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Detroit, well-documented - (Part II)

Those Detroit documentaries – what’s out there?

In the last post I promised to take you through the fifty or so documentaries that have been produced on Detroit in the last five years. I’m a man of my word so here goes….

Abandonment. This figures strongly in A City to Yourself and Detroit Wild City. It’s in the experimental I Pity the Fool too. Specific places are covered in Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother and The Last Shift (Packard plant).

Agriculture. Key work includes Grown in Detroit, Undoing Racism in the Detroit Food System, Urban Roots, From Glasgow to Detroit, Lean Mean and Green, Seeds of progress, and Scars in the Garden. It’s also mentioned in DIY Manifesto and We Are Not Ghosts.

Arts. There is a series on the DIA while Detroit Art City covers the 2012 property tax campaign. Art in People Mover stations and a DMC Hospital are there too. You can watch a dance company put through its paces ahead of opening night.

Autos. Production figures prominently in Ruin of a City, Rollin and Death of Detroit. For consumption you can relive the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise.

Community activism. American Revolutionary profiles 99-year old Grace Lee Boggs (activist, thinker and founder of youth project ‘Detroit Summer’).


99 and still going strong – Eastside Detroit’s Grace Lee Boggs (source:

Disappearance: The life and disappearance of Detroit-based labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa is addressed in Killing Jimmy Hoffa.

Economy. When Bubbles Burst looks at how investing in securitized US sub-prime mortgages hit a small Norwegian town. Two doc’s are comparative studies with other towns – After the Factory (Lodz, Poland) and I Have Always Been A Dreamer (Dubai, UAE).

Education. Work includes Dan Rather’s National Disgrace: Detroit’s Public Schools and Our School, which focuses on life in three city high schools. I loved a 10-minute short on a west-side school in an inter-school neighborhood planning competition.

Ethnic origins are the main focus of an Emmy-winning Our Story Of… series featuring Poles, Irish, Indians, African-Americans and others. It is also covered more recently still in Regional Roots.

Fire. BURN and & 2 Detroit on Fire I & II address the work of the Detroit Fire Department in tackling the arson of abandoned homes.

Food. Chef Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown series dedicated a show to Detroit – including eating a home-cooked Salvadoran meal at a Pupusa House.

Gangs: National Geographic’s Inside Detroit’s Gangs looks at the city Police Department’s (recently reformed?) gang unit.

Mixed overviews. Several accounts – Requiem for Detroit?, Bankruptcy of a Symbol, Detropia (long-listed for an Oscar), Dream in Ruins and Gangs, Rap, Auto industry (both in French) – chart socio-economic decline but also look for signs of hope.

Motown and other vintage music. Alongside Sugar Man, other old-school takes include From Motown to the Stooges and The Grande Ballroom Story. There’s even an account on Motown and downtown renaissance from (reformed perm) Michael Bolton.

Murder. Murder City looks at the crimes and efforts to clear them up, whereas Living with Murder tackles the human cost.

Optimism. Detroit Lives, The Great Detroit, Lemonade: Detroit, Motor City Rising, Detroit in Overdrive, Redefining Dreamland, Detroit’s Rising (by urbanism guru Richard Florida) and Street Fighting Man all major in on people trying to make a go of things.


James “Jack Rabbit” Jackson – one of the key figures in 2014’s Street Fighting Man (source:

Organized Crime: Notable here are: Detroit Mob Confidential, Motown Mafia (narcotics kingpins in the 69-75 period) and The T Stuckey Story (the rise and fall of the founder of a hip-hop record label).

Politics. Bankrupt and a 60 Minutes special focus on the bankruptcy while Kwame The Untold Story unpicks the former’s mayor’s fall. Charlie Le Duff’s 2009 – The Movie and 2012 – The Movie satirically put politicians and public services under the microscope.

Population. Reversing Blue Flight looks at how rule changes saw a movement of police officers to live in the suburbs. The main focus however is on Mayoral efforts to lure them back.

Race. Deforce and Bury the Dead both zero in on race in their wide-ranging looks at the city’s past, present and future.

Rap. The city’s late-great rap producer J Dilla has had several documentaries on him – the most recent being Crate Diggers.

Security. Detroit Threat Management tells an inside view of the well-known private security firm on the city’s riverside.

Sport. Subjects include: the Isiah Thomas-era Pistons (Bad Boys), fans who maintain the baseball diamond at the old Tiger Stadium (Stealing Home) and former Red Wings touring Russia (Ice Warriors).

Techno has had lots of documentaries. Amongst the most recent are: Real Scenes: Detroit, Underground Resistance, The Electronic Music Festival and Girls Gone Vinyl (imminent). Lords of Detroit also mentions it in its short on youth music.

Transport. PBS’s Beyond the Motor City looks at the city’s auto past and whether it can transition to a post-auto world of mass transit, walking and cycling (also the subject of Detroit Bike City).


Can Rust Belt cities become new models for fast, clean, public transit? 2010’s Beyond the Motor City uses Detroit to take a look (source:

Urban Planning. Detropia, Detroit Works 2.0, and a PBS documentary all look at former Mayor Bing’s Detroit Works plan that sought to move people from blighted neighborhoods to stronger ones. The 2001 Sprawling of America is dated, but informative.

Water. The impact of water privatization on residents in Highland Park is the subject of Water Front.


If there’s nothing there for you then not to worry – maybe you just don’t ‘do’ documentaries. If you’ve seen them all (confession: I haven’t), well then there’s some good ‘shorts’ here that you might have missed.

In the third and final post I’ll look at how Detroit reflects on its portrayal in documentaries and at possible subjects for new work.

Click here to read Part I of this series, and here for Part III.

Gareth is currently looking to establish an organization to exchange international best practice around ways to sustain community and civic assets such as parks, libraries and museums. Prior to arriving in Detroit he undertook a German Marshall Fund international Urban and Regional Policy Fellowship (in the Twin Cities, Detroit and Baltimore) looking at these same issues. Before coming to the US Gareth worked in central government as a policy advisor in the Cabinet Office (Office for Civil Society and Strategy Unit). He holds a Ph.D. in economic geography (the role of universities in regional economic development), as well as a first degree in social policy and administration and a Masters in civic design (urban planning). Follow him on Twitter @garethpotts1.