Racism, politics ravaged once-mighty industrial metropolis
It was once seen as the U.S.’s “most important city in the 20th century” and was America’s most industrialized, modernized city that became a jobs magnet for Southern Blacks and other ethnic groups.
This is Detroit, a city that at one time boasted a population of nearly two million people but now has dwindled to six figures, where vacant lots and abandoned properties seem to outnumber residents
Over the years, Michigan’s largest city has been ravaged by political decisions that created the “extreme racial isolation that you see in the city” as the result of “man-made policies,” says director Daniel Falconer, who co-wrote and co-produced with Andrew Rodney Deforce, a new documentary on Detroit. Both men, former high school classmates born and raised in the Detroit area, successfully chronicle their city’s past and present in the nearly 90-minute film.
Falconer and Rodney both recently talked to the MSR about Deforce, which means “to take away or to hold property from its rightful owner by force,” in separate phone interviews. The film has been shown and lauded at several film festivals since its release last year.
“Some of what we discovered [in making the film] was what we expected to find, but a whole lot of it was stuff that blew our minds,” explains Falconer, who studied film at New York University.
Deforce also features testimonies from local experts, historians and longtime residents:
What brought people to Detroit, namely automobile factory jobs “have gone away forever,” says Judith Jackson, president and CEO of YouthVille Detroit.
University of Michigan professor emeritus Reynolds Farley points out that “racial segregation was the rule” in Detroit as far back as 1946, and continued into the 1970s. He explained how “redlining” was first introduced there by the Federal Home Loan Board, which awarded or denied home loans and new home construction loans strictly by race. This led to White flight out of the city and created a housing boom in the suburbs.
“By federal policy…many of the suburbs became White enclaves,” says Rev. Kevin Turner, a pastor of a Detroit Baptist church since 1988.
Detroit became “clearly divided by race” and “a master plan…to take [White] people out of Detroit” was unveiled in the mid-1940s, noted historian Mike Smith. The later assertion that Detroit was a “model city” at the start of the 1960s was literally blown up by the 1967 riots, which many claim was the result of a nearly all-White police department and Blacks being left out of city policymaking among other factors.
Smith added, “Detroit wasn’t a model city after all.”
City White homeowners were prohibited from selling to Blacks, discovered Falconer. “I didn’t necessarily expect to find the severity of some of the laws that were on the books, and the overt racism of it,” he admits.
Detroit today is over 82 percent Black — Michigan’s total Black population is only 14 percent — and the city’s poverty rate is about 35 percent, according to the 2010 Census.
When asked why people who don’t live in Detroit should care about it, both Falconer and Rodney note that Detroit is emblematic of many U.S. urban areas today. “It is really important that Minnesotans or whosoever [sees their film] that circumstances are very similar in all urban centers across the country,” surmises the director.
Although Detroit’s record number of homicides is well documented — the film says that the city had five times the number of murders as people who died in the civil war in Northern Ireland during the same period — Rodney points out that the negative publicity “wasn’t being true to people [who live in Detroit]; all they have are headlines and no context. I think a lot of people know that the city has a lot of violence, but when you really look at what that means on a human level, that continues to shock me.”
Queen, a Black woman who saw three of her brothers violently killed, said in the film, “I can’t say the neighborhood was the cause” of their deaths, but she wants to see the area improve for her and others.
“I think it is important for people to understand that every major city has [problems],” says Falconer. “They just happened to be in Detroit on a grander scale. The film just shows how that happened in Detroit, and there is a reason why it is bad here.”
“I think the film is very well done,” says ARISE Detroit Executive Director Luther Keith, a native Detroiter and former award-winning editor and columnist for the Detroit News. His broad-based coalition of community groups that focuses on volunteerism to address many of the city’s problems recently showed Deforce at a “Neighborhood Day” event in March. “They did a really good job showing historical context — it showed some very painful things to look at [on] how Detroit got into its [present] condition.”
Despite the fact that Deforce shows a not-so-rosy historical past and present, the film also shows that “the people of Detroit are incredibly impressive. It’s not just a lot of blighted houses or about murders,” says Falconer.
“This story needs to be told,” concludes Rodney.
For more information on Deforce, go to www.deforcemovie.com.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-re corder.com.