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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7. Roger & Me
Year: 1989
Director Michael Moore

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Self-aggrandizing provocateur and proud Michigander Michael Moore made a name for himself with this doc, in which he tours his hometown of Flint in the wake of GM’s closure of local automobile factories. As the company outsources labor to Mexico, crippling Flint’s workforce, infrastructure and collective psyche, Moore totes his camera around in search of then CEO and president Roger B. Smith to get answers and, you know, be Michael doing Michael. He poses as a TV reporter to get the word on the (crime-ridden) streets, and then a shareholder to crash a GM convention. His lens encounters a who’s who of visiting conservative personalities (Pat Boone, televangelist Robert Schuller, Ronald Reagan), along with outraged blue collar citizens. It’s a pointed (if highly manipulative) commentary on class and capitalism—and gonzo demagogue Moore at his most tolerable. —Amanda Schurr


6. Out of Sight
Year: 1998
Director: Steven Soderbergh 

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As through Jim Jarmusch’s eyes in Only Lovers Left Alive, Detroit via Steven Soderbergh is a metropolis equal parts romance and history, both a place where people can escape their typical lives for a time and a place that people want to escape to leave behind the suffocating weight of centuries of human industry. Though he photographs the city in the cobalt blues of cold temperatures and the biting grays of colorless winter, Soderbergh seems to revel in the weird sprawl of Metro Detroit, fascinated by how the violence of boxing matches at the State Theater can so quickly—as if it were only a matter of changing a green screen—lapse into the wealthy compounds of Bloomfield Hills or the crystalline hotel rooms of the Renaissance Center, where you can eat a $25 burger listening to gun shots in the street below. Out of Sight is by far the best Elmore Leonard adaptation, the only one to truly embrace Leonard’s hometown as a place far more magical—far more dangerous and upsetting and beautiful and enchanting—than any director has ever admitted before.


5. Blue Collar
Year: 1978
Director Paul Schrader

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Much like Detroit, Paul Schrader’s had a pretty rough past couple of years. The native Michigander can’t seem to get a good movie made to save his life anymore, still stinging from the weird debacle of The Canyons and getting the final cut of The Dying of the Light ripped from his hands—but back in 1978, Schrader was a wunderkind. Having written genre-defining scripts for Sydney Pollack, Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese, he was given the chance to direct Blue Collar, which he wrote with his brother Leonard. A dour and pessimistic film about three friends (Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor) who work the assembly line in a major Detroit auto plant, battling poverty as much as they tussle with corruption in both their management and auto workers’ union, Blue Collar is as notable for Pryor’s swaggeringly melancholic performance as it is for behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Filming in Kalamazoo and throughout the Detroit area—at the Checker plant; on the bridge to Belle Isle; at the Ford River Rouge plant—the three leads and director could barely stand each other, eventually leading, Schrader claimed, to a mental breakdown in the midst of principal photography. (It’s been said, too, that a drug-fueled, gun-toting Pryor threatened Schrader one day on set.) Though Schrader’s time filming with such volatile actors set the tenor for his career to come, Blue Collar is an often overlooked treasure of grit and tension, plying the racial and socio-economic issues of a waning late-’70s Detroit to figure out just how broken the City was. Thirty years later, and not much has been fixed.


4. It Follows
Year: 2015
Director David Robert Mitchell

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The specter of Old Detroit haunts It Follows. In a dilapidating ice cream stand on 12 Mile, in the ’60s-style ranch homes of Ferndale or Berkley, in a game of Parcheesi played by pale teenagers with nasally, nothing accents—if you’ve never been, you’d never recognize the stale, gray nostalgia creeping into every corner of David Robert Mitchell’s terrifying film, but it’s there, and it feels like Metro Detroit.

In fact, only tangentially in It Follows is Detroit named; the closest our characters come to describing the urban sprawl of the Great Lakes State is in the ubiquitous claim of one teenager (Olivia Luccardi) that her parents never let her go past 8 Mile, lest she find her ruin amidst the detritus of urban decay. It’s a story every teenager who grew up in SE Michigan has told: how, in the late ’90s, the suburbs of Detroit (Oakland County in particular) contained some of the richest families in the country—rife with big car money—yet they lived only streets away from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. You want to see Rilo Kiley at the Shelter? You best lie to your parents about where you’re spending your evening and prepare for one of your friends to cower in the backseat of your Aerostar minivan, mumbling about the danger upon which you are all about to embark. Which isn’t necessarily unique to Michigan’s largest city, that kind of closeness of different economic situations. But it’s the starkness of its disparity that seems almost macabre—and so kind of perfect for Mitchell’s beautifully sad horror flick.


