Just off I-96, bordered by Evergreen, Telegraph and Puritan Road in the northwestern portion of the city of Detroit is a four-square-mile quadrant named Brightmoor. Aesthetics reveal the sad reality that exists within this four-mile neighborhood: Tattered buildings, buckling roofs, abandoned homes, ill-kept parks and shattered windows all add to Brightmoor’s air of ominous emptiness. The murder rate in Brightmoor is 800 percent higher than the national average. The heavy crime rates led Brightmoor’s population to decrease by 35.3 percent from 2000 to 2010 alone. Three Brightmoor schools were closed between 2005 and 2012 as a result of budget cuts, lack of funding and debt, affecting about 900 students.
The statistics associated with Brightmoor are bad — if not the worst — in terms of the area’s high murder and low graduation rates. Economically, Brightmoor holds no sustainable markets. Socially, the neighborhood of Brightmoor is ruled by the powers of drugs and gangs. The Wikipedia page on Brightmoor is dire, the media coverage on Brightmoor holds a general attitude of concern and the oral, statewide reputation of the neighborhood remains as the worst part of town in one of our country’s most frightful cities.
And yet, despite the seemingly unalterable fate of Brightmoor, strands of hope have started to weave into the community. Community centers, churches and schools have begun to team up in within and outside of the neighborhood. After-school programs, creative expression workshops and church functions have become heavily implemented to provide outlets to the violent forces that rule the surrounding neighborhood. A butterfly garden has been placed in what was once the most dangerous intersection in Brightmoor. A local church started providing contraceptives and meals to male streetwalkers in attempts to weaken the economic and social grip that prostitution has on the community. The Brightmoor community, and many more like it within the city of Detroit, is searching for outlets. They are calling out for any new channel of hope that will redirect or deter the negative influencers of the community. Many are uniting under the hope that human goodness can cure a situation most dire.
Current SMTD Senior Sam Saunders offered up such a channel to Detroit communities in the fall of 2013. It was then that Saunders established a student-run organization, Seven Mile Music, which would work to provide free music lessons to inner-city youths in Detroit. Collecting teachers and their instruments from within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Saunders and his organization arranges weekly trips to several community centers throughout the city — including Brightmoor — to teach basic instrumentation to anyone interested.
In the larger historical, economic and social framework of struggling communities like Brightmoor and Woodbridge, the Seven Mile Music program can appear hopeful but small. And yet, when standing in comparison to the disparaged and damaged communities, the organization shines effervescently.
Last semester, when searching for a possible topic of exploration for their documentary class, three students in the University’s Department of Screen Arts and Cultures noticed the beauty lying within Saunders’s musical mission. After participating in the Seven Mile Music program as a cello teacher, Jayden Hua, an Australian exchange student, introduced the topic of Seven Mile Music to his class with his two other group-mates, current LSA seniors Alexander Holmes and Maggie Marshall, as a possible avenue for a documentary.
After gaining approval from the professor and class, the threesome set to work in documenting the Saunders organization and its respective influence on the community. Hua, according to Holmes, held a vision and was “interested in filming shit for a reason.” Holmes acted as the local that guided the documentarians through a neighborhood he had lived on the periphery of for most of his life. Having grown up practicing and performing with cathedral choirs across Detroit, Holmes held an individual intimacy with the musicality associated with the Seven Mile Music project. And as a Grosse Pointe native, Holmes was able to introduce Hua to the crucial difference between Brighton and Brightmoor, and helped to explain to the others what the culture of this particularly ravaged portion of Detroit would entail. With Holmes and Marshall’s technical skills, and Hua’s passion to find the story, the group set to work in capturing the Seven Mile Music mission.
The rendered documentary, titled “The Key of B,” holds a depth of discovery. Although a majority of the documentary is spent relaying the efforts and effects of Saunders and his University-associated organization in Detroit communities, the short film quietly incorporates the spirit and heart already lying within the communities that Seven Mile Music touches. The incorporation of the perspectives and personal experiences of community leaders within Brightmoor and Woodbridge added immensely to the legitimacy, honesty and power of “The Key of B.”
Pastor Semmeal Thomas, Sr. at City Covenant Church is an irreplaceable leader of the Brightmoor community. Holmes candidly describes him as the “glue to the society that holds the existing Brightmoor together.” As Thomas describes the necessity of creativity and imagination for societal reconstruction, the documentary pans in from a colorful mural, bursting dynamically from a forgotten concrete wall. Then, as Thomas’s wise narration continues, the camera fades back into a smiling child, guitar in hand, plucking curiously at the strings. And then echoing voices of church singers creep into sound, reverberating from the cathedral walls from which they emerge. The documentary reveals that which was not aesthetically or objectively obvious: There is hope here; there is beauty here.
“The Key of B” did phenomenally well and received numerous accolades from the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures. This hard work and achievement culminated in the documentary’s submission and nomination as a finalist in a local film competition, Film Challenge Detroit. The winners of this festival are to be announced this week and will subsequently earn a trip to the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Similarly, Hua, upon returning to Australia, began entering the documentary in local competitions and festivals.
Winning at Film Challenge Detroit or garnering a following in the Australian film circuit would be great personal successes for these early filmmakers. But, more importantly, the success of this documentary would represent a small victory for the suffering communities of Detroit like Brightmoor. The success of this short film implies an increased scope of exposure to the social ills of Detroit. Brightmoor, and other communities like it, would be more likely to receive recognition and support in their efforts of resurgence. A strong distribution of this short film could accrue more awareness for any peripheral forces that wish to help. They will effectively become more aware of what the community needs: the struggling pockets of Detroit do not crave financial and social reconstructions alone. They thirst for creative outlets. They covet avenues of innovation, exploration and imagination. They desire those effective distractions. The artistic and imaginative forces within a society can become ignored during times of impoverishment and infrastructure collapse, yet they are the saving grace to so many. “The Key of B” recognizes this divide and, through this short film, attempts to bridge the gap that misunderstanding creates between creativity and poverty.