The United States of Film: Michigan

20 films that map the Mitten, from the Sleeping Bear Dunes to the shores of Belle Isle

Movies Lists Michigan
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15. Detropia
Year: 2012
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady

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Detropia paints a modern likeness of the City of Detroit as the United States’ greatest failure, and perhaps its most representative example of the untenable nature of the so-called American Dream. But the film is rarely as big as it’d like to be. Though there’s something there to dissect about the dissolution of the middle class—how that doesn’t really mean much of anything anymore—directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady can’t seem to get past a melancholic tone and make a serious case about American exceptionalism dooming the rest of the country in the same way. As such, the documentary treads water miserably, offering no real institutional solutions—or even ideas—as part of its insider’s look at City government. And yet, basic facts are brutal: How in 1955, 1.86 million people lived in the city, but by the time the film was made, there were less than 800,000 people; how there are currently 40 square miles of vacant land within city limits. Detroit is simply too big, and the film struggles underneath that weight. Ewing is from Detroit suburb Farmington Hills, and as someone who also grew up in the area, I recognize sincerity and possessiveness in the way the film chronicles the city’s current plight. Which is maybe why, despite all of the despair and slow-burning nightmares and wreckage it portrays, Detropia ends on a hopeful beat, more of a lullaby than a soundless death throe. It’s quite beautiful.


14. Detroit 9000
Year: 1973
Director Arthur Marks

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By all accounts the first exploitation film set in the undeniably exploitation-ready city of Detroit, Detroit 9000 (later renamed Police Call 9000 for no discernible reason) isn’t so much a well-plotted crime thriller as it is a circuitous tour of a major city bound to bust its seams. Billed as a violent cop drama set in “the murder capital of the world” (oof), the film—which went on to achieve cult status care of Quentin Tarantino’s boutique distribution imprint, Rolling Thunder—begins with a heist during a prominent black politician’s campaign fundraiser for Michigan governorship, a crime which eventually reveals layer upon layer of corruption in every facet of Detroit urban life. Two detectives, one white (Alex Rocco) and one black (Hari Rhodes), are paired to take on the high-profile case, their obvious racial tension only heightened by the fact that, with experience in such a police department, mistrust comes as second nature. As with any good piece of exploitation cinema, the duo navigates a panorama of crude and quirky characters alike—including the hooker with a heart of gold, the lascivious politician’s aid with more on his mind than winning, and the institutionalized omni-racist—but the film’s truest account of Detroit is one of malevolence, of corruption permeating every membrane, or dismembered bodies surfacing in the Detroit River. (Which, true story: my brother works for the Coast Guard in Detroit, and he’s seen the exact same tidings of unmitigated evil floating in the wake of his boat on the river.) Who knew that barely two years after he was born, a film would so easily predict how thoroughly a leader like Kwame Kilpatrick would exploit a broken political system in a broken city to dismantle both even further?


13. Zebrahead
Year: 1992
Director: Anthony Drazan

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What you think will happen in Anthony Drazan’s Zebrahead is what does happen—but whatever does happen is done with so much subtle grace, so much warmth for its characters, so much care for what Detroit could be, that any predictability quickly and quietly gives way to a vital pulse, one stippling beneath the more obvious watercolor of Detroit’s dire racial divide. While Curtis Hanson set up 8 Mile as the irrefutable border (it’s not) between two races, two cultures and two ways of being, in the end giving credit to the white guy (Eminem) for breaking down those borders by proving that he’s just as good at rapping as black people, Zebrahead admits that there are miles and miles of gray between the black and the white. The story of a Jewish, tow-headed, “Bart-Simpson-looking-motherfucker” with a penchant for hip-hop production (a baby-faced Michael Rappaport) who falls for the cousin (N’Bushe Wright) of his best friend (Deshonn Castle), Zebrahead offers no answers and no saviors for the problem at the core of the young couple’s courtship: He is black and she is white. And when violence inevitably erupts because of their pairing, no one but the two of them step up to blame the tragedy on anything but the belief that they left their individual “tribes” for taboo. Nearly 25 years later, Detroit is arguably more divided than ever—and it’ll take so much more than a plucky white kid crossing a street to bridge that gap.


12. Beverly Hills Cop
Year: 1984
Director Martin Brest

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Most of Beverly Hills Cop is spent so obviously far away from Detroit—duh—that it’s hard to believe that, in Martin Brest’s head, the city is anything more than a dank cesspool where the last remaining good guys—the police, mostly—have to operate so far out of the book that they’re an increasingly hopeless breed. And so, once Axel Foley’s (Eddie Murphy) low-life friend is murdered, setting the brisk plot into motion, the film flees with the Detroit cop to Beverly Hills—duh—where Foley meets up with a childhood friend, a fellow Michigan ex-pat (Lisa Eilbacher). As a person who ran away from the Detroit area at a young age, I recognize the weirdly escapist undercurrents in Axel’s pilgrimage. I saw it in many people I grew up with, people who felt like Michigan’s, and especially Detroit’s, ills were too big, too unwieldy, to be all that one life should know. And yet, Axel is a good cop because he’s a Detroit cop, his Michigan-ness making him special. So, he knows he has to return to Detroit once business is settled, even though he knows he’d have a much easier life in California. Those of us who’ve stayed gone, we still, every once in a while, feel the need to go back, wrestling with an obligation to see such an obligation through.


