Monday, August 7, 2017

Movie Reviews: Detroit

directed by Kathyrn Bigelow
The 1967 Detroit riot or rebellion started less than a mile from where I would later grow up. In separate incidents during this time both of my parents were shot at by police, soldiers and/or rioters. My mother, a paternal uncle and my paternal grandfather were nearly killed by police shooting at the car my grandfather was driving while he was trying to get my mother safely home. A bullet missed my mother and left a scar on my uncle's shin. Another paternal aunt would later regale me with stories of the National Guardsmen/Army troops riding in armored vehicles shouting racial slurs at black teens and threatening to shoot them. And of course many older uncles and second cousins would from time to time over the years mention the repressive and disgusting behavior of the police back in what I came to think of as the bad old days. I mention all this to say that although I wasn't on the scene or even yet thought of when the riot took place I feel as if I had a very personal stake in what was going on. Some of the buildings that were part of my panorama growing up were the same buildings that were seen on the newsreels of the events in 1967. People died in part so that I could walk freely in my city and succeed to the best of my God given abilities instead of being assaulted by police or trapped in a dead end racially segregated job. So I was intrigued to see what a strong talented director like Bigelow would do with this story. Would she mess it up? Would she get down to the nitty gritty? Would she confirm ugly stereotypes about whites working with "black" stories and themes?

Unfortunately I would have to say that as a storyteller Bigelow missed the boat here. Technically the movie is superb. The camera work, lighting, cinematography, settings and look of the film are all top notch, with one or two minor complaints I'll mention in a moment. Bigelow is a master (mistress?) of her craft and shows it here. But the narrative is too sharply focused on the incidents at the Algiers Motel. The Algiers Motel (which has since been torn down) was a place that was a sort of no-tell motel. People often went there to commit adultery. Some prostitutes worked that area. 

During the riot in 1967 Detroit Police, Michigan State Police and National Guardsmen (all white) claimed that they were being shot at from that motel. So they invaded the motel, lined up the guests and searched the motel for weapons. They didn't find any weapons. The previous sentences are true but leave out a lot. This being central city Detroit the guests were predominantly black men. 

Unfortunately for those black men some of them had invited friends of theirs to hang out- two white women. The white women may or may not have been prostitutes. They may have, like so many people from smaller towns, merely wished to experience life in the big city. That's not important. What is important is that the presence of young attractive white women in the company of black men made the police very angry, turning something which might have been a run of the mill brutal interrogation into a nightmarish session of sexualized torture and (male) rape, beatings, ritualized humiliation and murder. Even if that alone is the story which Bigelow and the screenwriter Boal wished to tell and it apparently is, you simply can not understand what happened in the Algiers Motel without grounding the narrative in the reality of casual and unending police brutality in Detroit against black citizens, primarily black men. Bigelow handwaves all of that away with a sober 20 second post introductory credits flashcards discussing the migration of southern blacks and whites to Detroit.

It might be of use here to listen to what future Detroit Police Chief, Ike McKinnon, had to say about his experience with the Detroit Police when he was 14 years old.
McKinnon earlier decided at age 14 that he’d become an officer after being beaten by a group of white Detroit police officers who were part of a unit known as the “Big Four.” The unit, created in the 1950s as many white Detroiters began moving to the suburbs, consisted of a uniformed officer riding with three plainclothes officers in unmarked cars. The group was assigned to search for felons, but quickly gained a reputation for harassing black citizens.
In McKinnon’s case, the officers jumped out of the patrol car and grabbed him as he was leaving Garfield Junior High. McKinnon said he went to visit his favorite teacher and let him know he’d been accepted into Cass. “They threw me up against the car. They beat me up. I kept asking ‘why?’ There was no reason,” he said. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then they told me to get my ass out of there. I ran home. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone.”
We don't really see anything like that in Bigelow's movie before the torture scenes-complete arbitrary harassment and brutality of law abiding black people by cops-just because they could. We hear one black character complaining about things like that but we critically do not see white cops doing it. Also the black character who is complaining is something of a jerk and a dummy. So why believe what he says? Bigelow makes it far too easy for the viewer to think that the problem was just a few bad cops and/or extremists on both sides who don't listen to each other. That may well be the liberal default explanation but that was simply not the situation in Detroit circa 1967. The problem was white cops who saw it as their God given right and more importantly duty to constantly harass, intimidate, persecute, assault and if need be shoot black citizens. This was not about a few bad apples. This was policy from the top down. The police were the direct descendants of slave patrols.

Bigelow misses that point. And believe it or not horrific as the filmic depiction of the beatings and humiliation was it was HIGHLY sanitized compared to what really happened. Again, it might be useful to listen to a black person who was there at the time.
Mary Jarrett Jackson, the first woman to serve as deputy police chief, has not seen the film and is not planning on it. “I haven’t seen the movie. I choose not to,” Jackson, 86, told HuffPost. “The riots were a difficult time.”Jackson was assigned to the Algiers Motel case that summer. She saw the bodies of 17-year-old Carl Cooper, 19-year-old Aubrey Pollard and 18-year-old Fred Temple, the three teens killed that horrifying night on Woodward Avenue in Detroit’s Virginia Park neighborhood.

