The Two Christs of Detroit: “Robocop” and “The Crow”
In French, “le detroit” means simply “the strait” — a marker on Antoine Laumet de la Mothe’s map to signify the existence of a river that allows the waters of Lake St. Clair to drain into Lake Erie. He realized that, even in an unspoiled state, this spot would be a crucial choke point for trade and war. And so it was for several countries after he first ordered a settlement to be built there.
De la Mothe is widely considered by modern scholars to be one of the worst scoundrels ever to set foot in the New World. Even by 17th-century standards, he was way too enthusiastic an alcohol salesman to the indigenous people, to the point that the Jesuits in the turbulent French government eventually sent him to the Bastille for his greed.
As was common practice, De la Mothe, though noble by birth, had creatively expanded his aristocratic identity upon coming to the New World, declaring himself the “sire” of a small town near where he grew up in France: Cadillac. The first loose foundation stone placed in the loamy soil of the southern Lower Peninsula was a prophetic recognition of the future geopolitical importance of the region, but the prophet was little more than a conman.
As the American economic wave crested in the mid-twentieth century, Detroit was lifted by it and became an elemental force that drove it forward. But the complex social and political forces at play in Detroit proved ill-suited for the global capitapocalypse that enveloped the post-war automotive industry. From a high in 1950 of 1.8 million permanent residents, by 2010 less than 700,000 would remain.
At its peak (1991), crime in Detroit occurred on average 1.2 times per 10 people, and throughout modern history the city comfortably and consistently held a spot in the top four most dangerous cities in the U.S. In 2011, fully half of the city’s property taxes were unpaid, which, combined with monumental political corruption, resulted in Detroit becoming the largest American city ever to declare bankruptcy. An analysis done in 2014 showed 40% of Detroit streetlights to be non-functional.
Despite all this (or perhaps because of it) Detroit is America. Americans hold this dark picture of our former jeweled factory on the lake to our chests and weep because it represents the worst case scenario for every city, the sharpest decline from prosperity and promise to a grayfield, dystopian, urban desert.
This picture isn’t strictly supported by the facts, of course; evidence of Detroit’s renaissance mounts every day. But the trope of Detroit being the fallen gem from the crown of American utopianism has a permanent and undeniable dramatic appeal, not just as the grimy setting for some post-capitalist civic pain opera (no, we have New York City for that), but as the backdrop for tales of exactly the kind of rebirth that, even in our cynical hearts, we hope lies in the future for cities like Detroit.
8 Mile, Detroit Rock City, For Love of the Game, Real Steel, Gran Torino: the canon is full of films that evoke the collective emotional image of Detroit to show that redemption and ascension are possible even in the grimmest of circumstances. But there are two films which take this idea even further.
What if there was a man who could show us the way, who would by supernatural means transcend the bounds of death, and by doing so become a symbol of what is possible? A kind of living embodiment of the spirit of Detroit, a man destroyed by crime and corruption only to be resurrected, duty-bound to right the wrongs that led to this point, not weakened by his ordeal but strengthened by it, buoyed by the clarity of his purpose and the nobility of his ideals? His death and rebirth will begin the process of restoring balance to the city, and thus himself.
“That’s life in the big city.”
Murphy was not “chosen”; he was merely expedient. All saviors worth the name are reluctant, but Murphy is completely without choice. His resurrection is into not only a mostly new body but into a new perception of the world, a filtered “scanner darkly” that alienates him from humanity but brings him in closer communion with his higher power, the Law.
But it is not the Law as he knew it when he was merely a man. It is a twisted and idealized Law, mediated by the imperfect hands of the priests of OCP and unmitigated by the human crumple zones of nuance or context or circumstance. In this sense, the Robocop project was a smashing success: Detroit now has the purest imaginable expression of order, insuring the safe profitability of all citizens under his purview.
