Newly restored and now playing on the Criterion Channel, Killing Time (1979) and Fannie’s Film (1981) are extraordinary achievements from a moment in American cinema when pioneering Black women filmmakers began to make inroads into the industry. Their director, Fronza Woods, has never made another film, but her idiosyncratic voice comes through loud and clear in these two shorts. In Killing Time, she assumes the pseudonym Sage Brush to play a young woman whose attempts at suicide are stymied by the fact that she can’t decide what to wear. Fannie’s Film offers a documentary portrait of a sexagenarian cleaning worker who radiates self-worth. Over the course of several emails, Woods—who has lived in France since 1987—told me about her childhood in midcentury Detroit, the motivations behind her work, and the films she never made.
Having spent a lot of my adolescence in southwestern Ontario, I’ve logged my fair share of hours in Detroit, which I’m quite fond of. Can you tell me about growing up there?
Since you are so much younger than I, the Detroit you know has little to do with the Detroit I grew up in, which pretty much ceased to exist after the riots of 1967—so beautifully and justly captured in John Hersey’s The Algiers Motel Incident, and so badly, Hollywoodenly brought to the screen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit.
My Detroit, when I was a little girl, had icemen (who delivered huge blocks of ice on the back of horse-drawn carriages, and carried huge tongs with which to off-load them), milkmen, paperboys, mom-and-pop corner stores, four distinct seasons, pea-soup fogs, icicles that hung down from the gutters like long swords. Bonfires in the autumn, big, furry caterpillars dropping from the trees in the spring, sweltering summers, and brutal winters.
Most people, including my father, could not afford a car back then, so they relied on the streetcar to get them to and from work. And, of course, it was our transportation for going downtown, or to visit relatives in distant neighborhoods. Some streets and many alleys still had either cobblestone or red brick paving. It was a tree-rich city. There were streets lined with majestic Dutch elm trees.
The Detroit of my childhood was a very prosperous city, for the obvious reason—the automobile industry was thriving at the time. And indeed, some of the grand buildings of that era still remain, as testimony to a more flourishing time. But I grew up in a poor, racially mixed neighborhood. It was the time of the Great Migration, so there were many poor, often undereducated—although not by any means stupid—people, Black and white alike, from the South, and many immigrants, mainly from Poland and Italy, living side by side. It would not be unusual to see people raising chickens in their backyards, for example, bringing rural traditions with them to the city.
The schools were integrated; however, the vast majority of the teachers were white. We pledged allegiance to the flag, “one nation, indivisible,” not “one nation under God,” which came later. Maybe that’s where the rot started to set in—with that little two-word alteration. We also had “duck and cover” drills on a regular basis.
When I was ten, we moved to a nicer, formerly white neighborhood on the east side of Detroit, bordering Grosse Pointe. White people were selling out, moving to the suburbs, which, of course, were off-limits to Blacks. Initially, this did not have an impact on the downtown area. We still had our swell department stores, beautiful art-deco cinemas, nice restaurants, etc., but the writing was soon on the wall.
All through my high-school and college years, Detroit remained intact and a very vibrant city. There was a cultural life that was quite rich for a medium-sized city. There was good theater, local and imported, a wonderful symphony, great jazz clubs, and, of course, Motown. I loved growing up in Detroit, and I love Detroiters, but somehow I knew I would never stay there.
The last time I visited the city, about seven years ago, the place was unrecognizable to me. My older sister, who had introduced me to so much of Detroit’s wonderful cultural life, and her husband drove me around the city, and I simply could not get my bearings. It was like visiting a war zone, only there’d been no war, just the ravages of winner-take-all capitalism. When we approached Eastern Market, near downtown Detroit, it was standing pretty much alone in a vast wasteland. I could see a Whole Foods sign, way off in the distance, the final nail in the coffin of the Detroit of my childhood and early years.