TV news vans regularly circled the block in Al Profit’s neighborhood in the 1990s, casting an ominous shadow over a once-vibrant community. A 10-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting. An infant was found stuffed in a trash bag. Chrysler Corp. was moving its world headquarters to the suburbs. There were kidnappings. “Life is a movie in Detroit,” the young filmmaker says now in his matter-of-fact tone.
For Detroiters like the 31-year-old Profit, the crime and other bad news were not a distant fear projected on TV screens, but a constant reality of inner-city life. “To be from Detroit is to be inextricably linked with crime,” he says.
He witnessed and was the victim of several violent crimes, and though he won’t reveal details - “it’s still difficult to talk about” - he says he continues to feels the impact today.
“It’s a strong emotional connection for me. No one has any right to talk about it who didn’t experience it. I’ll say whatever I want to, because I experienced it.”
Now the Detroiter is saying what he wants to, and on the other side of the cameras that once roamed his neighborhood. His independently produced documentary, “Murder City,” traces the history of crime in Detroit from the Prohibition-era Purple Gang to more recent drug- and gang-fueled activity. Available on DVD for just a few weeks, and without the benefit of much promotion, it has already struck a nerve with its edgy, streetwise look at the city’s vexing relationship with violence.
Profit, whose given name is Alan Bradley, began to work on “Murder City” last September.
He edited hours of stock footage and interviews, did the voiceover and funded the project himself. He wanted to make a film that was part crime story and also a strong statement about the nature of Detroit’s violent reputation over the past century.
While he still hopes to get the DVD in chain stores, it has fared well at local businesses and through Amazon.com, he says. (The online retailer would not divulge sales figures.)
“Murder City” has the flavor of a pulp-novel crime story buoyed by gritty folklore of the Teamsters, John DeLorean and the Purple Gang and hardened, chaotic memories of recent times - angry crime victims, foul-mouthed former gang members and remorseful residents reflecting on gangs like the Young Boys Inc., who were involved in the heroin trade in the late `70s and early `80s.
“I tried to make a different version of the standard crime story,” Profit says. “Instead of talking to the gangsters, you talk to the real people.”
Profit’s academic background influenced the perspective he brought to the film. A Cass Technical High School graduate, he has directed music videos for local rap artists, but also holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in economics from Wayne State University, where he was able to combine his interest in Detroit history with the study of statistics. “I had a lot of unique knowledge combined with being a lifelong Detroiter, knowing a lot of people and knowing the shadow that violence casts over everybody that lives here.”
But Profit did not want to make an academic film, and he used his inner-city connections to capture different voices. “You take people who are the interview subjects, and you explore their own lives and personal experiences ... which allows the viewer to come to his own understanding, instead of having a professor or a politician - because those informational sources are often very compromised.”
Many of his subjects have dark pasts. “They start off as regular people, because they are regular people. These guys, as they get more into it, are talking about going to prison,” Profit says. “Some of them observe their environment around them, and then they become a part of it.”
One such person in the film is Seven the General, who has recently gained notoriety on the local hip-hop scene. Seven, a former gang member who was incarcerated for years, unleashes a tirade of warnings to those he says betrayed him. Profit found him on MySpace.
Profit also features a childhood friend, Paul Howard, the owner of downtown jazz bar Cliff Bell’s, who also grew up in the city. He asked around town to locate Motski Ski, grandson of Jackie Wilson and a member of the rap group Detroit’s Most Wanted, who scored the film. Another subject, retired police officer Roy Houston, lived down the street from one of the film’s producers. The subjects were interviewed for their perspectives on the past and personal experiences with crime.
While at Wayne State earlier in this decade, Profit worked on studies on Detroit’s gun violence with David Martin, a research professor in the Center for Urban Studies. CNN and NPR did specials on one study in 2004. “He’s right around the same age range of many homicide victims and offenders,” Martin says. “He interacts with a lot of the folks who live in some of the neighborhoods, a lot of these areas that account for gun violence.”
Martin has only viewed clips of the DVD, but he says that Profit’s approach is unique. “I’m not sure what his motivation is, but it provides an interesting perspective, and people would hear from individuals they won’t normally hear from.”
While experts often comment on gun violence, Profit’s work cuts to the source. “It’s another thing to hear the perspective of the people that live in the neighborhoods and experience it,” Martin says. “The amount of violence is staggering.”
To present historical information, Profit uses clips from Vanderbilt University’s Television News Archive and weaves in federal statistics about population and crime. Drugs, population decline and police violence are recurring themes. “They reinforce each other - the media, the statistics and the personal stories.”
Despite the film’s street aesthetic, Profit doesn’t intend to glorify violence. “There’s not a single person talking about how much money they have or how great it used to be,” he says. “It’s all just kind of bad, which is the reality of crime and street life.”
Jay Williams, 29, who grew up in Detroit, bought the film shortly after it was released. “`Murder City’ is a great depiction of Detroit without sugarcoating it. It’s Detroit raw and uncut, that’s actually how Detroit really is,” he says. “I come from the late `80s dope era, and because I used to be in the streets, I can relate to it a lot. It’s almost to the point to where it’s sad, but that’s life, and that’s unfortunate, and this is place where a lot of us grow up.”
Williams bought the DVD at Harlem World from Sean (Ice) Hendricks, who also is interviewed in the film. Hendricks, a national film distributor, says that he has sold over 600 copies of the DVD to stores in at least six states, and 80 copies locally.
For some officials who are concerned with the city’s image in the media, the film isn’t an accurate reflection of modern-day Detroit.
“When someone posts something like this on the Web, they are giving a false impression that this is what they are going to be exposed to if they come to Detroit,” says Jim Townsend, executive director of the Tourism and Economic Development Council.
“I think it’s about balance. Every major city has had a crime problem, that’s a reality of urban life in most major cities. The key thing is to remember that stories about crime and crime histories are not something that’s going to affect crime today. The `43 riot and `67 riots are complex events that have a lot to do with history. It’s hard to get something from 30- or 40-second blurb.”
Profit says the movie resonated with many people who’ve seen it.
“It’s interesting what a high percentage of the people in Detroit have a personal connection, who know or are related to interview subjects, or saw someone they know in the footage, or they remember going to Mumford in 1983,” he says.
“For Detroiters, there is a strong emotional connection. For anyone in southeast Michigan at all, Detroit has always served as something. To some people it’s positive, to some people it’s negative, but it’s a looming presence.”