The problem (for OCP) arises when they, in their arrogance, attempt to encode the old power structures into the enforcement mechanisms of the new. This would have been a fatal mistake for the future of Detroit, had Murphy not been exactly the right savior at the right time. Part of the business of “saving” is understanding which power structures must be undermined or outright destroyed in order to do the saving. Robocop’s storming of OCP’s board room is nothing less than Jesus making a whip of cords and cleansing the temple of the moneychangers.
Sometimes a savior is a philosopher, sometimes he is a carpenter, sometimes he is a shepherd. Sometimes he is a wrathful hurricane of angelic swords, a cleansing burst from an Auto-9 that signals the unstoppable moral force of Lawful Good.
But in any of these incarnations, he only “works” as a savior if he operates from the proper moral high ground. We as the audience would not accept an automaton blindly carrying out silicon instructions to enforce the laws as written; we must buy into Robocop’s role not only as the arbiter of “justice” (whatever that means) but also of right and wrong. We must somehow be able to endow him with the moral authority necessary to take extraordinary actions on his way to upending the social order that has led Detroit to its current state.
Again here, Robocop follows the lead of history’s best saviors by being martyred in the most gruesome and oddly poetic way possible. “Goodnight, sweet prince,” says one of his killers, leaving him for dead, referencing one of the most intimate male-to-male farewells in the history of English literature. The relationship between the criminals and the man that would become Robocop is not that of antagonist-protagonist. There is an interlocking matrix of causes and effects whereby law and crime constantly create one another, a perpetual orgasm of dialectical action.
At the moment Murphy dies, he is impregnated by the sins of Detroit: in his death, its crime, and in his resurrection, its corporate greed. He takes unto himself these toxic forces, but because he is a good man, and because he is a Detroiter, they do not break him. Through these intrinsic forces, he reacquires access to his humanity despite these obstacles, and he is able to transmogrify the ugly disharmony that has been visited upon him and his city into a new force for lawful good.
Robocop is the story of a city so poisoned that it makes its own savior while pursuing the deepest ends of its own perdition. Saviors are born not through the desperate acts of good men and women, but by the evil acts themselves. The good news is that saviors are inevitable. The bad news is that their nature is not up to us, the bystanders in our own salvation. It is likely that we will consider being saved something of a monkey’s paw.
“What this place needs is a flood.”
The Detroit of The Crow is a much more abstract reality, a wet and colorless night without a dawn, ramshackle squats and concrete bars. The police exist only as a reminder that infrastructure exists, somewhere, somewhere else, and they’ll come to show concern over your brutal slaying but they won’t be able to do anything about it.
The Detroit we see is gothic in the original literary sense, pervaded by death and decay but, tragically, not devoid of hope. The architecture and decor could be call late period “dreary-chic.” “Crumblepunk.”
In this improbably interracial ghetto, we are thrust immediately into the resurrection itself. A man, mourned only by a child, buried in white, is ushered back (from Hell? he was a premarital fornicator…) by a black bird whose mythology is loosely handwaved by the voice of a virgin.
As the man stumbles along, he grazes for a new wardrobe, the city already showing itself to be intimately connected to him. He transforms his white clothing to dark, becoming soiled once again by the dirt of existence. And then, quicker and more lucidly than Murphy, he remembers what came before.
We do not witness Draven’s martyrdom in real time, through a camera’s quasi-objective eye. We only see it played back in the literally rose-colored lens of his memory. While Robocop experienced almost an entire act as a will-less puppet of the forces of his resurrection, the Crow is allowed to achieve self-determination almost at once by this sudden onrush of memory and violent motivation.
It is implied that Draven’s crow guide is the mechanism, or the conduit for the mechanism, that facilitates Draven’s transformation as well as the restoration of his memories. Who does the lowercase-c-crow work for? God? A secular natural force? If Eric has been resurrected by some supernatural force, does he have free will? (Or, at least, no less free will than when he was a man?) These are important questions that this film does not address directly.
