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Detroit on Film & Visibility
C urtis Hanson’s new film 8 Mile deserves serious consideration, despite media hype swirling around top-billed Eminem. Its storyline follows the travails of Jimmy Smith, a.k.a. Bunny Rabbit, a working-class, “trailer trash” kid who seeks transcendence from the poor side of the dividing line (8 Mile) between the city limits of Detroit and its northern suburbs through composing and performing raps. At the center of the movie are battles staged in a downtown nightclub in which rival rap virtuosos—all African Americans except for Rabbit—play the dozens against each other, the winner anointed by onlookers, who cast their votes by making noise. The quasi-biopic provides a window on a hip-hop subculture seldom seen by mainstream viewers, shedding light on visibility politics in the United States, even if Caucasian rapper Eminem (his acrostic for Marshall Mathers) is the linchpin (let the homophonous historical resonances to that last word fall where they may). Shot in Detroit, the city becomes part of this visibility project, a geographic concern shared by a trio of documentary films (two about the music industry) also released in 2002.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown , based on the book by co-producer Alan Slutsky and directed by Paul Justman, reveals the driving force behind Barry Gordy’s celebrated music machine, a studio in a Detroit row house called Hitsville, USA, where dozens of number one songs (more than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys combined) were recorded during a 14-year period spanning the 1960s and 1970s. The mostly African American studio musicians behind these sounds called themselves the Funk Brothers, but no one knew their names or faces. Telling the Funk Brother’s story through personal interviews and recording sessions with surviving band members, the movie attempts to reverse this erasure. It also explores how, similar to factory workers who punch a clock for the Detroit auto industry, the band’s core musicians arrived dutifully at Hitsville, only to be laid off one day with no warning via a notice hung on the studio door. Gordy had summarily moved his base of operation to Los Angeles. Paying tribute to this labor history, Standing in the Shadows of Motown honors the contributions of “Ivory” Joe Hunter, Earl Van Dyke, and Popcorn Wylie (keyboards); Robert White, Eddie Willis, and Joe Messina (guitar); James Jamer- son and Clarence Isabell (bass); Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen, and George McGregor (drums); Jack Ashford and Eddie “Bongo” Brown (percussion), among other one-time band members.
Like Slutsky and Justman’s homage to Motown, MC5: A True Testimonial revives another Detroit 1960s-music scene by weaving surviving band member interviews with performance footage. Directed and co-produced by David C. Thomas, it provides an unvarnished look at where rock as sex, drugs, and debauchery leads. Best known for their anthem “Kick Out the Jams, Motherfucker,” MC5 were white rockers who came from backgrounds echoing Eminem’s. Rightfully pegged by Woodstock Times (New York) music critic Johanna Hall as the first punk band (predating the Sex Pistols by more than a decade), they also were a political ensemble. Instrumental in the founding of the White Panther Party as a show of allegiance to the Black Panthers, they were the only band to play at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention protest rally, the others bailing when rioting started.
As in 8 Mile , race, class, and above all geographic destiny play out in these two music-industry documentaries, with Detroit in the starring role. (Gender largely goes missing, which justifies my mention of deceased MC5 band member Fred Sonic Smith’s marriage to poet-singer activist Patti Smith.) Motown likewise makes a cameo appearance on all three counts in Michael Moore’s recent film Bowling for Columbine . But of all four films, Detroit is most conspicuously present in 8 Mile , where it evokes the theme of rehabilitation—of the city as well as of its disaffected or disenfranchised inhabitants. Cinematographer Rod- rigo Prieto’s opening shots announce this call for restoration, panning dilapidated buildings painted with colored dots, the “tags” of inner-city resident, native Detroiter, and artist Tyree Guyton.
Guyton, who composes with castaway objects and paint, gained international recognition with his Heidelberg Project, a dynamic, block-long “junk art” installation that calls attention to the blighted East Side of Detroit. Taking his message to neighboring territory, Guyton crafted the ongoing Polka- Dot Project, stamping colored circles on rundown surfaces across the greater urban cityscape. Despite honors and awards for his art, he has been ticketed for littering and he has seen four abandoned houses that he decorated be demolished by city government during former mayor Coleman Young’s reign. Underscoring Guyton’s offbeat visibility project and its detractors, in 8 Mile , the central cast burns down an abandoned building vigilante style. It’s the most dramatic scene in a film shrewdly lacking in sensationalism.
All progressives and social activists concerned with making the struggles and triumphs of our often excluded populous visible owe it to the unsung musicians and citizens of Detroit to get out and see Standing in the Shadows of Motown , MC5 , and (yes) 8 Mile .
A freelance writer and columnist for the Woodstock Times (New York), Pauline Uchmanowicz is an associate professor at the State University of New York, where she teaches writing, world poetry, and multiethnic literatures of the United States.
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