Saturday, August 28, 2010
The Detroit Documentarian: A Phone Conversation With Filmmaker Al Profit
By Scott Tre
People are mesmerized by urban decay, treating the unfortunate events that take place in America's more godforsaken areas as some sort of bizarre freak show to be viewed in snippets on cable news channels. In one of his stand up routines, George Carlin openly admitted to being an entropy fan. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists entropy as being Chaos, Disorder, and randomness (among other definitions). It's easy to forget that in midst of any chaotic situation there are actual human lives at stake. For them it's not an abstract, or something to be awed by from afar. A major city doesn't fall into absolute decay overnight. It takes an inquisitive and detail orientated individual to venture into ground zero and put together the pieces for posterity. Preferably an individual who has a personal connection to the area and the events taking place therein.
Al Profit does what even some of the major networks and outlets seem unable to do: turn out informative and entertaining documentaries on a shoestring budget. Murder City: Detroit, 100 Years of Crime and Violence, Detroit Mob Confidential and Rollin: The Fall of the Auto Industry and Rise of the Drug Economy in Detroit form a trilogy that offers an immaculately complete picture of the motor city underworld. Streets of New York offers a thoroughly comprehensive history of the big apples relationship with crime over the past four decades. I recently had a chance to speak with Mr. Profit about the alarming state of affairs in his hometown and what brought it to that point. He also spoke on his ambitions beyond the scope of crime documentaries.
Scott Tre: Mr. Profit, why don't you tell my readers a little bit about yourself and what you do.
Al Profit: My Name is Al Profit. Documentary filmmaker, also writer. I've done four crime documentaries. I'm interested in crime and social disorder as a way to explore some things in my own life. Crime is one of the key components of modern American society. It's used to control people and to do things politically. It impacts everybody's life whether you live in a community that has crime it obviously impacts your life but people that live in safe communities in America, part of their self definition is living in a safe community. "We don't live where they sell drugs or where there's gangs or they kill people". So I've done a documentary titled Murder City which is kind of a overview of the history of crime in Detroit. Streets of New York which delved into how New York City has gone from being very high crime and a wild place in the 60's, 70's, 80's and into the early 90's and is now the safest major city in the United States and how that came about and what that means. I recently completed a documentary called Rollin' which is about the fall of the auto industry and the rise of the drug economy in Detroit.
Scott Tre: How did you get involved in documentary filmmaking?
Al Profit: Well from the time I was a kid I was interested in possibly being a director. I've always been involved in creative things. I like to write, (write) music, et cetera but I didn't want to major in film in college. I got an economics bachelors and a masters degree. What initially started off for me as kind of a practice jumping off point before I got into large scale film making, I thought "Hey, why don't I make a documentary?" What's something interesting and easy to do? Well, crime in Detroit. But as I delved into it I really got hooked and realized that what I was doing was kind of important and definitely interesting and I got a big response from my first one here (Murder City). It kind of propelled me into thinking about it and doing it more. I think I bring a unique perspective to it because, you know, we see on television police get interviewed because they see crime all the time. Sometimes even criminals. We see victims talking about being victimized by crime. I think my documentaries tie things together in a way that you don't see in other settings. You'll see criminals, criminal victims. You also get a sense of the social milieu in which this is all happening. I think it's important to document this slice of American Life.
Scott Tre: With all the problems that Detroit is suffering, why bother to document the underworld instead of highlighting something more positive?
Al Profit: When a person goes to the hospital because they're experiencing pain what do they do in the emergency room? They have to diagnose what's wrong before you can fix something. I don't think anyone who hasn't been to Detroit can just understand what a disaster Detroit is, even beyond the crime. I mean there's high crime neighborhoods all around the country but Detroit's not even functioning as a city at this point. I mean, they barely pick up the trash. They have rolling black outs when they turn the lights out in different neighborhoods. Police...it's a joke. They don't come unless there's a dead body on the ground.
