Progressive Cinema

Just a short drive from my hometown of Detroit is a marvelous Mecca of movies in Canada. Toronto not only hosts the grandest film festival in the northern hemisphere, but has continual festivals throughout the year. Cinema thrives in theaters scattered throughout the city as avid filmgoers often fill the houses. It’s in this Canadian town that many American films get their North American debuts, this year including several about Detroit.

We’ve previously discussed Michael Moore’s award-winning Bowling for Columbine, with several scenes shot around Detroit. One of them depicts how white suburban youth bring guns to Detroit’s inner city to sell. The other Detroit films also deal with race, and all of them happen to be about music, the other great export from the motor capital.

One of the major films shown at this year’s Toronto Festival was 8 Mile, starring white rapper Eminem and based loosely on his life. Eminem plays Rabbit, a working-class rapper determined to break into the predominantly black field of rap music. Living with his mother and sister in a trailer park, and working in a factory, Rabbit spends his free time honing his poetic skills. With his friend’s enthusiastic support, he attempts to compete in a rap contest against the best of Detroit’s black rappers.

When the title was first chosen for this movie, filmed entirely in Detroit, expectations rose that maybe this wasn’t just a movie about a white rapper, featuring someone most suspected had limited acting ability. In fact, Eminem delivers a focused and convincing performance, and the story proves to be a deeper study of Detroit culture than previously expected from a Hollywood director.

Eight Mile Road, Detroit’s northern boundary, has become a symbolic racial divide, with most living below it black, above it, white. The 1960s rebellions in urban ghettos across the country – in Detroit in 1967 – and Mayor Coleman Young’s misunderstood 1974 inaugural statement ordering drug pushers, rip-off artists and muggers to “hit 8 Mile Road!” fueled a trend of white flight and corporate abandonment of the Detroit economy.

The film is much more than a story about a rapper. It’s about present day Detroit and its struggle to survive racism, urban blight, and economic uncertainty. Scenes of gutted out business areas, carcasses of empty buildings, and the homeless and unemployed, underscore the realities of the most racially divided metropolis in America.

Friendships in the movie rise above stereotype. The rap, more like introductory Rap 101, is understandable and key to the story. You can imagine how difficult it would be for a white rapper to beat a black opponent with a black audience voting. But the story shows Rabbit being accepted, essentially devoid of racism, much like the true success story of Eminem. Detroit is shown realistically and treated respectfully. The people’s indomitable spirit is shown rising above the racial and economic oppression.

Another Detroit movie, Standing in The Shadows of Motown, pays tribute to The Funk Brothers, the group of musicians who backed almost all of the singers that recorded for the Motown label. Appearing on more hit records than Elvis and the Beatles combined, these Detroit musicians reminisce about the happier aspects of Detroit in the ’70s. They perform some of their hits, with current artists talking backstage to the musicians. Infectiously entertaining, this film shows more than any other the joy of musical camaraderie, and the uniqueness of the “Motown sound.”

MC5: A True Testimonial covers one of the last untold chapters in rock and roll history. This revolutionary band of Detroit-area working-class musicians set out to change music and the world in the ’70s. At times managed by John Sinclair, radical pot guru and poet, and other times wildly anarchic, they preached freedom and equality. With Sinclair, they formed the White Panther Party, whose 10 Party Principles resembled the Black Panther Party’s. (Their first principle was “We support all 10 principles of the Black Panther Party,” and went on from there.) MC5 appeared at many anti-Vietnam War rallies in Detroit, and was the only band willing to play out front during the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago in 1968. They burned out quickly, enraging the authorities, and fell apart from exhaustion, drug abuse and commercial failure. They weren’t everybody’s band, but they shared a concern about injustice and oppression. The film is extremely engrossing. It relives the ’70s from the radical view, and is highly recommended.

After seeing all these great films in Toronto, the sad statistic is that there is only one first-run theater left in Detroit. Most films about Detroit get their premiere in Canada. Detroiters have to go out of town to see a first-run film about their own city. The economic and racial disparity is deepening and it’s partly the role of cinema to help overcome this inequality and injustice. There are many progressive artists out there struggling to get their work seen, and it’s our responsibility as activists to help support them.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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