3. The Virgin Suicides
Year: 1999
Director Sofia Coppola

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Set in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe (see #11), The Virgin Suicides is yet another Detroit-area, ’70s-era film obsessed with death. That its quintet of young protagonists—sisters played to unnervingly angelic perfection by Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, Hanna Hall, Leslie Hayman and Chelse Swain—all commit suicide in the end is far from a surprise, of course: What is a surprise is that we never know why.

In fact, the film is almost an oneiric procedural, in which the neighborhood boys who become infatuated with the strange daughters pick apart, piece by piece, detail by detail, the befuddling lives behind the objects of their affection. As such, The Virgin Suicides gracefully attempts to remember what it’s like to be a suburban teenager, comfortable in Middle America but uncomfortable with one’s body. Yet, the brilliance of Sofia Coppola’s direction (on even her first film) is in the way she laces such a seemingly innocent story with malice and melancholy, fixating on details that don’t matter or moments that have no consequence. That the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) refers throughout to the decaying of the auto industry in Detroit makes the film as much a ghost story about Southwest Michigan as it is a tale of unrequited love: Try as hard as we might, we’ll probably never be able to trace the tragedy of Detroit back to its source.


2. Anatomy of a Murder
Year: 1959
Director Otto Preminger

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The rigor of Anatomy of a Murder is its most poignant strength, celebrated upon its release for its meticulous dramatization of a particularly difficult case, awash from beginning to end in sweat-stained, legal grayscale. But what drives the heart of the film—a measured masterpiece that, like so many features before its time, found insulting controversy over its “language”—is its setting, snug and warmly secluded in the non-descript middle of nowhere of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There, lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart), well on his way to early retirement after losing his District Attorney re-election bid, takes the case of Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) on behalf of the lieutenant’s oddball, flirty wife Laura (Lee Remick). Lt. Manion admits to having killed a local innkeeper after finding out the proprietor raped his wife, looking for Biegler’s help in successfully entering a plea of temporary insanity. The case, what with all its complexity, draws the attention of a high-profile prosecutor from Lansing (Michigan’s comparatively “big city” capital), played with pristine uppity-ness by George C. Scott. Biegler effortlessly matches wits with his metropolitan peers, spinning a yarn as old as time about the price his opponents must pay for such class-based arrogance, but Anatomy of a Murder is surprisingly subversive in its depiction of such supposed UP yokels, offering a cast of deeply felt characters who act more compassionately to an alleged victim of sexual assault than most FOX News commenters would 60 years later.


1. Robocop
Year: 1987
Director Paul Verhoeven

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As many of the films on this list will attest, throughout the late-’70s and indulgent 1980s, “industry” went pejorative and Corporate America bleached white all but the most functional of blue collars. Broadly speaking, of course: manufacturing was booming, but the homegrown “Big Three” automobile companies in Detroit—facing astronomical gas prices via the growth of OPEC, as well as increasing foreign competition and the decentralization of their labor force—resorted to drastic cost-cutting measures, investing in automation (which of course put thousands of people out of work, closing a number of plants) and moving facilities to “low-wage” countries (further decimating all hope for a secure assembly line job in the area). The impact of such a massive tectonic shift in the very foundation of the auto industry pushed aftershocks felt, of course, throughout the Rust Belt and the Midwest—but for Detroit, whose essence seemed composed almost wholly of exhaust fumes, the change left the city in an ever-present state of decay.

And so, though it was filmed in Pittsburgh and around Texas, Detroit is the only logical city for a Robocop to inhabit. A practically peerless, putrid, brash concoction of social consciousness, ultra-violence and existential curiosity, Paul Verhoeven’s first Hollywood feature made its tenor clear: A new industrial revolution must take place not within the ranks of the unions or inside board rooms, but within the self. By 1987, much of the city was already in complete disarray, the closing of Michigan Central Station—and the admission that Detroit was no longer a vital hub of commerce—barely a year away, but its role as poster child for the Downfall of Western Civilization had yet to gain any real traction. Verhoeven screamed this notion alive: He made Detroit’s decay tactile, visceral and immeasurably loud, limning it in ideas about the limits of human identity and the hilarity of consumer culture. As Verhoeven passed a Christ-like cyborg—a true melding of man and savior—through the crumbling post-apocalyptic fringes of a part of the world that once held so much prosperity and hope, he wasn’t pointing to the hellscape of future Detroit as the battlefield over which the working class will fight against the greedy 1%, but instead to Robocop, to Murphy, as the battlefield unto himself. How can any of us save a place like Detroit? In Robocop, it’s a deeply personal matter.


Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop . You can follow him on Twitter.

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