Pity poor Detroit!
For the past few years, it seems that, whenever someone has wanted to make the argument that America is heading in the wrong direction, Detroit gets mentioned. The once thriving city and industrial center is now best known for high unemployment, high crime, and a declining population. After years of civic mismanagement, Detroit went bankrupt. Fairly or not, many people will always view Detroit as being the city that can’t afford to keep the lights on and where citizens can’t afford to pay their water bill. It doesn’t matter how many “Detroit is making a comeback!” commercials run during the Super Bowl.
I have to admit that, for someone like me who lives on the other end of the country, Detroit might as well be on another planet. (And that planet is called Michigan.) I have no way of knowing what Detroit was like before the media started to bombard me with stories about the city’s decline. And that’s one reason why I have to feel sorry for the city of Detroit. Anything positive about Detroit will never be reported but you can rest assured that anything negative will be recorded, reported, and repeated until everyone in the country can recite the details by memory.
If I’ve got Detroit on the mind, it’s because I recently watched a fairly memorable crime film from 1973 that was set and filmed in Detroit. It was a film that — long before Only Lovers Left Alive — attempted to use the city itself as a metaphor for the political issues and social concerns of the day. In fact, the city was such an important part of the film that the film itself was even named Detroit 9000.
(Reportedly, the film was originally meant to be set in Chicago but, when the Chicago political establishment objected to the film’s violence, production was relocated to Detroit, where apparently the script’s violence was not a problem.)
Detroit 9000 opens with a fundraiser for Congressman Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challeneger), who is running for governor of Michigan. A group of masked gunmen break into the hotel and rob the fundraiser. (While the guests are forced to kneel on the floor while being robbed, a woman stands on stage and sings a gospel song, which just adds to the surreal feel of the scene.) To investigate the case, the laid-back, casually corrupt Lt. Danny Basset (Alex Rocco) is partnered up with upright Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes). Because Clayton is the first black man to ever have a real chance to be elected governor and because everyone robbed at the fundraiser was black, Williams believes that there had to be a racial motivation behind the robbery. Danny, meanwhile, insists that it was just an ordinary robbery.
Detroit 9000 is a favorite film of Quentin Tarantino’s and, watching it, you can see why. From the soundtrack to the hard-edged dialogue to the morally ambiguous heroes, Detroit 9000 is a masterpiece of 1970s exploitation. The film ends with a genuinely exciting chase through the streets (and cemeteries) of Detroit that eventually gets so excessively violent that it takes on an oddly operatic beauty of its own.
And, in the underrated style of so many so-called grindhouse and exploitation films, Detroit 9000 has a lot more on its mind than most mainstream film. Even today, I think you’d have a hard time finding a big-budget, studio production that would be willing to take as honest a view of race relations as Detroit 9000 does. Beneath all of the exploitation trapping, there lies a film that was actually saying something about the way life was being lived in 1973 and which still has a lot to say about how life is being lived today in 2015.
And, much like Jim Jarmusch in Only Lovers Left Alive, director Arthur Marks finds a strange sort of life in Detroit’s abandoned buildings and dark alleys. As odd as it may seem, this cynical and violent film will actually make you love Detroit more than a hundred “Detroit is making a comeback!” super bowl commercials ever could.