Detroit's Big Screen Image Problem Steve Inskeep prepared for his trip to Detroit by watching movies that riff on the city, such as: Gran Torino, 8 Mile, Gross Pointe Blank, and Airplane.
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Detroit's Big Screen Image Problem

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Detroit's Big Screen Image Problem

Detroit's Big Screen Image Problem

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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 once envisioned by Hollywood. The movie "Robocop" forecast a future Detroit in ruins.

(Soundbite of the movie "Robocop")

Mr. DAN O'HERLIHY (Actor): (as The Old Man) Old Detroit has a cancer; the cancer is crime.

INSKEEP: 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.

(Soundbite of movie, "Airplane")

Mr. ROBERT HAYS (Actor): (as Ted Stryker) It was a rough place, the seediest dive on the wharf, populated with every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta. It was worse than Detroit.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This city has an image problem in film after film, which is probably not what the city fathers were hoping for when they made their own movies long ago.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: In the 1960s, the mayor himself narrated two movies. Detroit was bidding for the Olympics.

Mayor JEROME CAVANAUGH (Detroit): 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.

INSKEEP: 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.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm A Man")

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

(Soundbite of movie, "Blue Collar")

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR (Actor): (as Zeke Brown) Everybody know what the plant is, the plant just short for plantation.

INSKEEP: Pryor's fellow autoworkers including young Yaphet Kotto, shafted by the company and by his union.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blue Collar")

Mr. YAPHET KOTTO (Actor): (as Smokey James) 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.

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

(Soundbite of movie, "Grosse Point Blank")

Mr. JOHN CUSACK (Actor): (as Martin Q. Blank) Mrs. Kinetta, it's Martin.

Ms. BELITA MORENO (Actor): (as Ms. Kinetta) Martin? My God, you have been Detroit's most famous disappearing act since white flight.

INSKEEP: "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.

(Soundbite of movie, "8 Mile")

EMINEM (Actor, Rapper): (as Jimmy B-Rabbit Smith) Do you know how many abandoned buildings we have in Detroit? I mean, how are you supposed to take pride in your neighborhood with that next door? And does the city tear them down? No, they're too busy building casinos and taking money from the people.

INSKEEP: And yet it's in Detroit's wreckage that the movies sometimes find beauty and meaning. The movie "Gran Torino" stars Clint Eastwood as a retired autoworker in Detroit. He turns a gun on some of the Asian immigrants who've moved into his run-down neighborhood.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gran Torino")

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD (Actor): (as Walt Kowalski) Get off my lawn. Did you hear me? I said get off my lawn now.

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

(Soundbite of movie, "Gran Torino")

Mr. EASTWOOD: (as Walt Kowalski) …should be hanging out with your own people, the other Hmongs.

Ms. Ahney Her (Actor): (as Sue Lor) You mean Hmong? Hmong, not Hmong.

Mr. EASTWOOD (Actor): (as Walt Kowalski) Where the hell is Hmong - I mean Hmong, anyway?

Ms. Her: (as Sue Lor) No, Hmong isn't a place; it's a people.

INSKEEP: The original screenplay for "Gran Torino" set the story in Minneapolis. But Clint Eastwood moved it to Detroit instead. Partly that was for a tax break. Partly it was for symbolism. Minneapolis is a nice place to live, but 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.

(Soundbite of movie, "True Romance")

Ms. PATRICIA ARQUETTE (Actor): (as Alabama Whitman) 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.

INSKEEP: This young woman has adopted Detroit, and you can see that city as reflected in the movies at

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