The events of the last week of July 1967 in Detroit are one of those things everybody knows, and nobody knows, including what to even call what happened. “Riot” is the generally accepted language, although among African Americans, “rebellion” or “uprising” is nearly universal these days. Ever the wishy-washy moderate, I usually opt for “civil unrest,” because the most destructive element of the violence was the widespread looting and arson, which is hard to justify as an act of rebellion, especially considering how many black-owned businesses were destroyed that week.
But never mind that for now. Everybody knows the precipitating event was an early-morning raid on an illegal drinking establishment, known as a blind pig in the local parlance. Detroit still has zillions of these, mainly after-hours bars. I’ve never been to one because I’m a thousand years old, but my young friends all have their favorites. It’s where Detroit’s techno/house music scene took root and continues to thrive. They continue to be busted by the police, too, although I’m not sure if the customers are rousted with quite the vigor the law displayed in the 1967 raid on the establishment on the second floor of a 12th Street print shop. It was the rough handling of the folks being put into paddy wagons, especially the women, that supposedly moved Bill Scott to climb onto a car and exhort the crowd of onlookers:
“Are we going to let these peckerwood motherfuckers come down here any time they want and mess us around?”
The crowd roared back, “Hell, no!” and the bottles and rocks started to fly.
That’s from my colleague Bill McGraw’s excellent story of the family who owned the blind pig, whose own history reverberates with fallout from that night to this day. I’ve posted it before, but it’s worth your time if you didn’t get to it then.
The city was 40 percent black by that point, but its police were still overwhelmingly white and dedicated to keeping the black community in its place — in their neighborhoods, and out of white ones. Unlike most cities its size, Detroit grew horizontally; one reason it has the specific and unique problems it has today is that sprawling footprint, mostly covered with modest working-class housing for the huge labor force that gathered there in the early 20th century. They came from all over the country and all over the world, and working side-by-side in factories didn’t necessarily make them love one another. My friend Michael once drove me around his old neighborhood, where something like four Catholic churches existed in just a few square blocks — one for the Italians, one for the Hungarians, etc., like the punchline of the joke about the two Jews on a desert island.
Anyway. It was with all this knowledge in our heads that we went to see Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” which will open in a theater near most of you August 4. We got the “now playing in select theaters” early run.
Bigelow is a director I run hot and cold on. Hated “Blue Steel,” found “Point Break” ridiculous, liked “The Hurt Locker,” found “Zero Dark Thirty” troubling but worth seeing. She’s undeniably skilled, with an eye for finding beautiful images in horrific stories. “Detroit” kicks off with the blind pig raid, but quickly gets to the main narrative — the events of one night at the Algiers Motel, a fleabag at Woodward and Virginia Park, stormed by police, National Guard and Army troops after they heard shots fired from the building.
They never found a gun — which was said to be a starter pistol one guest was messing around with — but did find a number of black teenagers, 17-19, some members of The Dramatics, a singing group. Two of the teens were white girls, visiting from Ohio. At the end of the night, three of the young men were dead, and the survivors told of being tortured and terrorized by Detroit police in search of the gun and the shooter. This story didn’t come out immediately, but after an investigation, which led to murder trials for the Detroit officers and acquittals by all-white juries. The facts of what went on that night have never been definitively established — the cops claimed self-defense — but the rough outlines of the narrative have: Three dead teens, no gun found, survivor stories of torture.
That’s what Bigelow and her team were working with. And I’ll give her this: That lady knows torture. The police lined eight men and two women up against a wall in the motel for an hour, and that’s about how much screen time it takes, too. It’s an excruciating hour. Individuals are peeled off and taken into rooms, where police then fired gunshots, coming out to tell the rest that, well, we killed that guy, and would anyone now like to change their story and produce the gun?
There’s little relief in that hour. State police decide not to intervene. A few of the Guard/Army troops commit acts of mercy or stand in judgment of the insanity unfolding at the wall, but no one really intervenes. The baddest of the bad guys is a punk-faced, trigger-happy racist with a penchant for shooting people in the back and the unfortunate gift of making weaker men follow his lead. The other two are nearly as bad. One sneeringly asks one of the girls why she “fucks niggers” and how she can stand the smell of Afro Sheen.
Eventually the incidents at the motel conclude, and the film swings into an awkward third act — trials for the cops, recovery for the victims. You can feel the air go out of the balloon after the blood is mopped up. It really doesn’t feel like Bigelow’s heart is in this part of it, although this is where the greatest injustice happened. No one was ever held responsible. One victim is left with PTSD. Bad police are still abusing black people with impunity, and the president is encouraging them. And a corner that once looked like this now looks like this.
I walked out impressed by Bigelow’s technique but hardly entertained, or even enlightened. I think the critic for Roger Ebert’s site, Angelica Jade Bastien, got it exactly right:
Watching “Detroit,” the latest film directed by Kathryn Bigelow and penned by Mark Boal, I hit a breaking point I didn’t realize I had. I was disturbed so deeply by what I witnessed that I left the theater afterward in tears.
It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin. Watching “Detroit” I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain. White filmmakers, of course, have every right to make stories that highlight the real and imagined histories of racism and police brutality that pointedly affect Black America.
…“Detroit” is ultimately a confused film that has an ugliness reflected in its visual craft and narrative. Bigelow is adept at making the sharp crack of an officer’s gun against a black man’s face feel impactful but doesn’t understand the meaning of the emotional scars left behind or how they echo through American history. “Detroit” is a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.
We saw the film at a multiplex on 8 Mile Road, and were apparently the only white people in the theater. (We were certainly the only ones who sat through the credits to see my boss’ name; he did research for screenwriter Boal, and was listed as a consultant.) “Well, I HATED that,” a woman said, loudly, as she filed out, and I expect that will be a pretty uniform opinion among black folks. To be sure, it’s a terrible story with an unhappy ending. The bad guys got away with it. And they were terrible bad guys.
But in the end, it’s an incredibly bloody film that is ultimately rather bloodless.
One final note: When I was young and ignorant, my boyfriend’s stepfather was a retired prison guard. He’d worked at Riker’s Island, in New York. I asked him what sort of weaponry he carried as a guard, and he quickly corrected me: He never carried a gun, or even a nightstick. Guards can’t take the risk of being disarmed by prisoners.
I thought of him during the riot scenes, which underline how fragile order really is, how thin is the social fabric we all walk around on and under, every day. It doesn’t take much to turn a Saturday-night party into something far more sinister, something police flee from, how quickly even these guardians of order can be overcome. Temperatures rise, tempers flare, a guy stands on a car and shouts encouragement — that’s it. And the correction, the restoration of control, is worse. It leads to harsher policing, more fearful citizens, more guns in nervous, fearful hands.
I hope I don’t live to see something like this happen again, but I fear I will. We always speak of events in incendiary terms, of “powder kegs” and “ticking time bombs” and “lighting the fuse,” etc. But all these things have to have a supply of powder, a bomb, to exist. How about building fewer bombs? Just a thought.