Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The discourse of Detroit: A critical look into the use of language within Detroit documentaries

The discourse of Detroit: A critical look into the use of language within Detroit documentaries

Elizabeth Riedman

In recent years, Detroit has been the focus of many outsider filmmakers, as seen in Detropia, Grown in Detroit, Requiem for Detroit, Detroit Lives, and Detroit Wild City. This paper aims to discover various elements behind the kinds of discourse that are being actively created for the city of Detroit by these non-Detroit filmmakers. In looking critically at the voices, language, images and forms of media chosen by filmmakers, in addition to the larger literature surrounding documentary discourse and urban decline, this paper begins to reveal the kind of outsider-imposed discourse actively shaping narratives about the city of Detroit. Fundamental elements of these films include the use of anonymous speakers, empty landscapes, conversations in cars, historical footage and text-overs. When combined with the use of documentary and conversational style, these films leave out a local point of view, producing a product that only displays the filmmakers’ own outsider view of Detroit for the world to take as reality.

April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract


  1. This topic is particularly relevant for Detroit, a city trying desperately to keep itself afloat with little resources while also appealing to outsiders for their economic support. I am interested in how you discussed the local point of view, and whose point of view within the local community (local government, community organizations, etc).

    It sounds like a great paper! I look forward to reading it, should you be willing to share :)

    Comment by Athena Zissis | April 10, 2017 | Reply

  2. Very interesting paper topic! I personally remember watching some of these incredibly impressionable documentaries before really experiencing Detroit for myself and engaging with the people who have made the city their home. I am curious to know if you used a particular discourse analysis to examine these documentaries. What sort of framework did you employ to critically examine the voices, language, images, and forms of media featured in these films?

    Comment by Kailey McAlpin | April 17, 2017 | Reply

  3. This is a great idea, and I’ve definitely noticed many opinionated views on Detroit from people who have never even been to the city. Perhaps documentaries of this type are contributing to these one-sided viewpoints. It would be interesting to see a comparative analysis of local-made documentary discourse and outsider-made documentary discourse to see how widely the stories vary, although I imagine this is outside the scope of your research.

    Comment by Hanne Willeck | April 18, 2017 | Reply

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