Through paths of logic only intelligible by a traumatized and partially-decomposed brain, Eric arrives at the true purpose of his resurrection: to scourge the bizarre black metal mafia who has achieved logistical and financial control of some undefined portion of Detroit. He thinks he is avenging his and his fiance’s death, but doing so just happens to coincide with the best interests of Detroit.
Because, remember: the prime mover of all the events of The Crow is a crooked real estate development operation which Draven’s grassroots tenant organizing would have gotten in the way of. Unknowingly, Eric and his fiance died doing Detroit’s will. Perhaps this is what brought Eric to Detroit’s notice.
In any case, the nature of the divine justice that must be delivered is visited upon Eric via impressionistic yet somehow unmistakable means. And what is the first thing Eric does upon achieving this gnosis? He paints his face. Ostensibly in homage to the Pierrot mask that played some erotic role in his former life. Pierrot was a stock character of commedia del’arte who pines for (and sometimes kills) the fair Columbine (who usually prefers the black-masked Harlequin).
But there is another, more modern painted face that the Crow may be echoing:
In Godspell, Stephen Schwarz conceived of the character of Christ as wearing clown makeup as a continuation of lines of thought (such as from Cox’s Feast of Fools) which argued for a contemporary religious life which better embraced the imaginative whimsy and dream-oriented symbolism of the more ancient Christian orthodoxies.
Draven, having now fully become the Crow, is driven almost entirely by what might be called dreams: pink-hued recollections of his life, surveillance footage through the crow’s eyes, weird symbolic impulses like making bird shapes with lighter fluid (which helps Shelly how?)
And there is no doubt that the makeup improves his mood; as the Crow he cracks jokes, quotes Poe, even expresses some understanding of irony, as he goes out of his way to kill people with their own weapons. Eric Draven was a resurrected widower, wracked by trauma and devastated beyond even the capacity for rage. The Crow, on the other hand, created using Eric as raw material, is a dynamic, camera-friendly, fully-functioning humanoid who does more than just wreak vengeance like some common Rambo. He promotes nuclear families (through the cleansing of Sarah’s mother Darla), he discourages smoking, and he even goes out of his way to disincentivize petty larceny by destroying the crooked pawnbroker’s.
What I’m saying is that, regardless of how the causality flows, the makeup is the connection between Detroit and its savior. The makeup marks the point where Eric is elevated above his own personal trauma, to see (perhaps subconsciously) how he connects to the whole constellation of traumas being committed against the city that he loves. Because fundamentally, no matter what violence he may be capable of, it is the capacity for love which defines any savior.
“You’re gonna be a bad motherfucker.”
“Devil’s Night” is a real thing. Or it was until Detroiters decided not to take it anymore.
In 1984, more than 800 fires were set in the 3 days leading up to Halloween. This number is typical of the “holiday” throughout the ’80s and ’90s. On October 29, 1996, Detroit celebrated its first “Angels’ Night,” a three-day volunteer crime patrol of high-risk areas and abandoned structures, and the tradition has continued every year to the present. By 2009, the typical Devil’s Night tally was less than a hundred. In 2018, the number was 9.
Detroit is fundamentally resilient in a way that no other American city has to be, weathering a completely unique combination of racial and economic inequality, geographical peculiarity, historical legacy, and cultural significance. It doesn’t need a savior because it is its own savior. Its citizens are dedicated to the perseverance of the Motor City way of life as it is supposed to be: not synonymous with violence and decay, but with persistence and hope.
The flag of Detroit contains a quote from 18th-century Detroit priest Father Gabriel Richard. Translated from the Latin it reads, “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” Resurrection is built into the DNA of the city, and that is why stories about men who are resurrected to restore the balance of civic civilization work so well there. The Crow and Robocop are symbols of the city itself: blown apart by violence, threatening to undo their essential being, but who through the power of their righteous love and inner baddassery that is the birthright of every Detroiter, they manage to transcend their limitations to achieve a better existence not only for themselves, but for their fellow citizens.