Even up until recently with the Kwame Kilpatrick administration, and then when they announced the superbowl was going to be in Detroit and all that, there was a some tacit secret agreement that went on between the political powers that be and the white economic interests that they were gonna try to cover up how Detroit was continuing to fall apart in decline. What I thought was funny and ironic, I don't know if anybody else noticed it but during the superbowl
In the real world, by not talking about things and saying "oh, it's really not that bad. That's just a few bad people", that's the problem. That's true. We are seeing it in America in general, outside of just crime now. We didn't want to talk about where our economy was going all these years and now we're at nine percent unemployment for fifteen months, which hasn't happened since the great depression. If you read articles written by top economists it's disturbing because no one really knows are we ever gonna come out of this. What's gonna happen with the U.S. economy? So if we don't talk about what's wrong in our society it's never gonna be fixed or there will not even be any movement towards improvement. You'd be hard pressed to drive around Detroit and find too much good to write about or talk about frankly. It's all bad. It is unreal.
Scott Tre: Detroit has always been associated with Murder. What is it that makes Detroit the murder capitol? What is it about the atmosphere of Detroit that makes it that way?
Al Profit: Well, that's an interesting question. I guess it's the people that make up the city. In my studies of crime and the history of crime in America, really where the source of a lot of the violence in America comes from it's really southern culture. I mean the whole southern economy prior to the civil war was based on slavery which is a daily violent assault on people, so the whole economy was based on violence in the south. Then you had parts of the white population living in areas where they were still doing feuds with each other and Hatfields and McCoys and all that.
So if we look at murder rates in the cities that had the highest murder rates in 1920's they were all in the south. Memphis, Jacksonville, Atlanta, had murder rates higher than murder rates are in cities now. They had a majority white population, they were just violent. When the auto industry boomed Detroit grew faster than any other city in America, just tons of people poured in. So you had people that on Tuesday were in the hills of Kentucky or were a sharecropper in Mississippi and on Thursday they were walking the streets in Detroit. You had this mix of people all over. Detroit was a big Klan state. In 1943 there was an actual race riot in Detroit which is the worst riot in the united states as far as loss of life other than the Detroit riot of 1967 and the L.A. riots. 34 people died and that was an actual riot of whites and blacks attacking each other and killing each other. So I think you had a volatile mix of people. Education was never valued here. Detroit was not even a city, it was just a work camp. You just came here to make money. People didn't develop a lot of strong social bonds with each other across group lines.
So now you already have kind of a violent city. You have the stage set and as the mid 60's, early 60's before the riots the industrial economy is going away. So now you're left with this huge pool of unemployed men lingering in the streets all day. Then when the riot hit and the white population started to leave and the civil rights movement was gaining traction so that the white police departments in Detroit and all around the country couldn't be as restrictive. They were getting hit with lawsuits and "you're racist" and this and that. So I think the police here said "Well, you know what? We're just not gonna do anything in the black neighborhoods and we're not gonna enforce the law at all". Then you combine that will all these unemployed men and then the Heroin comes in and you create a whole alternate economy that's based on violence. Drug activity is enforced and causes violence and then it just feeds upon itself.
Now, it's lawless here. The police have a low rate of solving violent crimes, blah, blah, blah. If you grew up in the city of Detroit, I don't care who you are, you could be straight laced and the salt of the earth, but you have seen and witnessed if not been a victim of violent crime. That affects you and that makes you more likely to do it sometimes. I know people who's father, uncle, brother, they have five or six relatives murdered. I've had relatives murdered. I mean it's just year after year after year. Also, it was interesting talking to Law Enforcement, people in federal law Enforcement. When they were assigned to Detroit they couldn't believe how unprofessional the Detroit police were. That goes for back in the sixties when it was mostly white until now when it's mostly black. They just had to throw a bunch of murder cases out because the Detroit crime lab, it was revealed, is all messed up. They can't even do basic stuff like get fingerprints off of guns. When you watch CSI at night and "Oh, well you just go to the crime scene and get the DNA and fingerprints". They're not even set up to do that here. They had an article in the paper a few years ago where all these people that were wanted for real serious crimes: armed robbery, rape, murder. They were getting traffic tickets while they were wanted, in their real name. They couldn't figure out how are the police giving these people speeding tickets and they are wanted for murder? It was because most of the Detroit police cars, their little computer that checks for warrants didn't work. They couldn't even check anybody. So it's a social thing and it's compounded by the police. Why did crime in New York go down? A lot of it is because of what the police did. Now is everything the police did good? No. Is it good in general? It's complex to say. Now there's such an ingrained culture of it here (Detroit) that it's just normal. People just do extreme acts of violence. Arson, set people's houses on fire.
