounds paint a hopeful image of what a non-traditional American town can look like. Is it perfect? No. And it’s clear that even amongst the Muslim communities, there are significant divides and obstacles to be overcome. But the people in the town come to this election with what appears to be a genuine desire to improve their community, and that has to be applauded.
The film itself isn’t perfect, either. There are a number of loose threads, and various candidates who have abbreviated storylines that don’t add a tremendous amount to the film as a whole. In general, it might have been stronger if it had really focused on just the campaigns of Karen and Fadel, since they’re the most engaging figures in the film. But still, it’s difficult to argue too much with its approach or its conclusion, since Hamtramck, USA gives us one of the more down-to-earth yet somehow inspiring political documentaries of the past few years.
Directed by: Justin Feltman, Razi Jafri
Anchored in public arts and the mayoral election, this documentary explores multiculturalism in Hamtramck and how it transforms the community and residents that call it home.