How Detroit’s indie filmmakers tell the city’s many stories, their own way

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The filmmaker known as “Legend” is truly living a deferred dream. The 40-year-old Detroit native has released two films in the past 13 months and already has another in pre-production.

“I had to step away from filmmaking because I had to be a single dad, so I didn’t have the opportunity to do that. When my son went to college in 2018, I re-engaged” , he said.

He wrote the screenplay for his last film “Black Lies” 16 years ago. The film was released on February 25 on Tubi (a well-known streaming platform favored by independent filmmakers). “It’s the story of a good father, even if he and the mother are separated. When the kid turns 6, he finds out it’s not his son,” he says.

Legend, alongside filmmakers Renika McQueen-Echo, Melissa Talbot, Darren Brown, Dennis Reed, Al Nuke, Randy Holloway and Paige Alston are just some of the local creators driving Detroit’s new wave of independent cinema . Detroit’s first indie cinematic spark came in the early 2000s, when movies like “Project 313,” “5K1,” and “Envy” garnered followers. At that time, the costs of making a film deterred many aspiring filmmakers.

“When I started, making a movie was very expensive. Now you can make a movie for what half the camera cost back then,” says TV and film producer Randy Holloway.

Detroit’s first batch of indie films were mostly urban crime dramas influenced by their big-budget counterparts such as “Paid in Full,” “ATL,” and “Menace II Society.” Often referred to as “hood movies,” the constant themes of guns, drugs, and sex have become staples of independent films. While the stories are often rooted in truth and document the harsh realities of inner city life; they leave out other layers of the black experience.

Aria Moody. Photo by Mark Swinton. “It’s very interesting when you look at independent movies in Detroit versus big budget movies in Hollywood,” says actress Aria Moodym, who starred in the 2021 Detroit-based movie “Cain and Abel.”

“It’s much more stereotypical. These are the things that people generally think would happen. On TV, all the big cities have the big drug dealers and the big crime bosses. So it’s like a lot of independent films are going in the same vein.”

“People do what they know. I saw sex, drugs and guns, but I also saw the other side. Everyone was telling the same story, but I wanted to tell something different,” says Holloway.

In 2015, Holloway produced and directed “Bianca: Who Did That to You?” “. The film tells the true story of a young woman who was sexually abused as a child.

“Once we showed it, the impact it had was instantaneous. We had multiple screenings, Q&As, someone said he had been mugged and never had one haven’t spoken to anyone about his life up to that point. It let me know how powerful the movie was and what we did. We’re having the audio remastered and it’s officially coming out this year,” says Holloway.

Holloway’s latest film, “Beautifully Unlayered,” documents one woman’s journey to reclaiming her life through mental health. The film was written by Holloway and produced by Lisa Renée Miller.

“It deals with mental health in the black community. I think it’s the perfect time for a movie like this. Many people struggle with one form or another of mental health issues, and many of them are still underestimated because that’s how society has us,” he says.

As the diversity of storytelling attracts a wider audience, local actors and the communities in which the films are set say they also become inspired. Legend decided to shoot his film “Asbury Park” (2021) in his old West-side neighborhood and saw the positive impact he had in the region. The film tells the story of four Detroit teenagers facing complicated decisions that will impact their future.

“Because of my upbringing. I thought it was super important to start there,” says Legend. “It was amazing to bring these famous actors that people knew from music and TV to the neighborhood. People could look out their windows and kids could look down the street and see a movie being shot. It gave me a lot of hope.”

The film featured several notable veteran actors; Glenn Plummer (“South Central”), Felica Pearson (“The Wire”), Fedro Starr (“Save the Last Dance”), Jamal Woolard (“Notorious”), Peter Gunz (“Love & Hip-Hop”), and Jermain Hopkins (“Juice”, “Lean on Me”).

“I had six celebrities on this project,” says Legend. “Having vets on board definitely raised expectations […] They were just very tall to elevate everyone around. They offered suggestions, and it was just a great mesh with national and local talent. Everyone benefited from it”.

Randy HollowayHolloway thinks Detroit filmmakers should also look for opportunities to work with industry veterans on the production side to increase their ability to make better films, gain recognition for their work, and broaden their perspectives. A graduate of the Specs Howard School of Media Arts, Holloway has worked in many areas of television and film production and has picked up useful nuggets of knowledge along the way that he applies to all of his projects. In 2012, Holloway began hosting the talk show “Reel Detroit.” He interviewed Hollywood heavyweights Ice Cube, Will Smith, Ron Howard, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone.

“Will [Smith] was so kind to talk and listen to an idea I had. For me, being able to tell him my story and for him to tell me what works and what doesn’t meant everything. It let me know I could play with the big boys,” says Holloway.
Holloway’s interactions weren’t just limited to actors.

“David Hill was the head of National Geographic and the head of Fox Reality when I worked on ‘American Idol.’ He gave me four years of education for a 30-minute lunch. It changed the way I do things. shows, my way of pitching shows to networks, building a story, my approach to movies,” he says.

Currently, the shared talents of Detroit’s artistic community are one of Detroit’s most popular exports, but as Detroit’s film culture grows; there is still plenty of room for growth.

“We have fewer training centers but we have very good ones and we have courses. It’s the exposure and dissemination of that information so that aspiring actors get an education, that people realize that there are professional actors here. If you’re not properly trained, you don’t really love your job,” Moody says.

“I want us to stop hiding behind the fact that we are independent and to be creative and responsible. Stop making excuses. Let’s create processes that allow us to deliver the best possible product,” says Legend.

The Detroit filmmakers are also taking control of their own narratives, rather than letting Hollywood define or dictate what Detroit is.

“Authenticity is very important to me when it comes to filmmaking. A lot of times when we look at things that were done by outsiders, as Detroiters, we look at things from the sidelines,” Legend explains.

“We have created our own niche. We didn’t just make our seat at the table, we created our own table,” adds Holloway.

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