Detroit's Big Screen Image Problem

Michigan, the national leader in recession, depends on an auto industry that will never be as big as it was. So how does the Detroit area diversify? Who's hiring, or investing in something new? In the series Retooling Detroit, Morning Edition reports on the city's desperate race to replace the jobs that the automakers eliminate.

The governor of California showed up here in Detroit this week. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that this city "is going to be back."

That play on his famous movie line took no account of Detroit's future as envisioned by Hollywood.

The movie Robocop forecast a future Detroit in ruins. "Old Detroit has a cancer. That cancer is crime," says the head of the company that builds the title character.

We're going to give you a sampling of Detroit's portrayal in several movies.

The films have been going through our heads as we drive around town.

In the movie Airplane, Ted Stryker tells a story about an overseas bar.

"It was a rough place — the seediest dive on the wharf — populated with every reject and cut-throat from Bombay to Calcutta. It was worse than Detroit." — Ted Stryker (Robert Hays), Airplane

This city has an image problem, in film after film.

That's probably not what city fathers were hoping for when they made their own movies long ago. In the 1960s, the mayor himself narrated two movies. Detroit was bidding for the Olympics.

"Frequently called the most cosmopolitan city of the Midwest, Detroit today stands at the threshold of a bright new future — one rich with the promise of fulfillment." — Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh

The movies showed a gleaming modern city where people of all races got along.

Shortly afterward, scores of people were killed in a race-related riot. Thousands of Detroit's buildings burned. And the city never did sell the world on that upbeat vision of itself.

A harsher view came through in the 1978 movie Blue Collar. Richard Pryor stars as a discontented Detroit man, working in an auto plant.

"Everybody know what the plant is. The plant just short for plantation!" - Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor), Blue Collar

Pryor's fellow autoworkers include a young Yaphet Kotto, shafted by the company and his union.

"They pit the lifers against the new boys; the young against the old; the black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place." — Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto), Blue Collar

Questions of Detroit's race relations run through several films, even the comedy Grosse Point Blank. A local man returns home after 10 years away.

"Mrs. K.! Mrs. Kinetta it's Martin!" — Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack), Grosse Point Blank
"Martin? My God! It's you! You've been Detroit's most famous disappearing act since White Flight!" — Mrs. Kinetta (Belita Moreno), Grosse Point Blank

Grosse Point Blank is set in an overwhelmingly white suburb, all brick homes and perfect lawns.

Most of the movie 8 Mile takes place in an overwhelmingly black central city. The rapper Eminem rides a scummy bus, looking out the window at collapsing buildings. Left-behind people try to start up leftover old cars. They drive to a grand old movie palace that's been converted into a parking garage.

"Do you know how many abandoned buildings we have in Detroit? I mean, how are you supposed to take pride in your neighborhood with shit like that next door? And does the city tear 'em down? No, they're too busy building casinos and taking money from the people." – From 8 Mile

And yet it's in that wreckage that the movies sometimes find beauty and meaning.

Gran Torino stars Clint Eastwood as a retired autoworker in Detroit. He turns a gun on some of the Asian immigrants who moved into his run-down neighborhood.

"Get off my lawn. Did you hear me? I said get off my lawn now." — Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood),Gran Torino

The angry old man is slowly won over, as a fearless young immigrant offers him an education.

The original screenplay for Gran Torino set the story in Minneapolis. Eastwood moved it to Detroit instead. Partly it was for a tax break. Partly it was for symbolism. Minneapolis is a nice place to live; Detroit is an icon. Even its dead smokestacks and shabby homes suggest a rough American power.

Even beauty.

Maybe the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino shared that feeling, since the first screenplay that he sold was set in this city. True Romance featured the tale of gangsters, and a call girl whose words might sum up the mystery of Detroit:

"I had to come all the way from the highways and byways of Tallahassee, Florida, to motor city Detroit to find my true love. If you gave me a million years to ponder, I would never have guessed that true romance and Detroit would ever go together" — From True Romance

But this is a Tarantino movie, which means even love has a bumpy ride in Detroit.

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