With his new documentary DEFORCE, director Daniel Falconer tracks Detroit's transformation from a prosperous city to one filled with crime, drugs and poverty. Well-documented and uncompromising, DEFORCE does not shy away from pointing fingers at the bureaucrats responsible for leading the Motor City down such a dark path. Boxoffice recently caught up with Falconer to discuss this important piece of work.
What prompted you to make this film?
My co-producer Andrew Rodney and I, we each have an interest in social issues and quality of life problems facing urban centers. Particularly he does, in the sense that he does even more reading about it and is even more engaged than me. He came to me after reading several books about our region's history and said we need to make a movie about this. It's as simple as that.
When you grow up in the area you're aware that there's been, say, racial conflict and one inequity or another, but you don't really understand very clearly the extent to which those problems are really long standing, or even just how blatant some of them were in the past, and how the present that we're living in is definitely begat out of that old policy. So, we thought okay, we need to take a stab at it.
It's really horrifying to see everything from the mismanagement within the city council to the police force and the brutality. I think it's really important to show that because I think a lot of people don't realize how severe it was, and still is.
Exactly. I mean, that's why we thought there was a need for it, maybe. It's one thing to look at a city like Detroit, specifically, or of course every city has its specifically troubled, typically minority populated, but definitely endemically poor area. In Detroit it's most of the city, in other places it might be just Southside Chicago or just east St. Louis, but every city has that pocket where it's not safe to go to, and it can't just be a coincidence that they all happen to have it. It has to do with a lot of the same policies that pervaded the country at that time. Then you look at that, and it's been compounded generation after generation by local corruption, and I just think that a lot of times you just hear the story in a one-sided way.
In the film we see you interview individuals in one urban neighborhood, and they're sharing some pretty personal stuff with you. How were you able to make those connections with them and build a relationship for them to feel comfortable sharing?
They were actually quite willing. You have to have a native guide, who came in the form of Dr. Luke Bergmann, who you'll probably remember from the movie.
He wrote an extremely informative and valuable book called Getting Ghost, which chronicles two Detroiters. We contacted him, and he was the one who brokered that. He introduced me to the residents because he has been living among them for a long time and profiling them and there was a lot of trust there. So, I'm not sure if we had just rolled through without someone to introduce us that it would have gone so swimmingly. The interactions felt very natural, which was a pleasant surprise, but at the same time a painful reminder that these people are absolutely the victims of circumstance and not just people who have made poor decisions or something you'd like to believe so you can sleep comfortably. But, nope. They're just like me. We get along really well. They're not skeptical of me or wondering why I'm putting a camera in their face. They're happy to share their stories. Not that it's pleasant to talk about anything really sad, like a friend who died, but, I think for them it was just nice to know that anyone from the outside cared, and we would just let the camera roll and they could talk as they wanted, and then later I could go do my thing with it, as opposed to rapid fire questions or anything like that. So yeah, the lines of communication were very open. The days we were shooting in those neighborhoods I was really blown away at how readily we could make each other laugh and relate like we had grown up in similar areas.
You can see it in the film, that they feel very comfortable. I'd imagine that they probably want their stories to be shared and want their stories to be out there because they probably don't have that opportunity.
Exactly. Few of us do actually have the opportunity to feel like we're actually being listened to, especially not when you're somewhere that you're just more likely to go to jail than college.
How do you see what has happened in Detroit as a reflection of America at large?
I think it's really critical. As we are trying to promote the film we're trying to promote that message. That yes, of course it's Detroit specific, but these conditions exist everywhere. Detroit is perhaps the most herculean example due to its specific case and the fact that its highs were so very high; the fall has been most pronounced.
I think that it's reflective in a few ways. One, particularly in the North [United States] where the Civil Rights struggle was less obvious and the lingering effects—what was essentially called Jim Crow law—were not called such, and was done more subtly than in the South. You had riots as we see in the movie in over 100 cities in about a three year span. Very few of them were the size of Detroit and don't get remembered for that reason, but there was clearly a real dilemma of racial trust at the period. And I think that what's happened ever since has been—well, there are a few things. I mean, one, those laws remained on the books. And you look at inner cities, and you look at areas, especially poor black areas and say, you know, why don't they even just clean in front of their houses, and stuff. Well, when at a certain time the bank wouldn't let you own your home because of the color of your skin, it's just like any renter. Why do I care? It's easy from the outside to look and just see a cultural difference, like, oh, they don't care about their property. It's not their property. The bank wouldn't let them buy it. It's actually written in the city charter. You can't sell the deed of your house to a black person. It's that straightforward. That was going on everywhere, not just in Detroit.
The other thing is, if you look at state policy as far as drug enforcement goes—and it's especially over the top in Michigan—but a lot of other states have viewed drug policy as the newest branch of Jim Crow. There's no denying that you warehouse an awful lot of black males in particular. When you've got a federal mandatory minimum set that says X number of grams of crack needs ten years, period. We will not discuss this kid's circumstance, whether or not he's got a starving grandmother and this guy he trusted in his community who said hey kid, just take this pack around the corner and I'll give you ten grand, or something. We're not going to discuss any of those circumstances, just an automatic ten year sentence. That kind of thing has a really deleterious effect on communities. For all the problems that we talk about with the urban family unit, it doesn't help when most of the gainful employment to be had is found in the illegal economy and then the sentences are so severe. What you have in a lot of cases are not necessarily evil or lawless people, but rather, ambitious people with no other options.
