So, I saw the “Detroit” movie last night (Thursday). I went early to beat the crowd. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I had hoped the film would portray the 1967 civil unrest, with more understanding of how such a horrific moment in time could occur, costing many lives, arrests and millions of dollars in property.
Instead, I found myself asking why are we portrayed as barbarians, who after decades of police brutality, make our only recourse to be burning down the city?
I was hoping that the story of the Algiers Motel would be surrounded by quick background info on the mounting frustrations of Blacks who dealt with the loss of their communities – Paradise Valley and Black Bottom – that were bulldozed for the sake of the Chrysler, Ford and Lodge Expressways; struggling economy and discrimination. I was looking for some more “decent” Black people, other than those working in the automotive plants and the singing groups. Come on, we know The Motor City had music. It had Motown. Come on, we do more than sing, dance, work in the plants and destroy property! Besides, according to many I’ve spoken to, the National Guard destroyed as much property, if not more than the residents. I still think of the hairline crack in my grandparents’ porch that came from one of their stray bullets.
The film is more than two hours, which goes quickly thanks to the great editing.
However, as a Detroit native whose family lived blocks from the initial explosion, ignited by an encounter with police who raided an illegal after hours club, these images do not depict the lives of all Blacks living in the city at the time. It also implies that the “riot” was solely due to racial tensions with law enforcement. The police were a big part of the problem, due to the “Big Four” patrolling neighborhoods and unnecessarily harassing people because they could.
As I mentioned in a previous post, this is where we confuse the word “riot” for “rebellion.” In “Detroit” the movie, the raiding of the blind pig (illegal club) and mistreatment by the police (which was clearly a routine activity) was the impetus for the smashing of windows, setting property on fire and immediate looting. Next, we find people stealing and police chases, followed by the U.S. National Guard in tanks rolling down 12th Street – the initial location of disruption.
This rebellion would eclipse the destruction of Detroit’s 1943 race rebellion, also generated by frustrations over inadequate housing, police brutality and employment discrimination.
So, after watching Kathryn Bigelow’s film, I left the theater with the certainty that this was “Detroit” the movie. But this was not MY Detroit. Although I wasn’t born during the development of these neighborhoods and was a mere toddler when the riots erupted, I am a scholar who has studied Black history for years and the history of Black Detroit is one of my passions.
In the midst of Blacks dealing with the abuse from law enforcement and economic struggles, there were Vietnam veterans returning home in search of support and employment sans the ticker tape parades and “welcome home” signs. And through it all, Blacks managed to build a community to service their needs. There were 18 Black hospitals in the surrounding areas, including the historic Dunbar Hospital. Dime stores, drug stores, markets and an entertainment community where Black entertainers could walk through the front door of night clubs and entertain Black patrons (see images above). This was MY Detroit.
The story of the Algiers Motel needs to be told on the big screen because so many have said they were unfamiliar with this horrific incident that took place during the rebellion. However, there was so much more to the five days that forever changed history and that is why I am disappointed. I would have preferred that the film was titled “Night at the Algiers.” Instead, to tell the story for why these 10 people were held up at the Algiers Motel, where three Black teens were killed by racist Detroit police officers, we have a film that paints another dark image of Detroit.
Detroit doesn’t need any more negative light shone on it. Having grown up in the city, as the daughter of a retired Detroit firefighter, I’ve had the benefit of seeing the battles to keep the city safe through my dad’s eyes. I’ve experienced it through its ups and downs and no matter what strife we faced, the city has always overcome its challenges. As it will again. There is a resurgence taking place. But it’s only happening because it is mounting on the backs of many Blacks and Whites who have remained devoted to the city.
I would encourage people to see the movie. For more details, read John Hersey’s book, which chronicles the events of the Algiers that night. Understand the strife that many suffered at the hands of racist, deranged police officers during a time when the city and the people needed help and understanding.
You will be disturbed and you may be angry. But whatever you do, please do not leave the theater thinking that was a full representation of Detroit – then or now.