Scott Tre: You would think with the rich history of black music in Detroit, that the city would have a much bigger presence in Hip-Hop. Aside from Esham, Insane Clown Posse, and Eminem, Detroit hasn't been a huge blip on the Hip-Hop radar. Why do you think that is?
Al Profit: Well that's sad, but true. I go into that in Rollin, how Harlem and Detroit and the South side of Chicago had real strong black economic and political power. Motown records was here, but not just that. You had some of the largest black owned businesses were here. Great lakes Mutual Trust, which was a huge black owned insurance company from the 1940's. The reason Motown was shutting down, you just had a brain drain. The people that had the money and the creativity just left. If you take any group of people where there used to be two million people and now there's eight hundred thousand, who left? The people who, for the most part, had something going on. The people that had the capabilities of doing anything, any kind of money. You need money to be in music. It just all left.
Then in the late 80's and the early 90's where you did have some gangsta rap stuff here that was just as good as N.W.A or something. I think a lot of the rappers on the west coast and the east coast and the bigger cities that got signed to the big labels, they were definitely from the street and had ties to some degree. There were people behind the scenes involved, but the performers themselves were just performers. You had guys here (Detroit) like Rap Mafia, who was pretty good and had some hit songs that were getting some traction. They got indicted and sent to prison. They had a hundred kilo a month drug ring, the rappers themselves. Detroit was too real or something, I don't know.
Beyond that I think it's just the lack of resources. Detroit went from being a big city to being a medium sized city. We think of Detroit as a big city because it's one of America's well known cities and it's been a big city for a long time and cars and all that. But really, you look at the population now, it's closer to the size of Memphis than it is the size of Chicago. Detroit now probably only has a hundred thousand people more than Memphis, Tennessee. It's smaller than Indianapolis or Columbus now because so many people have left. Then, it's so segregated here and the suburbs are so cut off from the city that even though the metro area is big still 5 million people, it's not like Atlanta. You don't move freely from suburbs to the city like nothing goes on in the city. I know a lot of former Motown studio musicians and all that. There's no clubs for them to play in. They can't even make their weekly bill money so why would you live here?
Scott Tre: Many of the street or hood style documentaries that have flooded the market in that last decade or so seem to focus more on sensationalism and exploitation than on storytelling or informing the viewer. Your documentaries seem to have more of a balance. How did you manage that balance?
Al Profit: I don't know. I guess I just work hard on them and try to think about it. I make a conscious effort going in to do that. It's not enough to just have someone willing to say "Oh, well I saw so and so shoot somebody" or "We used to make a million dollars a day and we had 23 Cadillacs". It doesn't have any meaning when you don't place it in the context of what's going on. It's not even sensational anymore because between rap music and movies and all these hood documentaries, we've all seen those stories a million times. So they're really not even sensational unless it has some type of deeper meaning to it. I actually wanted to make something that had some impact and meant something.
