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The Tale of Two Detroits

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I wanted to learn more about Lavie the minute I met her. Twenty years old, black, and visibly scarred on her forehead, Lavie's appearance belies her incredible spirit.

Since she doesn't have a car she asked if we could meet her at her place. Mondays are her day off from her G.E.D. program, she said. And she would prefer to not have to take the two-hour bus ride each way if it was all right with me.

Lavie's apartment was threadbare. There were two pieces of furniture: a couch in the living room without back cushions and a mattress on the floor of her bedroom. I asked her where I could throw away my empty Starbucks cup, and she said there was a box in the kitchen I could put it in. "Sorry I don't have a proper garbage can."

She went on to describe how she's been homeless her whole life, bouncing from shelters to foster homes to friends' couches to abandoned houses. When she turned 18, she had to fend for herself, and learned to hustle for food money. When I asked her what her hustle was, she said "Selling drugs. Scamming food stamps. Anything it took to survive."

When the subject turned to that scar on her head, Lavie's smile and lightness turned deadpan. "I hope I can speak freely about my sexuality," she said.

She could.

"My ex-girlfriend's sister did this to me. That was when I knew I had to change."

***

5:00 PM that same day and I'm avoiding the drudgery of ironing. I'm back in my hotel room, hanging my tuxedo shirt in the steamy bathroom for 15 minutes of environmentally unfriendly laziness.

I was heading to the Detroit Athletic Club, an historic, tony private club for those still living the life of the 50-years-ago Motor City. A group of foundation heads from around the country were in town for a summit about social equity, and I had been invited to show the short version of my film Lemonade: Detroit.

Their goal for inviting me was to expose conference attendees to a side of Detroit often ignored by mass media: its entrepreneurism, vibrant arts culture, social uprising, and resiliency unlike any other city on Earth. My goal was to get it in front of people with money so I could fund the feature-length project.

***

Lavie continued her story about the scar on her head. She had been in and out of a destructive-to-put-it-mildly relationship with her ex-girlfriend, who at this point was living with her parents. An hour into what was meant to be a peaceful final evening together, the front door slammed open. Her girlfriend's sister rushes in and goes nose to nose with Lavie.

"I ain't no little woman," Lavie tells me. "And here's this girl getting' in my face." Shoves were exchanged. Lavie had had enough. As she walked outside and turned around to yell something, the blade of a knife came down and cut her forehead from hairline to below the eye. Another blow with the knife struck her just above the temple.

Somehow, Lavie managed to stumble to a gas station. An ambulance arrived and rushed her to the hospital. She thought she was going to die. A few hours later, she was stitched up and on her way.

"I was prescribed a bunch of meds but never took one," she said. She needed to be in the moment of this pain. She needed to stop pretending it wasn't there.

***

Five minutes into the screening at the DAC, I knew I had them. Lemonade: Detroit is a documentary about the reinvention of a city that no longer has a single industry to identify with. Detroit is the perfect mix of grit and talent and risk that breeds innovation. People are living off the land. Skyscrapers are being bought and sold for pennies on the dollar. Entrepreneurs are bucking the long-held practice of me-first cut-throat success, turning instead to rising the tide for everyone's combined success. The grit brings people together. Hipsters and fortunate 500 CEOs, the homeless and the wealthy, the artists and the suits... they all sit together at the same table of reinvention.

The audience sighed in the right places, laughed in the right places, and at the film's conclusion gave as close to a standing ovation as a crowd in this formal setting could give. Business cards were exchanged. Lots of "let's get this project funded" were uttered. It was magical.

***

It's now thirteen months since the violent episode that almost killed Lavie. She is in a program that pays her rent ($200/month) and provides food stamps so she can eat. The stipulation is that she goes to school, learn a trade and attain her GED.

"It gets real lonely sometimes," she said. "But I ain't going back to that life. And thanks to God, I know there's something better."

I take her to meet Chazz Miller, an artist and activist who runs the Artist Village -- a place for Detroit's inner-city creative folks to meet, exchange ideas, and get off the streets. He takes us on a tour of the Village, and Chazz shows her the room where they have open mic nights every Saturday. Instinctively, Lavie gets on stage, grabs the unpowered microphone and starts rapping a soulful opus of her life. And without a hint of anger in her voice.

Her brightness returns. Her eyes twinkle again. I watch Chazz watch Lavie, and his mouth slowly gapes.

"Lavie, do you know what a prophet is," he asks her?

"Yes sir," she said.

"Good, because that's what you are. I want you here on Saturday night, understand?"

"Yes sir," she said.

Lavie is in the midst of an incredible underdog comeback. Her past life is in her rearview mirror, but it is larger than it appears. She is rediscovering her voice. Looking forward instead of backwards. Acknowledging her pain without dwelling in it. She is the perfect metaphor for Detroit.

I ask her if she wants to be in my film, and she says, enthusiastically, yes. Keep moving forward, I tell her, and she will be.