Detroit, Race and the Hater in Chief

These are tense times only made worse by a hate-filled, buffoonish president who uses his soapbox to encourage police officers to mistreat arrestees. Thankfully, presidents come and go and given this one’s ineptitude and unethical behavior he will be out of office soon, though not soon enough. What won’t change so quickly in America is the widespread endemic racial, economic and social inequality. Indeed, by many indicators the racial divide in this country continues to grows greater by the day. Which is what makes Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Detroit, so important. The film recounts the Detroit Riots of 1967 and in particular the cold-blooded murders by Detroit Police officers of three African American men at the Algiers Motel Annex on the night on July 25, 1967. The police also severely beat and abused other occupants of the Annex that night. The pretext for the Detroit police action, joined for some time by Michigan State Police, National Guardsmen and a private security guard, was that a sniper in the building had fired shots at police and guardsmen guarding the nearby Great Lakes Mutual Life Insurance building.

Bigelow’s Detroit, like her films Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker is violently graphic but with purpose. Her images of the Detroit Police Department’s racial animosity toward the black community and the community’s reciprocal contempt of the mostly white Detroit Police, the rioting leading up to the killings and the appearance of Detroit’s Virginia Park district where much of the rioting took place is jarring on the big screen as often as one may have witnessed similar situations firsthand or on television. The great migration of African Americans to places in the North that offered better paying jobs, for a while, had contributed to racial tension in cities like Detroit where formerly white enclaves became home to large numbers of largely poor African Americans. The area where the Algiers Motel was located was one such community. At the time, 93 percent of the Detroit Police Force was white.

The film has a talented cast, historically accurate sets, a terrific soundtrack and a glimpse for Detroit and music lovers like me of the city’s fabulous Fox Theatre. At yesterday’s Director’s Guild screening in Hollywood I was surprised to learn that much of the film was actually shot in Brockton, Massachusetts and in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. No matter. Bigelow’s film is less about a stricken Detroit that is still very much on display as it is about race, police brutality and the nation’s double standard when it comes to the treatment of African American men by law enforcement.

One of the friends with whom I attended the screening is a historian of Italian Fascism. Given the powerful performance of the actor playing the lead police officer at the Algiers Motel, it was interesting to hear her perspective that the officer’s sadistic behavior somehow diminished the banality of his racism. My take on all of the performances, the writing and cinematography didn’t go so deep. Instead, I left fearing that in these crazy times we are living through some moviegoers might actually come away from the film thinking the African Americans victims of the police somehow got what they deserved given the extent of the rioting that had taken place over the proceeding days.

I quibbled with a few things in the film. During an early scene of the rioting, the tempered glass store window doesn’t shatter into a thousand pieces like a 1967 plate glass window would have. Another scene late in the film of a white Detroit police officer showing compassion for a victim of the Algiers Motel horror seems trite. Of course not all Detroit Police officers were evil, uncaring racists. Still, the scene seems disingenuous.

All in all, Detroit is an important film that captures the ongoing horror of racial injustice, economic inequality and police brutality. I hope it screens at the White House before the president and the rest of his crew are gingerly tucked into the back of a patrol car.

Yours in transit,

Joel

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