How Detroit's indie filmmakers are telling the city's many stories, their way

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

“I had to walk away from film because I had to be a single father so I didn’t have the opportunity to do it.  When my son went off to college in 2018, I recommitted myself,” he says. 

He wrote the script for his newest film “Black Lies” 16 years ago. The film was released on Feb. 25, on Tubi (a well-known streaming platform favored by independent filmmakers). “It’s the story of a good father, even though him and the mom are apart. When the kid turns 6 years old, he finds out that 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 a few of the local creatives behind Detroit’s new surge in independent filmmaking.  Detroit’s initial independent film spark occurred during the early 2000s when movies like “Project 313,” “5K1,” and “Envy” built cult followings. At that time the costs behind making a film deterred many aspiring filmmakers. 
 
“When I first started, making a movie was super expensive. Now you can make a movie for what half the camera cost back then,” says TV and film producer Randy Holloway.

The first batch of Detroit’s independent 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 became staples in indie films. While the stories are often rooted in truth, and document the harsh realities of inner-city life; they leave out the other layers of the Black experience. 

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

"It's a lot more stereotypical. It's the things that people would typically 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 indie films go in that same vein."

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

In 2015 Holloway produced and directed “Bianca: Who did this to You?.”  The film told the true story of a young woman who went suffered sexual abuse as a child.

“Once we showed it, the impact that it made was instant. We had multiple screenings, Q&As, someone spoke up that they had been molested and had never told anyone in their life until that moment. That let me know how powerful the movie was and what we did. We’re having the audio remastered and it will officially be released this year,” says Holloway.

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

“It deals with mental health in the Black community. I think this is a perfect time for a movie like this. A lot of people deal with some form of mental health issues, and a lot of it is still looked over because that's how society has us,” he says.

As the diversity in storytelling draws wider audiences, local actors and the communities the movies are filmed in say they are also becoming inspired.  Legend decided to film his movie “Asbury Park'' (2021) in his former West-side neighborhood and was able to witness the positive impact it had in the area. The film tells the story of four Detroit teenagers confronting complicated decisions that will impact their futures. 

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

The film starred 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 that project,” says Legend. “Having vets on board definitely raised expectations [...] They were just really big about lifting up everyone around. They offered suggestions, and it was just a great mesh with national and local talent.  Everybody benefited from it.”.

Randy HollowayHolloway believes Detroit filmmakers should also seek opportunities to work with industry veterans on the production side as a way to increase the ability to make better films, get their work recognized, and widen their perspectives. A Specs Howard School of Media Arts graduate, Holloway has worked in many areas of TV and film production and picked up useful nuggets of knowledge along the way that he applies to all 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 gracious in talking and listening to an idea I had.  For me to be able to break down my story to him and for him to tell me what works, what doesn’t, meant everything. That let me know I could play with the big boys,” Holloway says.
Holloway’s interactions were not just limited to actors.

“David Hill was the head of National Geographic and the head of Fox Reality when I was working for “American Idol”. He gave me four years of education for a 30-minute lunch. It changed how I did shows, how I pitched shows to the networks, building a story, my approach to films,” he says.

Currently, the shared talents of Detroit’s artist community are one of Detroit's most popular exports, but while Detroit’s film culture develops; there is still plenty of room for growth.

“We have less training centers but we do have some really good ones and we have classes. It's exposure and getting that info out there so aspiring actors get training, have people realize that there are professional actors here. If you’re not being properly trained, you don’t really love your craft,” Moody says.

“I want us to stop hiding behind the fact we’re independent and use some creativity and be accountable. Stop making excuses. Let's create processes that allow us to put out the best product we can put out,” says Legend.

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

“Authenticity is super big to me in regards to filmmaking. A lot of times when we look at things that have been done from outsiders, as a Detroiter we’re looking at it sideways,” says Legend.

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