review by William Copeland
I had never watched a movie where I knew every person who is featured. Watching “We Are Not Ghosts,” a new Bullfrog film directed by Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young, was a very personal experience.
"(There are) Professors who care to teach, (there are) men who raise their seeds, (there are) people who look like me," Aku Kadoga's black theater class sings. The class's song forms a powerful opening image crying out "My city, My city, My city." This is a powerful beginning to the film because most narratives of Detroit use striking visuals or historical analysis but are silent on the voices of those of us who claim "My city," often for decades or generations.
It's amazing and no coincidence how often the word "we" is used in interviews. "We live here and we love it here" "We in the lower class right now… We used to be number one" are sentiments from interviews of Detroiters early in the film. The film shows a collective identity that is strong in Detroit. This identity is a foundational identity that leads to action. Many folks in the film are shown describing what "we" are trying to do.
"We are not ghosts" contains some biting criticism of the contemporary American economy, particularly looking at the myth of the information society and how the current American economic system is based on a conception of what makes a secure middle-class life that has been narrowed over decades and leaves hundreds of thousands of young people behind.
projects highlighted in the film are built because of this feeling of
being left behind or left out of the economy. This brings
decreased life expectancy, families losing their homes, unemployment
and imprisonment which gnaw at our community’s strength. The end of
the film shows specifically Detroit's struggle against police
brutality and neighborhood devastation.
Baba Murubaki reflects on his work as a teacher in Detroit when he asks "How do we raise children particularly African American children to have a quality education in a safe, nurturing loving, environment that gives them a cultural foundation they can respect and appreciate other cultures as well as their own and give them the responsibility… to have the awareness to use those skills to help?" The film’s closing sequences highlights the challenging work to retain our humanity and the challenge to maintain and develop African identity in these contexts.
What is not included:
Viewpoints of those who would start their analysis of the current moment in Detroit, not with all the good work going on, but with an analysis of what "we" are up against. Many of those may offer that we are losing the fight in important ways. The phrase "destruction of our neighborhoods" is mentioned. Maybe the filmmakers felt this is a story too often told, but I feel that it makes the hope brighter to shine a light on the systems of disinvestment and despair that we are embedded in.
The film describes the land as being abandoned and "free." In the last few years, probably since the filming of the movie, gentrification and land grabs have been accelerating with the proposed aim of introducing scarcity into our economic system. Corporate developers are eyeing Detroit neighborhoods. In some cases, the even use the success of Detroit's urban agriculture to justify their intrusion into the city.
In other words, the acts of survival are not just beautiful acts of collective self-determination but increasingly are leading to direct confrontation with the existing power system.
"so don't write eulogies for detroit, no uninspired folk song of gloom, some of us are coming home to show how we make the planet move" poet jessica care moore proclaims.
Also not included in the movie: what is at stake with the narrative of Detroit. The bold assertion "we are not ghosts" is made and depicted, but who is asserting that Detroit is a ghost town? How is the ruin porn used to destroy communities and limit the agency of Detroiters? What is the white savior narrative and how does that affect viewpoints on Detroit? Detroit is currently awash in "eulogies" and "uninspired folk songs." The Communicators I work with in Detroit talk about the challenge of flipping or transforming the dominant media narrative. It's unfortunate that these questions are unasked in this film but I hope you ask these questions, Dear Reader, in order to understand how rebellious the assertion that "We are not ghosts" truly is.
That's just context and criticism. This powerful film contributes to the struggle over the narrative of Detroit by focusing on the Black, multicultural, urban "we" that acts not only to survive but also "to make the planet move." The film should be viewed and discussed in schools, colleges, neighborhoods, and prisons. I feel that the film encourages but does not challenge. It's left up to you to understand the system of disinvestment, exploitation, and misinformation that surrounds us in the D. When you do, you'll appreciate the projects, organizations, and individuals in the film that much more. And then you will know why "We Are Not Ghosts" is not just a title of a great, informative documentary but a twenty first century battle cry.
William Copeland is Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Coalition's Stand Up Speak Out Youth Coordinator. He is working to create the Whole Note Healing Collective, and he served as one of the local coordinators for the 2010 US Social Forum. He participated in the 2011 Detroit 2 Dakar Delegation to the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal.