Panic in Detroit: Part 3
After blogging up to this week’s release of the film “Detroit” which addresses the 1967 Riots that took place in my hometown, I finally got the chance to hit the theater and watch history play out.
Clocking in at a whopping 143 minutes, Katheryn Bigelow’s directorial effort to highlight the significance of what happened 50 years ago let me down, frankly. I deliberately did not read any reviews until after I had seen the film, but I’m going to echo some of those criticisms.
First, I have to give high praise to the film for some of its casting choices. Foremost among them, John Boyega. Boyega, a British actor, burst onto the Hollywood scene with 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Since then he has had a small number of supporting roles in films like “The Circle” (also reviewed here at The Sioux Empire). Make no mistake – Boyega is a major, major star in the making. He has the stoic, lock-jawed gravitas of a young Denzel Washington and his moments on screen in “Detroit” are the most riveting.
Also, well-cast in this film are the young actors Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, and Hannah Murray. Each manages to convey the sense of terror, confusion, and indignation at what they are about to endure. It is through the eyes of these four actors (including Boyega) that the audience views the events depicted.
As a brief recap to my previous posts, about the Riots: By 1967 most Detroit neighborhoods were still heavily segregated but the movement was afoot. However, housing options were extremely limited as were employment, transportation and even entertainment for the city’s black folk. Like other cities across the U.S., Detroit was facing a racial conflict over the issue of policing and police brutality. Tensions came to a head on the night of Saturday, July 22nd, 1967 when undercover police raided a ‘blind pig’ or illegal drinking establishment at the corner of 12th and Clairmount.
Police found 82 black men in attendance at the club. They were there to celebrate the return home for two local GI’s, back from ‘Nam. But there were also illegal drinking and gambling going on. When the police decided to arrest everyone, a crowd began to gather out on the street.
It was a brutally hot summer night, tensions were high, and the arrested men along with the neighborhood looky-loo’s started to taunt the cops. My 17-year old father arrived on the scene somewhere around this moment. He doesn’t remember any police, but he remembers a commotion and a lot of people milling around. (See “Panic in Detroit: Part 2”)
By 3 am, the arrested had been loaded into paddy wagons and transported to the police station. Someone lobbed a bottle at the police, and then some bricks, and then the crowd became enraged. They looted a nearby clothing store and rioted through the morning hours.
By Sunday night there was a city-wide curfew. Concerts were canceled. Cooler heads were begging the rioters to go home, but the violence escalated. Businesses were fire-bombed. Anyone out on the streets was arrested. Most of the violence was cop against citizen, but there were also snipers firing at cops and firemen. Black-owned businesses were not spared from looting and firebombing. By Tuesday night, the National Guard was called in.
In the end, 43 people were dead. Among the dead were three young black men killed by police at the Motel Algiers. “Detroit” is about the riots, but specifically about the Incident at the Algiers that occurred on Tuesday, July 25th, the third day of the riots.
Most Americans don’t know crap about Detroit, about the Race Riots of ’43 and ’67 and frankly, don’t care. It’s a shame because it does have real relevance in our culture, even today. But as a native-born Detroiter, I can tell you that most of the time when I mention where I’m from I receive comments about how violent Detroit is and how bankrupt the city is and how broken down everything looks. I’m always shocked to hear those comments because, to me, Detroit is still a shining example of industriousness and ingenuity. But more importantly, Detroit is its people. They’ve endured a lot, and they’re still standing. What’s not to root for?
By focusing on the Incident at the Motel Algiers and not providing a deeper context, “Detroit” narrows its reception to those who already agree that police brutality is a major issue. By painting such bold stripes with her cinematic brush, Bigelow’s “Detroit” shows what happened in July 1967 in a divisive and cartoonish fashion. By failing to understand what was happening around the Algiers, around the city, most viewers will know little about this historical event by watching this film.
The film opens with a creative but too-brief montage that depicts the Northern migration of Southern black families to work in the auto plants and the racial divides and inequity they continued to face over the next several decades. From there, we go into the nightclub that was raided.
