The new film Detroit is a mostly true rendition of an incident that occurred during the July, 1967, riots of the metropolis once proudly called The Motor City. Kathryn Bigelow is a very good director and in this film she continues a legacy established in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. It seems odd that a woman would be Hollywood’s finest director handling realistic themes involving men and violence. But that’s the case and in this flick she again succeeds brilliantly.
The crime the movie examines took place at an annex of the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25, 1967. A number of Detroit policemen supported by Michigan State troopers and National Guardsmen stormed the motel thinking that sniper shots had been fired from this somewhat seedy establishment known for prostitution and drugs.
Inside the motel were a dozen or so people — black men, mostly young, and two 18-year old white girls. What is known is that no guns were ever found on the premises and three youths were shot to death in what appeared to be executions. The movie pivots on the brutal interrogation conducted by a 23-y.o Detroit cop who took charge in trying to find a gun and the alleged sniper. For me, his eager beaver, brutally self-righteous approach brought back bad memories of Lt. Calley and the My Lai massacre from the same era.
Three white Detroit cops and a black security guard were eventually brought to trial; however, as is so often the case, there were no convictions.
This movie is gripping but painful to watch. The young Brit actor Will Poulter is chilling as the racist cop leading the interrogation. John Boyega, another Brit, plays a conflicted black security guard who was also present at the annex. John Krasinski, the film’s best known actor, plays the defense attorney who effectively casts doubt on the witnesses recollection of the night’s events. The action is underscored by vintage Motown sound tracks. In fact, two of the young men present at the Algiers were in a Motown band “The Dramatics” that later achieved some fame.
Beyond just the trial, the movie raises some troubling questions. Like why the state troupers and National Guardsmen didn’t intervene when it was apparent that the Detroit cops were over the top. Apparently the movie is supposed to convey some sort of message about bigotry. However, for my money it might as well be a primer on how far we’ve come. Yes, the USA still has racial issues but nothing like 50 years ago.
At one time Detroit was the fifth largest city in this country and the world’s prime industrial colossus. Today, it has less than half the population that it had in ’67 and many of its finest neighborhoods resemble a war zone with dilapidated burned out buildings and rubble strewn vacant lots. The movie points out that in ’67 Detroit was 40% black and the police force 95% white. Fifty years later Detroit is 82% black — a victim of white flight and an industrial complex that won the World War only to lose the peace to Japan.
The city of Detroit holds some cherished memories for me. I grew up 90-miles south of there in Ohio and my mother’s family had a boatload of relatives in the city. In the 1950s we would go there once or twice a year and stay a week at a time with one of my great-uncles. It was a lovely, prosperous city back then. My maternal grandmother had three brothers and a sister who lived there. Frank, Hub and John were all foremen at Ford’s River Rouge plant, at that time the largest industrial complex in the world. Her sister Margaret sold shoes in an upscale store and would note that hockey great Gordie Howe and author Ann Morrow Lindberg were her regular customers.
The 1950s and early-60s was an era of working class prosperity so grand that it is almost mythical today. A Joe-average hard-working guy with a 10th grade education and some mechanical ability could work his way up from the assembly line to tool and die maker or foreman. On an hourly wage he could provide a comfortable lifestyle for a stay at home wife and several kids — a new car every three years and every summer a vacation out west or to a lake cottage. That scenario pretty much fit my great-uncle’s families.
Back in the mid-50s Detroit was more than just prosperous — it was also safe. When I was about 12, and my cousin Larry Murphy 14, we took several buses downtown and then got on the ferry boat to Belle Isle amusement park in the Detroit River. At the end of the day we rode the buses back to uncle Hub’s house on Stopel just blocks over from the neighborhood main drag of Frankel. Today, that same trek would be thru streets resembling a third world city and a parent would be charged with neglect if they allowed their kids to make that journey without adult supervision.
There’s an iconic meme I’ve seen several times on Facebook. It’s four pics: Detroit in 1945 vs. Nagasaki in 1945, and Detroit today contrasted with the vibrant city that Nagasaki is today — so stunning one would never guess who won WW2. The movie Detroit captures the era when that city’s past was becoming its present.