“During the riots, I was still in the labs. I investigated cases that arose, like the Algiers Motel case,” said Jackson, who also served as the former Detroit police crime lab chief. “The way they brutalized those black men, I did the forensic work on that. There was lots of evidence, but they didn’t want that brought out.”

“I don’t want to necessarily revisit that,” she added. Jackson joined the Detroit Police Department in 1958. She was coming up on 10 years inside the predominately white police force when the civil unrest began on July 23, 1967. Despite the racially charged environment, Jackson persisted.

″We didn’t have that many black police officers at the time ... I know they made fun of me, but as I talk to them now, many of them, retired police officers, they say, ‘You did it by the book,’” Jackson said. She took pride in being tough, but fair. Jackson experienced the racism that occurred within the Detroit Police Department firsthand: “They would come in the laboratory and say, ’How many n****rs did you kill today? Or beat up today?’

She recalled the torture of the seven black men and two white women who were cruelly beaten by officers at the Algiers Motel that fateful evening.“There were some white girls there, with the young men. They were willingly there. That upset the police,” Jackson said. “The officers divided those kids up and took them in different rooms, beat them up and did some awful things to their bodies by ramming things into their genitalia, up their anus.” Jackson worked as a forensic serologist, and was tasked with inspecting blood found at the crime scene. “When I went out there to do the lab work, it was awful to look at those kids beaten as they were, shot in the head,” she said. “It should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Without the director grounding the narrative in the experience of the everyday black person in Detroit the viewer will not understand why a raid on an unlicensed club or blind pig by police caused such a charged reaction by the black populace. Black people were discriminated against in every facet of life. But since Bigelow doesn't show that it is much easier to see the black people protesting the raid as just irrational and looking to rob people. Heck I almost had to stop myself from thinking that way and I'm a Detroiter. 

Additionally as I said in real life the police never found any weapons at the Algiers Motel. But Bigelow has Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) shoot off a starter pistol in the general direction of the police as a joke. Not only is this a remarkably stupid thing for someone to do but it gives a patina of rationality to the police and National Guard's subsequent reaction. It's easier for some viewers to view the whole thing as tragic overreaction and mistake. It was not. Having Cooper shoot off a starter pistol in view of some residents also makes their refusal to tell the police that it was Cooper, who by then was already dead, that did the shooting, seem not only profoundly stupid but downright suicidal. The refusal to name a shooter, even in the face of beatings and torture, only makes sense, if as in real life, the kids didn't know anything.  And I say kids again, because unfortunately the casting didn't quite make it clear that the three "men" who died were all teenagers.

Incredibly Detroit features a white ranking officer angry about the killing of blacks and calling the lead bad cop (Will Poulter) a "racist". And another white cop nearly breaks out in tears upon running across an escapee from the Algiers Motel, asking what sort of people could do this. I don't say that there were NO good cops in 1967 Detroit. I do say though that based on the things I've read and anecdotes from friends and family, those "good cops" were few and far between. They certainly weren't in any positions of power. The Detroit Police  Department both saw itself and behaved in large part as a particularly surly occupying army.  I thought that these positive depictions were Bigelow throwing a bone to the presumably mostly white viewing audience-kinda like the white family in "Roots".

The last narrative sin that Bigelow commits is not recognizing that in many respects that Detroit was ground zero for black resistance and black nationalism in 20th century America. The result of the 1967 riots was not just that former Dramatics singer (and Algiers Motel survivor) Larry Reed (Algee Smith) decided that he couldn't perform secular music for whites any more. The riot also caused increased white flight from the city and a grim black determination to seize political control and put an end to state sponsored police terrorism and economic racism against black Detroiters. Ending the movie with Reed singing gospel music is too easy. Bigelow's better than that. Where are Albert Cleage, Pearl Cleage, The Shrine of the Black Madonna, Coleman Young, Dick Austin, Black Jesus at Sacred Heart, George Crockett, Damon Keith and many other notables/places?

John Boyega is a security guard who tries to protect both the police and the residents. He finds out that you can't run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. Both Boyega and Poulter are British. There have been some American actor rumblings about British actors, especially black ones, taking American roles. Poulter did a great job as an evil cop, but unfortunately his take on a Detroit accent sounded like a Boston one. The movie was mostly shot in Boston. Boyega needs to have another chance at being a lead in a movie. His work here was good, not great. His "serious" look too often makes me think he didn't get enough fiber in his diet.

Good not great is probably how I would describe this movie. It looks good but there were just too many missed opportunities. Of course I am very biased on this issue so YMMV. Although a lot of Detroit has changed in 50 years there are too many settings in the film which are obviously not Detroit. Bigelow tries to get around this by skillfully mixing in newscasts and photos. Bigelow's heart was definitely in the right place but having watched this I would say it's 50/50 between seeing it on the big screen and waiting for DVD/Netflix/VOD. If you are interested in learning more about the events of 1967 and specifically the Algiers Motel then I would suggest going to the Detroit News or Detroit Free Press websites and looking at the 50 year retrospectives/interviews that both papers have done. Additionally you may wish to read The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey.
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