Nothing about the COVID-19 crisis has been good or fun. But all of this free time inside has to be spent somehow, so why not go a little deeper on pop culture acumen regarding Detroit and Michigan? Go beyond the obvious — Eminem’s perfect film 8 Mile, Charlie LeDuff’s superb history Detroit: An American Autopsy, Michael Moore’s seminal doc Roger & Me — with this selection of important and/or weird movies, TV shows, and books.
The sequels got sillier and sillier, but in our current era of fiction about sentient-ish machines in Ex Machina and Westworld, it’s fun to go back to one of the originals. Set in a future dystopian Detroit, this 1987 thriller is still a terrific, thought-provoking trip, especially in the age of social distancing, when human-to-human policing is fraught with the potential spread of disease. Is it that hard right now to imagine an argument for robotic law enforcement?
As historical trips back to the height of Detroit’s Motown era go, you could do far worse than to spend a couple of hours with American Idol winner Jordin Sparks as an aspiring singer who ends up being grouped with her sisters in a 1960s band. The story is a bit clichéd, but the music is solid and the depiction of that era of Detroit is shiny and uplifting. At the time Sparkle came out in 2012, it was overshadowed by the uncomfortable parallels between Whitney Houston’s drug-addled matriarch character and her actual recent drug-overdose death, but with distance, it’s just nice to see Whitney again.
Grosse Pointe Blank
Theoretically, this 1997 film could have been set in any suburb in America, and it probably only ended up in Grosse Pointe to make the title pun work. Nonetheless, it remains a gas of a hitman-trying-to-be-normal caper — John Cusack’s mobster sees a shrink years before Tony Soprano does! — with a cast of greats that also includes Minnie Driver, Alan Arkin, and Barbara Harris, plus three other Cusack siblings. Sadly, the city of Grosse Pointe Farms refused to allow the film to shoot there, so all we get is a brief aerial glimpse.
Out of Sight
Based on the novel by Michigan’s own late, great Elmore Leonard, this is the 1998 film that showed us that both George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez really could act and that Steven Soderbergh had more in him than indie weirdness and kink. The twisted romance between Clooney’s bank robber character and J.Lo’s federal agent as the plot moves from Miami to Bloomfield Hills and Detroit offers blistering chemistry, and the on-location shooting of scenes at the Renaissance Center and what’s now The Fillmore provides authenticity.
OK, this one might be somewhat obvious, but this is exactly the right time to consume the mere 20 22-minute episodes of this gone-too-soon Comedy Central show for free (with a cable subscription) via the channel’s app. Sam Richardson, who brought a level of sweet cluelessness to HBO’s Veep that was refreshing amid all that snark and darkness, has an advertising agency in Detroit with his best friend, ex-SNLer Tim Robinson. Both stars are native Michiganders, and the show was shot here, so it was a particular bummer when CC canceled it in 2018. Still, we’ll always have Jason Sudeikis as a Detroit Pistons star who thinks he’s an actor after appearing in a crappy local ad.
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
If you missed the hype around this debut novel when it was named a 2015 Notable Book by The New York Times and a National Book Award finalist, now’s the time to breeze through this 341-page tale of a large African-American family coping during the auto-industry collapse of the Aughts. The plot involves an ailing matriarch who has moved out of the heavily leveraged family home, but it’s the telling of the story from her and her husband’s Great Migration move from the South through the 1967 uprising that humanizes and deepens our understanding of the city’s complex history.
Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau
In 89 taut pages of dialogue — the equivalent of bingeing a book! — Morisseau tells a visceral story about Detroit auto-factory employees anxious about the likelihood of their plant closing. The sentiments aren’t new, of course, but Morisseau, a 2018 MacArthur genius grant recipient, is as singular a playwright talent as either Detroit or the University of Michigan has ever produced. Skeleton Crew is the third in a trilogy of Detroit-set plays, all of which have been staged in New York to rave reviews.
Things Invisible to See by Nancy Willard
Think Cain and Abel but set in Ann Arbor during and around World War II and involving a baseball-related original sin and some bargaining with a malevolent supernatural force. Willard’s 1984 debut novel is lyrical and magical, and it was rescued from obscurity by novelist Leah Hager Cohen recommending it in a 2014 Q&A in The New York Times Book Review. It’s nice to think that Willard, a lifelong Ann Arbor resident better known as a poet and a Newbery Medal-winning children’s author who died in 2017, lived to see this rediscovery.