By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
I saw the movie “Detroit,” which is in wide distribution, and my stomach turned throughout the two-and-one-half hour feature film. There has been much controversy about this film, some saying that it’s a lopsided depiction of events that happened in late July 1967 in the Motor City. Others say that it’s too raw, as the events in the movie are not too far off from what’s happening in cities across the United States. And many others are questioning whether it is a white woman’s place to direct the movie—as Kathryn Bigelow, of “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” fame is at the helm of this highly anticipated historical account.
“Detroit” is a film that re-visits the riot and urban uprising in Detroit—known as the 12th Street Riot or the 1967 Detroit Rebellion—with film credits naming the 1968 book by John Hersey called “the Algiers Motel Incident” as one reference source. Three Black men were viciously murdered by an over-zealous white cop and his partner—neither of whom was convicted at trial of any wrongdoing. The shootings happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit, after the police were searching for what they thought was a sniper. But the sniper really was a man named Carl, played by Jason Mitchell, who used a starter pistol to rouse up the cops, the State police and more than 9,000 National Guardsmen who had converged upon the city after nights of looting and property damage. However, the cops didn’t know it was a starter pistol, and all they heard were shots, which they were obligated to investigate. The investigation turned ugly, while the cops played a game of interrogation that pitted one man against another—with deadly results.
Will Poulter plays Officer Philip Krauss, who appeared to be all of 21 years old and the most racist cop that could be ‘imagined’ in Hollywood or in reality. John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who worked right near the Algiers and who took it upon himself to befriend the military presence that was wreaking havoc and terror on the group of Black men and the two white girls who were rounded up from the motel rooms. Anthony Mackie plays Greene, who was hanging out with the two white girls. Another major player is Algee Smith, who plays a member of the soul group the Dramatics named Larry Reed. In real life, Reed left the group after the event, because he was so shell shocked and no longer interested in performing for whites or in white clubs or any place where there would be white cops in the mix.
Although a rough film to watch for its brazen disrespect and torture of Blacks, I was glad that I suffered through it. As well, I researched a bit about the circumstances under which the city had been issued a curfew. Detroit was known as the Motor City, and Blacks came in droves during one wave of the Great Migration. Those working in the auto plants had made a good living. But for some the heyday of the fat paychecks was over, and many people were also now facing poverty and underemployment. They felt encroached upon and were subject to daily harassment by police. There was frustration, resentment and anger, as Blacks were relegated to living in certain neighborhoods.
Given all these circumstances, I wonder if Coleman Young had been mayor at the time whether the situation would have played out differently. I also wonder that if the police had busted in the motel room and found Greene with two Black women, whether the white cops would have murdered the three Black men. It was evident in the scene when the white girls—who were from Ohio—were discovered in the company of Black men in a popular motel frequented by Blacks that the white cops were flabbergasted, even calling the white girls sluts and questioning their socializing with Blacks.
In his commentary for the “New York Times,” recent Crusader anniversary gala speaker Dr. Michael Eric Dyson wrote in his August 5 column titled “Racial Violence on the Screen” the following: “As a native Detroiter, I find the film rings true and haunts me. It aggressively captures the catastrophe that seared the city that, for decades, had been engulfed in racial misery. Some have accused the film of being torture porn or questioned whether it was Ms. Bigelow’s story to tell, since she is white. Yet she has done what we black folk often demand white folk do: Take responsibility for your actions and a legacy of hate that is often silently transmitted. In that way the film is more than catharsis; it attempts to show what happened, with the hope that it won’t be ignored. Our country must reckon with this history, our history, before we are all history.”
Someone who lived this history is Gloria Jean Smith, a dentist who was born in Detroit and was a teenager when the riots began. “This movie was a heart-wrenching look at the plight of interactions between the police and African Americans then and the resurgence of police violence now,” she said.
North Sider Belinda Silber thinks that, although the film is hard to digest, it is a story that needed to be told—no matter who was directing. “Detroit 1967; Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012; Mike Brown in Ferguson in 2014; Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014 and Laquan McDonald in Chicago in 2014. It’s all the same story. We all know about these killings, and the world knows about the riots and uprisings that happened after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. However ‘Detroit’ tells a story that’s not as well known,” Silber said. “The movie has an intensity that leaves you angry and exhausted, and many have objected to Bigelow telling this story, but I’m glad she did. After all it’s been 50 years.”
Admittedly it’s been 50 years and much has happened during that time. The gift then, however, was the fact that the cops were even charged with murder while they were working cops. Lately, across the United States, when cops kill Black or brown men, they are hardly ever charged with murder or anything else while still active cops. They may be charged later with some insignificant misconduct after they have been fired from their jobs. One quote from the trial in the movie was “police criminality must be treated the same as any other criminality,” but we all know that this isn’t the case.
The tally after the riots—which research reveals were caused after Blacks protested, looted businesses and started fires after the police raided an illegal after-hours drinking club during a celebration for two returning Black Vietnam veterans—was devastating. Beginning on July 23, 1967, and lasting for five days, the aftermath resulted in the deaths of 43 people, including 33 Blacks and 10 whites. Scores more were injured, and more than 7,000 were arrested.
“Detroit” is a must-see riveting film for those who are interested in the piece of history that it portrays. The chaos and determination to survive in the midst of jarring racism is juxtaposed against a Motown-rich soundtrack that is incredible. However, it is not to be glossed over that while Detroit does have its history of blatant racism, as does Chicago, the Motor City is also steeped in richness. It was the last stop on the Underground Railroad before Blacks found freedom in neighboring Canada; Blacks found employment and made good wages in the auto plants; dozens of artists came out of Detroit and enjoyed (and still enjoy) national and global acclaim. On the political spectrum Young was one of the first Blacks to be elected mayor to a large urban city. He served from 1974 until 1994. Dennis Archer served as mayor from 1995 to 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick served as mayor from 2002 until 2008. Kenneth Cockrel served a year after Kilpatrick’s resignation amid legal troubles, and former basketball great David Bing was elected as mayor in 2009, and he served until 2012. I believe this is the only American large city with this many Black mayors.
“Detroit” is playing at movie theatres everywhere.