Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Detroit, Miami and Washington.

I watched three brilliant documentaries about North America's social and political history over the last few days.

The first, Julien Temple's Requiem for Detroit, shows the city tumbling from burgeoning industrial centre of the American Dream, with thousands queueing to work for Henry Ford, to landscapes of deserted factories and neighbourhoods that bored kids burn down for fun. Footage of deserted factories and once glorious hotels (such as the once lavish Lee Plaza Hotel, pictured above) that scrappers strip for metal like vultures is difficult to reconcile with glory days footage of Thanksgiving motor parades.

Second, and incredibly compelling viewing, was Billy Corben's Cocaine Cowboys, the story of Miami's bleak cocaine years, as told first person by the leading drug importers of the time and a deadly warlord's key hitman, direct from his jail cell. It is startling to hear the importers talk frankly about how they did business with Columbia and flooded the streets of Miami with drugs, and to witness the news footage and hear the first-hand accounts of the violence and incomprehendable bloodshed that ensued. As someone who visits Miami for pure pleasure and was dimly aware of the city's dark spell of the late seventies and eighties, it was an eye-opening dissection of the city's recent history. Some of the footage and recountings are horribly graphic, and I felt uncomfortable to be granting an audience to a mass murderer who was visibly enjoying re-telling his stories. But I do feel somehow more honest in  knowing the somewhat gruesome history of the Miami that I love to visit.

Finally, Oscar nominated The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, about how Pentagon insider Daniel Ellsberg took the hugely risky personal decision to leak research papers that showed the Vietnam War to have been illegal and misrepresented to the American people over the course of three presidencies. His decision could have meant a lifetime spent in prison and the documentary tells the tale of his admirable personal courage and integrity, which eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from office and the end of the war.

Each one of these documentaries was dense, well made and fascinating - highly recommended if you are a North American social history obsessive! Did any of you catch any of these? Any recommendations for similar documentaries that I need to check out?

[Photography of the abandoned ballroom at Detroit's Lee Plaza Hotel by March and Meffre.]


  1. Wow, these 3 documentaries sound gripping. I'd lke to track them down. I not a North American hisory buff at all, but you've sold them to me@

  2. They all sound really interesting. I saw the preview about the Miami documentation, but missed it. The US, it's a tough place for sure...

  3. My parents went to see the Daniel Ellsberg documentary at a local film festival in Califronia last week and said it was fantastic. I want to see all three of these! XO Katie

  4. I want to see all three of these. Have you seen Surfwise or Crazy Love? Both recommended.