SLC Filmaker Finds Detroit as a Hopeful Oasis

Selective Echo

It’s a war of little battles. The residents fight by lighting their yards, videotaping drug deals, harassing scrappers and chasing off thieves.

Their enemy attacks in shocking ways. Like taking over the homes of bedridden old people. Like recruiting kids as dope-house spotters and runners. Like killing people’s dogs.’ – Detroitblogger John, Metro Times, 2010

In a masterful 2005 book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Thomas Sugrue sets out to explore in detail the causes of urban blight, crime, and inequality in a city that began its decline almost immediately after the end of World War II.

“The physical state of African American neighborhoods and white neighborhoods in Detroit reinforced perceptions of race. The completeness of racial segregation made ghettoization seem an inevitable, natural consequence of profound racial differences. … To the majority of untutored white observers, visible poverty, overcrowding, and deteriorating houses were signs of individual moral deficiencies, not manifestations of structural inequalities. White perceptions of black neighborhoods provided seemingly irrefutable confirmation of African American inferiority and set the terms of debates over the inclusion of African Americans in the city’s housing and labor markets.”

While Sugrue advises that to see Detroit as typical would be misleading, he concludes that the “differences between Detroit and other [cities] are largely a matter of degree, not a matter of kind.” Furthermore, he only touches upon the stories of residents in some of the most embattled and seriously affected neighborhoods. Sugrue’s important work lays out the larger institutional and social structures that forever have been at the heart of this long, stubborn decline.

Enter Andrew James, a Salt Lake City independent documentary filmmaker with solid ties to Michigan, who is directing a feature-length documentary about the residents in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood that lies along the Detroit River, defined by the dramatic juxtaposition of well-kept streets and homes with abandoned property sites that are precarious markers of encroaching urban blight.

It might seem immediately tempting to capture the dystopia side of Detroit in the style of “RoboCop,” “The Omega Man,” or other post-apocalyptic films. However, in “Street Fighting Man,” James embraces the fresh potential impact of the contemporary documentary genre to augment the work of scholars and journalists and use emotion powerfully, purposefully, and persuasively to tell the story of James Jackson, a retired Detroit police officer, – a/k/a Jack Rabbit – and other residents who are fiercely determined to guarantee their neighborhood will not collapse and become another footnote in the story of America’s urban decline.

The film’s title is taken from Detroitblogger Joe’s article in the Metro Times noted above. As James explains, “Jackson’s neighborhood is sort of an island oasis in an urban desert and the residents there are being threatened by an influx of drugs, gang activity, and violence.”

And, like many entrepreneurial independent documentary filmmakers, James has turned to Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform, to raise $6,500 by Sept. 4 so he can make a second trip to the Detroit neighborhood and get enough footage for a 15-minute preview of the film. It eventually will run 90 minutes in its final form when it is completed by late 2011 or early 2012.

Those wishing to donate can pledge any amount. Depending upon the amount pledged, benefactors can gain a wide variety of benefits ranging from autographed DVD copies of the finished documentary to film credit acknowledgments as associate producer and to co-producer or executive producer credits along with other amenities. The film is produced by Katie Tibaldi and Michael Van Orden.

Rather than focus on the customary images of Detroit’s urban blight that viewers and readers of news would see or journalists would forage for striking newsworthy events, James seeks to pare the facts and zero in on the details of the daily grassroots struggles and the ‘little battles’, that often are fought at night. As he explains, “Our goal is for none of the subjects in the film to break the fourth wall. We are less interested in exploring why Detroit is suffering and more interested in showing the daily struggles of every day residents.”

In James’ documentary, the focus is on the conversations at meetings of neighborhood homeowners and business owners as well as the activities of residents who do not shy away from confronting and videotaping criminals on the streets in the area, banding together to mow overgrown lots, and planting new gardens in previously blighted areas. “In many ways, they put community action in Utah to shame,” he explains.

James is part of a growing number of independent creative artists who contribute significantly to Salt Lake City’s growing reputation for making films where emotions and themes form and flow into a provocative energizing discourse and ask viewers to suspend judgment, prejudice and political partisanship as they participate in the conversation and find voice for their own grassroots motivations. More recently, James co-directed “Cleanflix,” a documentary about the sanitized film movement in Utah, with Joshua Ligairi. The film has enjoyed a healthy presence on the juried festival circuit including the Toronto International Film Festival, Michael Moore’s invite-only Traverse City Film Festival and Thom Powers’ Stranger Than Fiction film series at the IFC Center in NYC. In 2008, “Una Vida Mejor,” a small fiction film he wrote and directed about the lives of southern California migrant workers, won the Cinequest special jury prize for artistic vision.


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