Aside from several minor historical inaccuracies, I felt that this scene got the tone and sentiment correct. You feel the heat, the sweat, the indignation and humiliation of the crowd. The next couple of scenes show the action on the streets. However, it doesn’t feel like a buildup from the past scene. We do get introduced to a racist cop played by Will Poulter (of “Revenant”) who is already on disciplinary action from the Detroit PD by the time he arrives at the Motel Algiers. Poulter’s Officer Krauss is so bigoted that he’s lampoon-ish. Krauss is not a real character – he’s a composite, and it’s pretty clear that he serves as a cudgel to this story.
My biggest issue with “Detroit” however is the shifting perspective. This film is portrayed as an ensemble piece, but as a viewer, you constantly want to focus on one person’s experience. I felt that Boyega’s Melvin Dismukes was the likely candidate but as soon as I began to connect with him, he was off screen and someone else was the focus. By the end of the film, this was Larry Reed’s story.
Algee Smith plays Larry Reed, lead singer of The Dramatics – a Motown-inspired quintet poised at their first chance of stardom when they are selected to perform at Detroit’s Fox Theater on the evening of Sunday, July 23rd. Larry’s best friend Frankie, played by Latimore (the very definition of wide-eyed and wounded innocence) helps to manage the band.
The Dramatics would later go on to some modicum of fame (their biggest hit was 1975’s “Me and Mrs. Jones”) but neither Larry nor Frankie would remain involved with the Dramatics, due to what occurred at the Motel Algiers. Nor would the Dramatics take the stage that night, thanks to the riots and the announcement of the curfew. The band heads out of the Fox Theater into the streets, where Frankie and Larry become separated from the others and wind up at the Motel Algiers.
This film either needed to be a true ensemble piece or it needed to pick a protagonist. Failing to do that only disconnected audiences from the characters and, therefore, from the narrative.
Boyega’s Dismukes is exactly the kind of overachieving black Detroiter that racist cops like Krauss and his partner Flynn needed as a foil. Working two jobs, working double shifts during the riots, coming home to Mama’s house to fix a quick sandwich before heading to the next one, bringing hot (if mediocre) coffee to the National Guard troops patrolling in front of the store he is securing, Dismukes arrives at the Algiers to witness some of the taunting and abuse by the cops. He is joined by a few members of the National Guard including Austin Hebert as Warrant Officer Roberts. Roberts, with his craggy Bill Murray face, is the only person on the scene to defy the cops. Dismukes merely looks alarmed, biting his lip. Later, after three young men are dead, Dismukes is implicated in the crimes by a couple of edgy detectives trying to sort out the facts. But he’s barely on screen for the second half of the film.
Perhaps it’s good that Dismukes isn’t painted as the hero of Algiers because there were no heroes that night. There were victims, there were perpetrators, there were innocent bystanders, and there were people who failed to do the right thing. Ten black men and two white women were beaten, harassed, humiliated and tortured by police that terrible July night. A starter gun had been jokingly fired inside the hotel, shattering a window and bringing cops and National Guardsmen to the scene. One man was immediately killed by police and, hours later, two more black men were shot to death.
Murray’s Julie and her friend Karen are the two white women, partying it up at the Algiers, visitors from Ohio. Salacious and impulsive, Julie jests with Karen about becoming a prostitute not long before meeting Frankie and Larry. But the film doesn’t define the women’s intentions. Later, seeing these two white women partying with a group of black men seems to be the inciting moment for the cops to start whooping some ass.
The scenes in the Algiers are brutal to watch but I felt little would be learned by audiences sitting through it. The end of the story jumps forward quite a bit, showing a few the trials of the officers (guess as to the verdicts arrived at by all-white jurors). But Dismukes was also tried, found innocent, but named in a civil suit later.
Kathryn Bigelow has made her raison d’etre in war porn and “Detroit” was no better. Perhaps the Riots would be better served by a more thoughtful and three-dimensional docu-series that showed the riots, the rebellion, the Algiers, the devastation, the occupation and the full aftermath of what happened to the 5th largest city in America after July 1967. It’s a story that needed to be told, but “Detroit” failed to do so.
The good news: at least I didn’t go see “The Dark Tower.”
Two mitts down. A little “Michigan” humor to end on.