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Film commentary: Detroit on the big screen

Flickr - ifmuth

I’m making a new film. It’s about three men who return to their hometown after a long absence. That hometown is Detroit. It took me over two years to write. But the thing I struggled with most was how to present the city of Detroit itself.

How has Detroit been depicted on the big screen? In the film Four Brothers (2005), racially diverse siblings are tight, tough and searching Detroit for the man who killed their foster mother.  And they don’t take no mess from nobody. This band of brothers channels Detroit’s reputation as a tough city.  But that toughness is paired with a clear pride in their town. This standard genre film is one of the few contemporary films in which pride is at all associated with the Motor City.

But Detroit is hip and sprawling in the film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Out of Sight. The late, great Mr. Leonard often wrote of the city he knew intimately. The film version of Out of Sight moves swiftly across the Detroit landscape, from inner city boxing clubs to downtown hotels to a Bloomfield Hills mansion for the final act.  Detroit is still a very tough town populated by crooks, hustlers, bumblers and a few lovers as well. However in Out of Sight, the rough and tumble Detroit expands to include the suburbs.  But Bloomfield Hills? Really?

Music has often been a critical part of films set in Detroit.  With the exception of the Eminem hip-hop inspired 8 Mile (2005), many of the musical films are period pieces set in the Motown heyday such as Dreamgirls (2006), which was inspired by the rise of the Supremes in the 1960's.

These historical films seem to harken back to a celebrated Detroit full of energy, art and opportunity -- whether it be on the GM assembly line or in the studios of Hitsville USA. They present a very idealized Detroit, but also fall in line with a broad American nostalgia which laments the passing of glorious days, and music, gone by.

The opposite of this idealized Detroit can be seen in one of the most notorious films ever set there: RoboCop. The movie’s tagline is: The Future Left Detroit Behind.  Yes, I know there may be a RoboCop statue coming to the city. And, yes I know a RoboCop remake is set for release in 2014. But that 1987 original sealed Detroit’s fate in popular culture for the next 25 years. The film depicts a futuristic violent city in ruin. Out of control crime is dealt with by a robot cop who hands out a swift brand of justice with no questions asked.

Of course, that’s always the problem.  Questions do need to be asked.  Complexities need to be examined. Detroit is a tough city. Yet, a city of heart. It is a city of corruption. Yet a city of folks trying to make it every day.  It is bankrupt. But it is a city of art and music from hip-hop to soul to techno to classical.  The characters in my film both love and hate Detroit at the same time.  That is not a contradiction.   For any filmmaker depicting Detroit, the struggle is not to fall for an idealized past nor the notion of a future-less city.  For artists who care, the struggle is to present Detroit as a character that is flawed and vital, frustrating and thrilling -- as only Detroit itself can be.

Jeffrey is an MSU professor and filmmaker. Listen for more of Jeffrey's thoughts on film right here on Current State.

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