'Detroit' can't heal Detroit

If Detroiters don't like a movie titled 'Detroit,' then who will?

Aug 9, 2017 at 1:00 am

I've often thought I could make a living just looking back 10, 50, and 100 years and writing about events enjoying those anniversaries. Apparently, we all love a good anniversary.

In Detroit this summer the 1967 uprising has been an industry unto itself. I pretty much don't know of anyone with even a small connection to 1967 who hasn't been on a panel, spoke at some event, or been interviewed for some media. Some people who have been pretty much ignored for the last half-century have finally had their day. It's been a full-pundit press: Books have been published, movies have been made, tours have been taken, paintings have been painted, dances have been danced, poems have been written and performed. It's been quite the extravaganza. There was even a ceremonial fire that burned for five days outside the Charles H. Wright Museum, as well as an art exhibit (Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion, open through Jan. 2) inside.

In the midst of this swirl, the movie Detroit premiered at the Fox Theatre. There could have been nothing but great expectations for the film amid all the 1967 hoopla. This catharsis has been 50 years in the making, and serves as a focal point for discussion and assessment of the city, as a long-awaited "comeback" takes grip in the Motor City.

Mostly, the movie lives up to the buildup. With all the discussions going on and images from 50 years ago, if you weren't there, Detroit takes you almost physically into the middle of the melee. How can you not feel it in your heart when a three-year-old girl peeps out from some venetian blinds and gets shot after being mistaken for a sniper?

This one is for the benefit of folks who didn't live through that. For whom 1967 is a political point made, a legend told and retold with lies inserted here and there until it resembles little of reality. The thing that can be blamed when someone asks, "What happened to Detroit?"

Detroit is epic in scope, with three distinct parts. The first is a short animation covering the first 350 years of the history of enslaved Africans and their descendents in this country that somehow funnels right up to 1967 with the help of a script by Henry Louis Gates.

The second section of the movie covers the raid that kicked off the action and the first days of the uprising with the arrival of National Guard and federal troops. It's rife with noise, looting and lots of flames.

The third and longest section is the red meat of the movie and could have stood on its own without all the rest — the Algiers Motel murders of innocent, unarmed black teens by white police. This is the part where characters count, where human connections and aspirations run into the blunt force of racism and violence. This is the part where you start to care about individuals in the docudrama that is Detroit.

Not that viewers don't care about what came before. But this is the part where faces become familiar, where names and personal stories count. These aren't just anonymous characters flinging bricks from a crowd. These are people with stories, and lives, and aspirations who come together at the Algiers Motel seeking some safety as violence rages around them. This movie moves historic events from the theoretical to the real.

And it seems the filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow really wanted Detroiters to like it. I mean, if Detroiters don't like a movie titled Detroit, then who will? (Nevermind that it was filmed in Boston rather than here because of tax incentives. And there is a certain amount of "overcoming" a white female filmmaker needs to do when covering this subject matter from the black side.)

To that end there were two programs at the Wright Museum that focused directly on Detroit. One was a panel with Bigelow, some of the actors from the movie, and one of the women who was actually among the group terrorized at the Algiers Motel the night of July 25, 1967. The other was a panel with locals Rev. Daniel Aldridge, Rev. Lonnie Peek, and Dr. Danielle McGuire.

For my money, Aldridge and Peek were the best commentators of the bunch. These activists lived the nightmare of the aftermath trying to deliver justice for the victims of the Algiers Motel, and were able to talk firsthand about their experiences.

The premiere at the Fox Theatre featured a pre-film hype buildup by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson went so far as to call Bigelow a genius. Dyson also went into something of an incoherent (to me) discussion conflating Algiers (which is in Algeria) with Casablanca (which is in Morocco) and the film Casablanca. It seemed an unnecessary and less than tangential discussion with no point other than to somehow tie the Algiers Motel to a classic film. Dyson usually has his act together, but that little sidebar didn't work.

Ultimately, Detroit is an uneven film. Although you do get to know and care about the personalities at the motel, you don't get enough of them to personalize it. The one person who viewers get the closest profile of is Cleveland Larry Reed of the pre-fame Dramatics singing group.

It's providential for the filmmakers that Reed was at the Algiers Motel. He gave the movie its Motown music drill down. In the popular culture you can't talk about Detroit, especially in the 1960s, without talking about Motown. He also gave the movie a small, life-changing, feel-good moment when Reed gives up chasing his dream of pop stardom after the ordeal, staying in the shadows as the Dramatics achieve what he once wanted so badly. Reed becomes a church choir director — the same position he holds to this day. As this plays out, for a moment I thought the film was delving into Tyler Perry territory. You know, everything gets soothed over with some gospel music in the end. It didn't go there, but it veered close by.

There is no closure to Detroit. A trial that was moved to rural Mason, Michigan, where an all-white jury found the police officers innocent (although police initially confessed, the confessions were not allowed as testimony in the trial), doesn't do it.

In the same way, there has been no closure for the city of Detroit on this issue. Five decades later the things that set Detroit off are still here. While the police force here is no longer majority white, the war on drugs still gives police reason to unreasonably pull people over for searches and seizures. Blacks and whites still live mostly separately. Economic opportunity is arguably worse as the auto industry no longer provides good-paying jobs. And racism, well, that seems to be enjoying a comeback as the Obama backlash is all the rage in Washington, D.C.

The expectations for Detroit were outsized and unreal given the reality that has been Detroit these past 50 years. It can't do anything but add more to the discussion. All the healing, the closure — that has to come from Detroiters. We're not there yet.

Speaking of Detroit healing

On Friday, Aug. 11, a couple of Detroit musicians are coming home to perform at the DIA. Pianist Christopher Backriges and violinist Gwen Laster will perform the Matisse Jazz Project, featuring Backriges' compositions based on Matisse's paper cutouts.