Art Doc of the Week | Detroit, Vogue
There’s a great moment at the beginning of Detroit, Vogue in which one of the film’s subjects, explaining why being gay in Detroit is especially tough, says that before coming out he drew some measure of safety from the fact that, “I was never a flame. I was never the type that you would know I was gay.” The camera slowly pans across him to the woman sitting just behind him, and though she’s only in frame for a few seconds, the look on her face – eyes squinted in non-lethal side-eye; lips slightly parted in unasked question or unspoken biting comment – speaks volumes through its ambiguity. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, chuckle-inducing moment that turns instantly somber as the speaker continues with, “I didn’t want to get picked on, beat on…”
Director Mollie Mills’ film conjoins two of pop culture’s hottest conversation pieces – Detroit post-decline, and ball culture. The language, attitude and physical expression (voguing) of the former are foundational planks of contemporary pop culture while the status of the latter has given rise to a vein of thriving and often grotesque ruin porn that often ignores the (mainly black) longtime residents to create titillating tales of decay and despair. In looking at the places and actual bodies where modern day Detroit and ball culture intersect, Mills is tapping into subject matter that is simultaneously much discussed but little really known. Only in flickers does the film deliver on its potential.
Vogue, Detroit is beautifully shot, at times seeming like a fashion spread layout in moving form. It’s full of close-ups on faces that are various shades of brown. Slow-motion effects are used throughout, and at times in a breathtaking manner: there’s a captivating moment when a short-haired diva dances in the doorway of a nightclub’s women’s restroom, with the pale wall tile behind her, the dark wood of the door frame framing her body, and the swirl of lights from the dance floor sweeping over her body. It’s magnificent. And when one young trans woman speaks of the elders who tutored her in how to be a woman, less concerned with how she looks than how she carried and treated herself, it’s a powerful testimonial. It’s made even more so as she applies makeup, does her hair, and gets dressed while distilling the philosophies that ground her.
But the film’s shortcomings outweigh the pros. Even a short, glossy film should meet certain basic requirements. None of the people in the film are ever named or identified. We never learn how they support themselves, if any are in school, or if any are in contact with their birth families or not. The film leans hard on familiar narratives of estrangement, on familial and cultural homophobia, but renders it all generic. And when a worker at the Ruth Ellis Center speaks about the services the center provides, the film never fills the viewer in on who Ms. Ellis was, or just how important and respected she was, and the center is across the landscape of black American LGBTQ culture. We’re told by one speaker that voguing has a long history in Detroit, but told little substantial about that history, or the ways Detroit’s ball culture has been influenced by – or even has influenced – other ball cultures across the country.
Visually the film is on point, and worth checking out for that alone. But it leans on tragic narratives we already know from countless other sources (including the seminal but flawed ball culture classic documentary Paris is Burning) without really individualizing the stories we hear in a way that captures the person speaking, that frames them beyond received notions of tragedy and empowerment. There’s an intellectual and journalistic laziness in play. Speakers in the film are largely interchangeable with one another and with figures from other documentaries and cultural exposés.
There’s one especially potent moment that begs to be teased out. As the camera circles the club that is the film’s primary setting, one young guy throws up a black power fist, and you can’t help but wish that Mills had stopped the camera on him and asked him to speak specifically about what the gesture means to him, a young, black queer kid living in a city whose blackness has been, and is being, used against it. His assertion of black pride, his emphasis on it in within the context of unapologetic faggotry, represents a layered revolution still in progress.
All images from Vogue, Detroit