It shows the way that gangsta rap, or rap music in general has drained itself of any vitality because they've so relied upon sensationalism. When that stuff first came out your hearing Dopeman and "I'll shoot you", Fuck The Police, Niggas With Attitudes. It was shocking and it was entertaining. Like "What the fuck?! Wow!" But twenty years of that, it's not interesting unless it has some meaning. So I consciously think about it going in to it. Just at the end, when you get done watching one of my documentaries, you may not like some things or like others, but I want you to feel like this was a real piece of information that I actually don't have to feel bad about watching it. Some of these hood documentaries, you feel kind of stupid when they're over like "Did I really sit and watch that?" It's like you just went to a peep show or something. You feel kind of dirty.
Even all these cable channels now. We were just sitting and watching at my boys house. National Geographic has a show Detroit Gang Squad. Basically they wanna ride somewhere where there's some burned up buildings, can you get a bunch of black teenagers that are gonna smoke weed and hold guns out in front of the camera. They're so stupid. Any of the guys that are real criminals, please go lock them up. Anyone that's standing outside flashing guns at National Geographic and the police are...Here's how sick it is in Detroit: This gang squad officer, he took National Geographic and he said "Oh, some of my younger cousins are like 7 mile Bloods". He took them over in this neighborhood in Detroit. These kids were, I guess some kind of relation to him, and he set up a thing with them and National Geographic and they got in the street and yelled and then they showed their guns. I mean, it was absurd. I don't know what that was supposed to be. It was staged by the police.
You know what just happened here with the chief of police? When Kwame Kilpatrick went out, a new mayor came in obviously, Dave Bing. So he got his new chief of police Warren Evans. Now Warren Evans has been around for a long time. He's black, but he had been the Wayne county sheriff. Wayne county is the county that Detroit is in. When you leave Detroit your in the rest of Wayne County. Up until recently it was all white, parts of it conservative, some of it rich. But he was the Wayne County Sheriff for a long time. He was like a very prominent black figure around there. So he got made chief of police.
Well he just got fired because there was this big thing that occurred were he was filming a show called The Chief with A&E or one of these TV channels. There was a big case in the paper where these guys killed this 16 year old kid because he looked at them wrong at the party store and they said "oh we'll be right back" and they went home, got some guns, came and gunned him down in front of a bunch of people.
So the chief of police went with the S.W.A.T team and the TV crew to go to the house were the suspect was. Had the cameras rolling and all that. They throw one of those flash bang grenades which are rarely if ever used. See this guy wasn't in the house holding hostages or anything. It was his grandmothers house. There was a bunch of people in there. They could have just waited outside until he left and just pulled him over and arrested him. So they go in this house, and with the confusion and all the people in there the police shoot and kill a seven year old girl who was actually the niece of the murder suspect. Her father was with the murder suspect when they went and killed the seventeen year old, so you see the cycle of violence.
So it basically came out that the way they did this raid which resulted in this girls death, he did it like that because the camera's were there. The police on the S.W.A.T team said "Well, gee, I've been on the S.W.A.T team 20 years and done all kind of stuff and I've only used a flash grenade two times". That's for just basically when you got an armed gunman barricaded and shooting out at the police or something. Where you just have to go in right now. So his wanting to do the show basically resulted in this little girl's death. So he had to step down.
To go back to the whole start of the last question, the word murder associated with Detroit. That's why they come here and shoot movies. When they had that DEA show on Spike, it's first episode. This is easy pickings for some film crew. Anything negative you can come here and it is a piece of cake. Its all for the picking and the city falls right into and participates with it. Detroit is like a back lot or a studio set for any type of crime thing you wanna show in America. They don't even make a penny for it. They come here and do it for free. So of course they love to come here.
Scott Tre: Being that you are a native of Detroit and most of your productions focus on Detroit, what inspired you to make the Documentary Streets of New York?