So, those are circumstances I see everywhere else in the country, not just in Detroit. I think the city has always been a bellwether. Of all the aging rustbelt cities we were the one that was the most glamorous in the heyday, and we're seeing the greatest, most entrenched problems now. Some places have been able to respond fairly well and adjust, and other places haven't, and some I think have yet to hit bottom. They would do well to look to Detroit and at least see whatever they do have in common and try to avoid some of the same pitfalls because I think we've been leading the trend in decline as well.
For people outside of the region, it's definitely applicable to their own city. Maybe not the entire thing, but certainly large portions of it will have a lot to do with a similar disconnect they may have. Or with just explaining why in their otherwise nice area there's this pocket of third world conditions where you dare not go for your own safety, and yet, we've got American citizens living there and it's embarrassing to this country.
You mention the suburbs. Is there something that people living in the suburbs can do?
If you want to talk about really near term impact that can only come from volunteering and that kind of hands-on work. At least in the case of Detroit, the problems are of such longstanding at this point and have just been compounded again and again. If you want to talk about systemic changes, that's going to take a long time. How I see that happening, apart from just hoping for a slightly higher level of civic engagement across the board among all citizens, I would just say that, where I see our movie as genuinely hopeful for all that it's time spent on a quite unpleasant subject matter, it is revealing that a situation like Detroit is largely the result of policy. When you become aware of that and the fact that it was done that way, maybe not in a calculated sense, but policymakers were motivated by wants that had no connection to the citizens that would be affected by them. And you see that at the federal level first with the housing and then with the drug war.
Say we lived in the suburbs, if you or I wanted to get our hands on cocaine or heroin, we could. I wouldn't know someone to call right away, but I know a couple people I could ask, and eventually I'd get it. Meanwhile, I don't have to face any of the violence that's responsible for getting those illegal drugs to me. That's all neatly contained to the city center, typically minority areas. So, the random little girl who gets killed playing jump rope—that never happens in my neighborhood, even though I can still get the drugs. That kind of thing doesn't just happen on its own. It's the result of policy. No one sat down and said we're going to have our drug zones here. But apparently law enforcement is able to draw a line. They just will not tolerate them in suburbs. Why they can't obliterate it in the cities, I'm not sure, other than that there's so much money on the table that they're out gunned in a lot of cases, is what I hear from the police.
I would point suburbanites to Neil Franklin, in the movie. This man has a healthy fear and respect for the awesome power of drugs to destroy lives and families. He's not saying people need to run out and use drugs, but he supports legalization. He's much like a Vietnam Vet who's returned home and is willing to look the government in the eye and say, look, we can't win this war. The alternative of just not fighting it is better, even if there are downsides to that. I don't think everyone necessarily needs to take the same stance that I take on that particular issue, but what they could do to feel as though they're addressing the problem is to be civically engaged and to bring it back to what I was saying about policy. I think that knowing how you got to where you're at can at least give you some sense of an exit strategy, and maybe galvanizes us, the current caretakers of our society, to just not let that kind of stuff happen on our watch.
Since the making of this film have there been improvements with the local government of Detroit or within the police department?
Well, yes and no. I think that Mayor Bing is pretty ambitious in terms of wanting to "right side" the city, as you would call it. He's got an initiative called Detroit Works that's about relocating people off of some of those really sparsely populated patches of land, and making some of the more viable areas more densely populated while letting other areas go. "Go" as in you leave them in some way and the city can have revenue from it again as opposed to taking a loss and trying to light them and get sewage out there and garbage collections, and maybe there's just one or two people living on a block. He's also generally friendlier towards business and has helped people think okay, we can relocate there.
Police wise, I mean, to mean it's like whether the faces or names change the song does remain the same. It's just that, so much of the job, the bureaucratic tops, the police chief and all, are pretty much a politician, is just damage control. The city's reputation is awful. They're one of those places where—and a lot cities are like this because their resources are stretched so thin—they do so much more just logging of crime than preventing of it. And that's just disheartening regardless of where you think their mentality is or how sincere you think a person may seem. I think that ultimately, a city like Detroit, which facing even just cash issues, has to have some external help financially. As a region, that is to say Southeast Michigan, we really need to see it as a regional problem. Those of us living in the suburbs, we may be able to go about our typical week without having to go to Detroit for groceries or shopping or whatever. But what is this place without a viable city?
The enormous wealth of human capital is just being wasted. There's a real "get stuff done" attitude among Detroiters and the region. And we've seen a lot of talent come out of the region. I'd say a preponderance of it for sure. We've got plenty of people that are on the national and international radar. Well, what about all the ones that we're just confining to a life in prison right now? Who knows what kind of talent we're ignoring.
What hopeful outcomes do you see for the future of Detroit?
Without question certain pockets of the city are being made ever more viable. There are a lot of really engaged people here in the region. Maybe more than in a lot of areas, that's kind of trendy. It's truly cool to care about the city. There have been plenty of people who, despite the pronounced disadvantage they're born into, they've managed to achieve really high marks in art, or whatever their pursuit is. I think those people doing things and then bringing the wealth back with them will help. I think that people from the community, the surrounding region and the city remaining highly engaged as we are right now, when we're a national and international story. There seems to be this sense that we've just had enough of the decline. Whether or not we can make things how we want them to be in the near term, or that it is going to take a very long time, we're at least going to stop digging the hole. If you want to talk about hope that it will ever get to be, say with a low crime rate where kids born there have as much opportunity as anyone else, to get to that point, it's difficult to be hopeful. Silly amounts of money would have to be involved. I think it can happen long term, though. I think we've got be measured and realistic in setting our expectations, so we don't get discouraged when it doesn't happen too quickly.