Detroit on Film
Each noteworthy cinematic portrayal of Detroit tackles at least one of the three key themes that have underpinned its last turbulent century: race, work, and music.
The Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north saw Detroit’s black population rise from 6,000 to 120,000 between 1910 and 1930. In 1940, more than 90% of Detroit’s population was white; by 2010 it was less than 11%.
A nickname, Motor City, emerged after Henry Ford pioneered manufacturing cars using assembly line production, having founded his company in 1903. Soon, Detroit became the world’s car capital.
Producing cars influenced the creation of music with Motown, the Detroit-based label started by Berry Gordy in 1959, mirroring the assembly line approach. Songwriting and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland penned hits for singing superstars including The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye. Motown was arguably the best-known record label of the 1960s. Later, garage rock of the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges would bring Detroit’s music to other audiences. This century, Detroit acts such as The White Stripes and Eminem have achieved global fame, with the latter becoming the biggest-selling artist of the 2000s in the US.
Racial trauma is at the heart of Kathryn Bigelow’s eponymous film, which focuses on events at the Algiers Motel that left three teenaged black men dead during the 1967 riots. Vocational and sonic concerns are distant, secondary narrative factors.
During the early hours of Sunday 23 July, a police raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar ends in confrontation, residents rebelled against what they considered to be racist, heavy-handed policing and five days of violence and property destruction ensues. By the riot’s conclusion 43 people were dead and more than 2,500 shops burned or looted at a cost of $40-45 million.
In Detroit (2017), John Boyega stars as under-pressure security guard Melvin Dismukes. He finds himself impotently standing by when a group of racist Detroit cops led by Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter in a terrifying, career-best performance) torment and torture a group of black men and two white girls, all of whom were sheltering from the riots in what they assumed to be the safety of the Algiers Motel. Chief among those terrorised by police is Larry Reed (Algee Smith), singer of R&B group The Dramatics.
The film is a masterclass of immersive, claustrophobic tension. Anxious handheld camerawork ensures viewers feel Reed’s every captive minute and every scary moment of the chaos in the streets, with Boston doubling for Detroit of the 60s. Close-ups on fraught, sweating faces sustain the suspense. Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd have created scene upon scene of nerve-shredding intensity that appears to accurately reflect the agonising unspooling of a shameful episode in America’s history. Although Dismukes and three white policemen were later charged with murder, no one was ever found guilty.
Blue Collar (1978), the directorial debut of Taxi Driver (1976) writer Paul Schrader, has work as its primary concern with race a close second. It’s a pugnacious study of three hard-up car factory workers who decide to rob their union’s office. Each member of the trio (two black and one white) is manipulated and mistreated by management and union alike. A hilarious but ultimately heartbreaking film about quotidian toil and how the system wears men down, Schrader’s powerful tale includes a scorching central performance from Richard Pryor, who is as vehement and unyielding as he is during his stand-up routines. Pryor’s onscreen partners-in-crime Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto are merely excellent. Racial difference and opportunity is explored as a background theme throughout but colour tensions finally explode in the film’s furious denouement. An essential watch for anyone interested in a glimpse of the real Motor City, Blue Collar rarely leaves the shabby homes, bars and factories of its protagonists.
Taking on music, race and the tribulations of work in almost equal measure is 8 Mile (2002). Leagues ahead of most pop-star vehicles, Curtis Hanson’s semi-biopic benefits from having a charismatic star who lived a life of similar struggle on the way to his real-life commercial and creative success. In 8 Mile, named for the road that splits mostly black and poor Detroit and Wayne County from its white suburbs, Eminem plays Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr. Jimmy is a car factory worker who lives in a trailer who dreams of escaping his humdrum life for a career in hip-hop. Slowly, incessantly, he scribbles down his rhymes and perfects his art at rap battles, much like the real high-school dropout Marshall Mathers did in Detroit as a youth. The Herculean effort that it takes to become a successful rapper – and being taken seriously as one with a white skin – is laid bare, while the film’s locations are suitably scuzzy.
Although Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is a more abstract feature than many that portray Detroit onscreen, its philosophical soul and musical richness can’t be denied. It’s a Jim Jarmusch film so mood is everything. Tom Hiddleston plays Adam, musician vampire ensconced in his Victorian home, surrounded by vintage guitars and images of classical, jazz, blues and punk artists. He’s suicidal and adrift with memories of how he inspired musicians through the ages. His wife of many centuries, Eve (Tilda Swinton), now based in Tangiers, returns to him and they drive the empty streets, seek out new sounds and see the actual Detroit home where Jack White grew up.
It Follows (2014) avoids any explicit discussion of race or work to concentrate on superior scares and eye-watering suspense. Implicitly, the safe suburban homes and spaces in which teenage protagonist Jaime Height (Maika Monroe) and her friends are pursued by a supernatural spectre are a consequence of Detroit’s white flight to the suburbs that increased rapidly from the 1950s. As the David Robert Mitchell’s fine horror nears its end, its characters delve into the scarred, blighted inner city – the results of an absence of work. It also features a stunning synth-led soundtrack, seemingly inspired by Detroit’s techno heritage as much as John Carpenter’s minimal scores.
Lost River (2014), Ryan Gosling’s Lynch-lite directorial debut features some evocative images of run-down Detroit neighbourhoods in the absence of work but is otherwise a messy, unfocused effort. Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s award-winning 2012 documentary, investigates the decline of the economy of Detroit amid changes in the car industry but arguably doesn’t tackle race issues in a significantly meaningful way.
Elsewhere, the best scenes in Beverly Hills Cop (1985) begin the film in Detroit but are all to brief to classify it as an important Detroit film. Robocop (1987) is an excellent satiric action film set in the city but was sadly shot in Dallas and Pittsburgh. Four Brothers (2005), helmed by Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton is a slight familial affair that benefits from a fine Marvin Gaye-adorned soundtrack but was mostly shot in Ontario.
The films that best get to the eerie, enigmatic heart of Detroit are the ones that tackle the sounds, jobs and blend of cultures that made the place what it is. As a city, Detroit has been through riots, corruption and an unhealthy obsession with the car industry. Yet maybe Requiem for Detroit? (2010), Julien Temple’s BBC documentary, offered an indication of things to come by looking at the growth in Detroit’s agriculture. Growth has continued since – there are now more than 1,500 urban farms in the city. An unusual source of revenue and work for Motor City but certainly food for thought.