Al Profit: Well like I wrote on the blurb on it, New York is the biggest city in the country. America gets a lot of it's social signals from New York. Anything that's happening in the country is obviously happening in New York, it's probably a lot of times happening first in New York. Also New York's radical decline in crime, Just the whole change in the nature of New York. As an outsider, somebody who had visited New York in the late 1980's when I was a kid. We were in lower Manhattan. I remember going through Washington Square park. I was twelve years old. I did not look like a crackhead. I remember walking through Washington Square Park, and Washington Square park is tiny. There was just guy after guy after guy, every single person that walked past "Crack. Crack! Rocks! Crack! Got Rocks! Smoke! I got Rocks! Crack! Crack! Crack! Rocks! Crack!" People standing on the corner of major intersections just chanting in every window and I'm not talking about in a ghetto area. I mean downtown Manhattan, wealthy white people walking up and down the street and guys just on the corner: "Crack! Crack! Rocks! Rocks! Blow! Blow! Rocks! Crack! Powder!" I mean, just blatant. I mean just everywhere. It was unreal!
Now, obviously, it's not like that at all. Guliani and Chief Bratton and all them take the credit like "Oh, well, we put the clamps on things. It's the police" but there's always been community activism. I was interested. Was it a top down thing that the police and Guliani really got New York under control? Or was it that the people of New York changed and got more sophisticated or just wanted a better life? Really, what is the story? What I found in my investigation is that it's pretty complex. Obviously it's good that it's less murders and all that. But in many of the bad neighborhoods, while crime is down it wasn't that those neighborhood's got better. like people had more money and had a higher income. It's like a police state. People are just scared to do anything, but they are still poor. I don't know, it's complicated. I don't know what that means for the future of America.
You have people now whose grandparents lived in these same bad neighborhood's they live in. The same stuff has been going on for a long time. You have two, three, four generations. I don't know if some of these people ever can get a job and be employed, so what does that mean? Is the whole country gonna have to go like how New York is? A huge police force who have to sit on the corner and basically oversee this big element of the population who is deprived of the income and quality that the rest of the country has and would likely be engaged in crime if you didn't basically watch them like a minimum security prison?
Scott Tre: What would you say are the biggest differences between the underworlds of Detroit and New York City?
Al Profit: I've studied crime even beyond a city level, I get the precinct level crime data for different cities because New York so big it's kind of hard to say "Oh well, Detroit's crime rate is higher than New York". Well New York's ten times bigger, so what does that mean? So individual precincts in New York, like say, some of the precincts in Harlem. In the later 80's and early 90's it was the highest crime area in the country. But, no matter how bad it was, Harlem was always five miles or whatever it is from Wall Street so it had a value.
Detroit is not valuable in any way, so nobody cares. Things are just allowed to become increasingly lawless. It's easier to just move away. So if you're a person with some type of income, it's easier to just say "Well, you know what? If this neighborhood is so bad, I'm just gonna live elsewhere and not have to deal with it". In New York City, every inch of real estate is so valuable. To reclaim one block of Harlem is worth 50 million dollars in real estate value. I think that's the difference. Also, on a more nuts and bolts of crime level, Detroit is a southern city. It's 90% black and it's not Caribbean black. They're all from down south. There's just a certain way people do things. Whereas in New York you still have Italian organized crime. You have Caribbean, Asian, Dominican, blah, blah, blah. There's definitely more sophistication in New York now than there is in Detroit, but Detroit is a lot more frightening because of it's lawlessness.
In the past, Detroit was probably more like New York. More in the era of the Y.B.I's and all that you had a lot more large scale organized drug rings that were more organized. look at B.M.F which is guys from Detroit. Those are kind of the bookends of the whole drug era. They're both from Detroit. Y.B.I was the most sophisticated black street level drug ring ever in terms of how long it lasted and how much money they made. They were operating on a big scale all across the city for five years. Imagine if one group of guys ran all of Brooklyn for five or six years. That never happens. People run certain areas. It's an interesting time, to go back to earlier with Motown leaving an all that. I mentioned big black owned businesses.