11. Grosse Pointe Blank
Year: 1997
Director George Armitage

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In the role that probably set the foundation for High Fidelity’s Rob, John Cusack plays Martin Q. Blank as a vaguely charming, vaguely confident, vaguely organic hitman—the kind of guy one would never suspect is good at killing people for a living. Except: Blank is from the vaguely wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, which means that he’s one of many formless Michigander schlubs who go one to do things no one has ever expected of them. Before the 2008 Recession, Oakland County, one of Detroit’s surrounding counties, a very popular member of the Metro Detroit family, was among the absolute richest counties in the country. Like Orange County rich. And still no one seems to really remember that—back in even 1997, when the car companies were slaying, no one expected much from a Michigander. Grosse Pointe Blank epitomizes that befuddling state-wide middle child complex in John Cusack’s thoroughly, anxiously casual performance.


10. Hoffa
Year: 1992
Director Danny DeVito

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To call Hoffa a biopic is maybe too on-the-nose, though the title might have most thinking otherwise. Instead, Danny DeVito uses the name to represent a massive social movement, an attitude, a conflagration: Very little is shown of Jimmy Hoffa’s (Jack Nicholson) family, or of his childhood, or even of his undoubtedly complicated internal life. Instead, David Mamet’s script shears all dramatic frills from the Teamster President’s rise to power, building his background as an act of myth-making, letting Nicholson’s frightening charm imbue the historic character with enough confidence and grit to make the fact that Hoffa came to be an inhuman figurehead a believable conclusion to a life’s work. With that, Hoffa is a masterclass in tone and narrative economy, translating an impossibly complex series of backroom dealings and class politics into the fairy tales that now inhabit the gray areas of Detroit legend. It almost doesn’t matter that Mamet frames his script with a Passion-esque prediction of what actually did happen to Jimmy Hoffa’s body—today Detroiters are still looking, long after everyone else stopped caring if he’d ever be found.


9. True Romance
Year: 1993
Director: Tony Scott

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True Romance is, as one should expect from an early glimpse of Quentin Tarantino’s brilliance, a total mess, but in its flagrant frappe-ing of genre and tone, it attains possibly the most refreshing view of Detroit ever put on film. Like in practically every movie set there, brand-new lovers Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) ditch the Motor City halfway through—and Clarence definitely gives the typical “all I ever wanted to do was get out of Detroit” speech—leaving a few brutally murdered bodies in their wake.

But their departure feels less like an escape, and more like a rite of passage. Alabama opens the film in voice-over, speaking in near-iambic-pentameter—practically improvising a sonnet—about how she found a once-in-a-lifetime love in the last place she thought she ever would: the shit-stained corner of the mitten state. Couple this with Tony Scott’s loving aerials of Detroit, scored care of Hans Zimmer channeling Steve Reich at his most buoyant, and a film which begins with shots of a dark city wreathed in grime, dotted by the temporary encampments of the forever-cold homeless, somehow becomes a testament to the endless possibilities of those who open themselves up to what the city can offer. It’s such a deftly handled, surprising introduction to a city often robbed of any romantic tidings on film that one can sort of overlook how True Romance, like Tony Scott’s The Last Boyscout (1991), is pretty rife with the kind of gay panic that seemed OK to mainstream audiences in the early ’90s.


8. Only Lovers Left Alive
Year: 2013
Director: Jim Jarmusch

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An hour into Only Lovers Left Alive, and vampire—though that word is never once uttered—Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is taking his wife, also-vampire Eve (Tilda Swinton), on a crepuscular tour of Detroit—showing her the hollowed-out Packard Plant, the once-achingly-opulent mansions now literally collapsing on themselves, the home where Jack White grew up. “Oh, I love Jack White!”, Eve responds, not a hint of hesitation or pretention in her voice; the house, a Victorian brownstone of which Detroit once boasted so many, sits alone, neck-high weeds taking up residence where finely-mown lawns used to be. The city in which these two undead monsters thrill in the history of a humanity which shuns them is itself a vampiric wasteland, a vast twilight of ambition and privilege and promise reduced to the stifling of animalistic urges—still beautiful, but struggling to be more than just an echo of something once so much more vital. That Jarmusch chose to have his lovely creatures inhabit the shadows of Detroit’s endless night is a stroke of genius: It’s inhabited best by those most disengaged from it—by those impervious to the deep corporeal pain it causes.

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