Too many Detroit-set films fall into the same three categories: movies about poverty, movies about crime, and movies about poverty that leads to crime. Ask any Detroiter about cinematic portrayals of the city, and you’ll inevitably hear complaints about “ruin porn” and how national media cameras always seem drawn to the most downtrodden blocks. Detroit might be a thriving multicultural economy with a booming downtown, a growing tech industry, and the first good Lions team in god-knows-how-long, but it often feels like Hollywood decided that, since the city fell down 15 years ago, it’s never been allowed to get back up.
While the existing canon of good Detroit movies leaves a lot to be desired, “To Live and Die and Live” is an excellent step in the right direction. Qasim Basir’s portrait of a successful filmmaker returning to Michigan to bury his stepfather while he battles old ghosts is a small, often tragic human story — and certainly shouldn’t be misconstrued as a simple “love letter” to the city. Yet Basir shoots Detroit with a joyful authenticity that only a native could capture, accurately portraying it as a rising town at an exciting inflection point that’s still being built on a foundation that includes the demons of the past. Swooping cranes dominate a skyline that seems to get a little bigger every day, but every new skyscraper is surrounded by Art Deco architecture that serves as a reminder of the city’s rich cultural history. Basir’s film is simultaneously a testament to the city’s growth and a reminder of the people left behind by it, and it steers mercifully clear of the Detroit stereotypes we’re so used to seeing — there’s not a laid-off autoworker, a gang member, or a racist portrayal of a “crackhead” in sight. The film is as incomplete as the city it’s portraying, but manages to say more with what it leaves unsaid than any of its dialogue.
When we first meet Muhammed (Amin Joseph), he’s doing cocaine a few hours before his stepfather’s funeral. An up-and-coming director who left Detroit for the bright lights of Los Angeles years ago, he’s a man of few words who would much rather drink away his problems than talk about them. He has a brief romantic encounter with a party girl named Asia (Skye P. Marshall), but once the sun rises, he has to run to the funeral before he has time to wipe the coke off his nose.
His half-assed attempt at a “eulogy” is barely a full sentence, but it quickly becomes clear that Muhammed’s process of burying his stepfather is far from over. He’s tasked with settling his stepfather’s old accounts and hopes he can collect on enough debts from the man’s construction business to cover the cost of the funeral. As he travels around Detroit, everyone is quick to offer stories about the positive effects that his stepfather had on their lives, but they all find an excuse not to open their checkbooks.
It’s a hard job that Muhammed makes considerably harder with his constant drinking and drug use. It’s clear this man is battling some real addictions, but his ability to project an image of success prevents people from noticing until he really starts to self-destruct.
While he continues to shoulder the burden of handling his family’s affairs, he keeps seeking out sporadic encounters with Asia. The two friends keep getting drunk and coming agonizingly close to hooking up while they have philosophical conversations about the nature of living — in both senses of the word. Asia is dying of cancer and is determined to spend her final months indulging in as many hedonistic pleasures as she can find, while Muhammed begins to suspect that he wants to build a more family-oriented life that could give him a real legacy. They both suspect that they’re missing out on living life to the fullest because they prioritized the wrong thing.
The more time Muhammed spends in Detroit, the clearer it becomes that his life in Hollywood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He’s the kind of mid-level filmmaker that makes a living without making much of anything, often getting paid to write scripts that languish in development hell. It’s an anxiety-inducing lifestyle for the son of a construction worker who grew up in a town defined by manufacturing — he may get the glamour of living in LA, but the pride of seeing a job through to completion is an essential part of his self-actualization that he’s missing out on. When you factor in the burden of being the “one that made it” through which his entire family lives vicariously, it’s hardly surprising that he’s constantly self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
Construction is arguably the defining motif in the story of Detroit’s last decade, so Basir’s choice to make that the family business was a wise one. A slew of civic-minded developers have sparked a remarkably fast rebirth of downtown Detroit in recent years, and it was accompanied by a sense of communal pride among residents reflected in the many “Detroit vs. Everyone” shirts and decorations that Basir includes in the film. But there’s a tension between the desire to build a brighter future and a need to preserve the good things about the past. “This is not an old decrepit, Detroit breakdown building,” a developer brags to Mohammed as he shows off his swanky new downtown construction site. “This is a new structure.” While it’s technically an accurate statement, it’s underscored by a self-loathing that he seems determined to paper over with his luxury condos.
That self-loathing manifests itself in virtually every character — Muhammed’s relatives might be jealous of his success, but he’s not sure if his decision to leave Detroit amounted to anything worthwhile. Everyone says more with their silences than they do with their words, and strong performances by the entire cast help paint a portrait of a city torn between a dark past and a shiny new future. Nobody reaches any easy answers, but Basir leaves all of his characters in the same predicament that their city has faced for so much of this century: accepting the death of the past is easy enough. The hard part is figuring out what to replace it with.
“To Live and Die and Live” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.