Well this Y.B.I, the way they really kicked into high gear, they got an influx of money. They were rollin' and doing what they were doing, but they got a big influx of cash which they used to by a big load of heroin is where it really exploded. They got $80,000, this is was like 1978. I mean that was a lot of money back then, one lump sum to go buy some dope with for some young guys, Actually, they're not middle man in the dope, they're taking all of that and breaking it into five dollar packs and getting all the money. Where that money came from was this guy, one of the founders. His father married, I don;t know if she was the widow of or the daughter of that Great Lakes Financial or whatever it's called. So this guy, he went on trial twice and it was a mistrial both times. Basically he was the, what was that Biggie song? Your kids, your wife, the dog, everybody's dying? He was accused of killing his father, his stepmother, their nurse, and a dog. Tried twice and it was a mistrial so they had to pay him the $80,000 in insurance money because he was the beneficiary and he took that cash and took this group that was bubbling a on a certain level in their area and they just exploded from there. They got this one load in and just took a bunch of shit over and then the money was just flowing in so much they were able to just take over half the city.
Then B.M.F of course, if your from Detroit, you just see the way B.M.F operates you can just see the lineage from Y.B.I to these other groups to them. They took it around the country. The whole rap industry in the last eight years has just copied...if you didn't know Jeezy was from Atlanta you'd think he was from Detroit, he's so Detroit. Their whole style, just the look he has on his face reminds me of somebody from Detroit. I remember I was in the Atlanta airport, and the other people that were coming in that I was waiting for, somehow the planes got crossed or something. So I was just lingering in the airport. There were all these guys waking around and I said "Y'all from Detroit ain't ya?" I could just tell from how they looked. I said "Oh Yeah, I'm from Detroit". They said "Well just come with us". Now I had never met these guys but because I was from Detroit and they were, they were like "C'mon." We went to some big fucking house somewhere that empty, some little mansion had nothing in it but their XBOX. I don't know what the fuck was going on in there but it was interesting. So I'm in the Atlanta airport and I see some guys and I know they are from Detroit. They take me to some house where I don't know what's going on. Then my people came and they took and dropped me off to where I had to go. I was in Atlanta recently and the strippers were still talking "Oh, it ain't been the same since they (B.M.F) got locked up!" That "making it rain", they were doing that here (Detroit) long ago. That was the shit in the mid 90's in Detroit. They didn't call it "making it rain" but they were throwing money up in the air all the time when they were in the club. I mean that was going on here (Detroit), they didn't make that up. That was some Detroit shit.
The African American population in Detroit had more political and economic power and there was a big black middle class. Even though now Detroit is the poorest major city in the United States, it wasn't like that 25,35,45 years ago. It was one of the wealthiest for African Americans. So people here (Detroit) have a slightly different mentality. It's like they're poor, but somewhere in them is this middle class...I don't know how to explain it. You know how a lot of poor people or people in third world countries are like whipped dogs, they don't have any self esteem. They just except not having shit and being poor. But people Detroit didn't and don't have that mentality. The poorest people, they want to go straight from no car to a Mercedes. They don't want to drink no Seagram's Gin. They go "give me the Grey Goose". Straight from no winter coat to a fur coat. So just a level of aggression and just worshiping of material objects is just at a whole other level here (Detroit).
Scott Tre: What projects do you have coming up?
Al Profit: I just finished writing a movie script called Saint Aubin which is something I've been working on for years. It's not a documentary it's a regular movie. Set in Detroit but it's not really about crime. Well there are some criminal events in it. Some real events that occurred. Some occult murders that happened in Detroit in the 1920's and then a big mass murder that happened in 1990. Those are some events that occurred. But the three main characters are a criminal, a architect and a reporter. The reporter is sent here to do a story about Detroit. The architect is building a big development on this Saint Aubin street called Saint Aubin Place and the criminal falls in love with a girl named Nicole Saint Aubin who's kind of a ghostly presence. All their stories come together. There's political intrigue. There's some occult stuff. So it's like a Angel Heart meets Pulp Fiction in the hood or something. Sort of like a psychological thriller love story type of thing. So I'm excited about that.