Art | Community

In search of ‘The Great Detroit Film’

A lot of films have been shot and/or set in Detroit but has ‘The Great Detroit Film’ been made yet?

Poster for Detroit 9000 – a terrific 1973 movie set and filmed in Detroit (source: moviepostershop)

I thought I’d just seen a Great Detroit Film

A few days ago I watched the movie Detroit 9000 (an officer’s radio distress call apparently). It’s a cops n’ robbers caper, complete with chase scenes (one even involves cops on horseback!), but it also flags up social issues from that time – in particular race relations. Released in 1973, the late 1960s disturbances that hit many US cities – including Detroit – were fresh in peoples’ memories.

The plot centers on an armed heist at a combined charity benefit and fundraiser for a black gubernatorial candidate, and the joint efforts of two smart detectives, one black and one white, to crack the case.

It is unclear whether the crime is straightforward robbery or whether there is a political/racial motive to hurt the candidate. Everyone is also asking about the racial profile of the robbers – the answer, as you learn later, is a clever one!

The film also challenges racial stereotypes and touches on ethnic difference within the white community and generational difference within the black community. Same-sex relationships are also covered in what, for the time at least, was a liberal fashion.

Many past and present city landmarks are on show too – including Belle Isle and Elmwood Cemetery – which made watching even more enjoyable. But it made me wonder whether local scenes, and references to Wayne State University and Hamtramck, are really enough to make for a film that is Detroit to the core?

Local locations

There have been movies where all or most of the filming has been done here – Batman v. Superman and Lost River being amongst the most high-profile of late – but where the location could really have been any large north American city. Using the city’s built environment does not a Detroit film make.

Local story

There have been a lot of films set wholly or largely in Detroit – even if shooting was typically done elsewhere. Examples include True Romance; Four Brothers; and Robocop (set in a Detroit of the near future).

But just having Detroit names does not make it a Detroit story either. Grosse Pointe Blank is a good film, but the location is there to show that the lead character is from the Midwest. Similarly, much of Out of Sight, is set here but, again, could be about anywhere. At least both were mainly filmed locally.

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, set in a fictitious Hmong neighborhood in Highland Park, is a good film – apart from Clint ‘singing’ in the credits – but it was based on a story about Minneapolis where the Hmong community is much larger. Production came for the State’s tax credits (now likely to be phased out). Similarly, Detroit 9000 was to have been shot in Chicago until City Hall there vetoed it!

Other films set and filmed locally are also hard to pin down as uniquely Detroit – there’s Narc (undercover narcotics agent); Zebrahead (interracial teenage romance) and Tiger Town (ageing baseball player). Even two auto films (Blue Collar (unionized RustBelt auto plant) and Collision Course (the threat of the Japanese auto industry) are about the U.S. auto industry rather than Motor City specificallly.

It is only with Dreamgirls (set in the Motown era) and Hoffa – both filmed elsewhere – that a Detroit-specific story is in play.

Local talent

At least Eminem, star of 8-Mile, grew up a mile south of the famous road – but he was the only cast star that did. The stars of all major films about or shot in Detroit hail from elsewhere – even most of the (largely first-time) cast of Gran Torino came from Minnesota.

Local celebrities are good – Tiger Town does well on this. In Detroit 9000 these were mainly on a fake police phone-in show called ‘Buzz the Fuzz’!

Behind the camera are some examples of local connections – Out of Sight was written by the late, great Detroit-based writer Elmore Leonard. The director of Polish Wedding (about the Polish American community of Hamtramck at some time between the 1950s and 1970s) grew up in that area at that time.

So….

I suspect ‘The Great Detroit Film’ is hard to find because the truly great film for any city is so hard to find – it requires layers of local locations and connections and a great script, director, acting etc. But I’m glad I’ve seen Detroit 9000 – it was enjoyable and provided much food for thought.

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.