‘Detroit’ movie is an orgy of violence that doesn’t show my city

Detroit movie still

Will Poulter, left, plays a brutal Detroit police officer and Anthony Mackie an unlucky Algiers Motel guest in Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit," about an incident during the city's 1967 civil unrest. The film opens nationwide today. 

Donna Givens

Donna L. Givens is president and CEO of the Eastside Community Network in Detroit.

On July 26, 1967, I was almost four years old. My family lived at 1948 Chicago Boulevard, four houses west of 12th Street, and four blocks north of Clairmount, the epicenter of the rebellion, which had broken out early in the morning of the 23rd.

I remember crawling on the floor under windows to avoid stray bullets, tanks rolling down the street, and fear of my father being stopped at gunpoint by soldiers like those patrolling Vietnam. I remember being unable to differentiate the war on the streets from the war taking place on television. But I also remember a Detroit immersed in black pride despite every obstacle, an awareness that some of us had overcome and all of us would overcome some day.

I went to last week’s premiere of the “Detroit” movie, which opens nationwide Friday, with high hopes that my Detroit would be celebrated on a world’s stage. I left the Fox Theatre wishing the writer and director could see Detroit like I do.

Admittedly, producing a feature-length movie about blackness in America and capturing the nuance and diversity of a maligned, oppressed, tokenized and stereotyped people is no easy task. It’s also hard to make a movie about Detroit, whose landscape has been disfigured by racism, transfigured by black power, and whose strength and beauty have been largely hidden from mainstream imagination. Perhaps it’s hardest to capture our essence from the outside.

The Detroit portrayed in the movie seeks to explain the now-infamous police atrocities at the Algiers Motel through an animated summation of our history, a brief backdrop of the rebellion’s origins, the occupation of our streets by local police and national guardsmen and – oddly – the rise of the music group the Dramatics.

The movie then plays as an extended orgy of racialized violence against defenseless black men and two white women accused of prostitution. It depicts a timeless story of police sadism, the abhorrent dispensability of black lives, complicit police brass, and toothless justice that was on display at the Algiers Motel and its aftermath, and has continued uninterrupted through the present.

A place-based film that exposes these painful realities without exploring root causes, personal backstories, and situating its narrative more fully in the realities of Detroit both before during and after the rebellion is not deserving of its title.

While the 1967 uprising revealed an underbelly of racist policing and unmitigated harsh living conditions of Detroit’s poor community, Detroit was also home to a relatively large and politically influential black working and middle class comprising auto workers, businessmen, doctors, dentists, teachers, clerks, clergy, and politicians.

Black social, religious, and civic society was well-organized and deeply rooted, and had been working to confront racist policing and inequality for decades, through the largest branch of the NAACP in the nation, through its churches, and through a number of labor and progressive organizations, including black nationalists.

Then-Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh was elected by a broad coalition of black and white reformers, hoping to curb police abuse and institute Great Society programs, as well as to address rampant racism in city institutions, including policing.

By 1967, the coalition had become frayed by the slow pace of change, mounting unemployment, job discrimination, rigid welfare rules, unaffordable and poorly maintained housing, and an intransigent police department that resisted reform despite the slow integration of black officers and the appointment of a liberal police chief, George Edwards.

Even black police officers were unsafe, ultimately forming the Concerned Officers for Equal Justice to protect their ranks and to aid them in speaking out against the abuse they witnessed.

Police oppression did not occur within a vacuum but within the context of an emerging push for black power and a political power structure that was attempting, however feebly, to accommodate black demands.

In the movie “Detroit,” these socio-political realities were obscured by a generalized discussion of poverty and oppression that failed to differentiate Detroit from other large American cities. The movie sought to explain police abuse as an unfortunate and unchecked anomaly within a department that was generally committed to law-and-order policing. According to the movie, a few rogue officers – at least one with apparent mental health problems – acted erratically to shoot unarmed, fleeing and defenseless black people in an affront to departmental policy.

This police officer’s partner was overheard admonishing him for violating the law and a police supervisor later called him racist and threatened to charge him with murder before returning him to patrol. This narrative is simply false. Police abuse was rampant both before, during and after the rebellion.

The city’s own police chief, Edwards, said “90 percent of the 4,767 Detroit Police Department (were) bigoted and (a) dislike for Negroes (was) constantly reflected in their language and often physical abuse,” according to the book, “Whose Detroit” by Heather Ann Thompson, a University of Michigan history professor.

Indeed, unlike the movie version, in real life both police partners freely fired shots into the retreating form of an alleged looter. A similar disregard for black life permeated the Michigan State Police, which along with the national guard, helped patrol Detroit’s streets during the rebellion.

Although there was some back story involving the Dramatics and their failed attempts to appear onstage at the Fox, most characters were underdeveloped. There was the singer, his friend, a returning soldier, and two white women who hitchhiked from Chicago. There was a man who recklessly played with a cap gun and friends who laughed and played along.

How did they happen upon this seedy motel on the night in question? What were their relationships with one another? How old were they? Who were their families? What were their dreams? Instead of filling in these blanks, Algiers Motel residents were humanized by awkward attempts at lighthearted humor that seemed out of place given the gravity of impending abuse and murder, more appropriate for a Friday the 13th franchise than an historical drama about murder, assault and grave injustice.

And then there is the aftermath that ended with the failed criminal prosecutions of the three police officers, the failed musical career and plunge into poverty for the former lead singer of the Dramatics, and his eventual redemption singing in a church choir. We learned that the officers were permanently removed from the police force.

Nowhere in these closing minutes, did we learn about the failed civil rights prosecution against these same officers, in response to a complaint by Congressman John Conyers. The movie neglected to mention the People’s Tribunal on the Algiers Motel Killings, held at Rev. Albert Cleage’s church, where jurors including Rosa Parks and other local luminaries, adjudicated these officers’ guilt before an audience of more than 2,000 witnesses. There was no mention of the Shrine of the Black Madonna – renamed following the rebellion to reflect its Black nationalist theology and the Black Slate which helped catalyze the careers of a generation of civil rights activists into elected office.

The movie made no mention of state Sen. Coleman A. Young’s election as Detroit’s first black mayor, who ran on a platform of police reform nor of Focus: Hope, which promoted civil rights and job opportunities and New Detroit which sought broad-based community reform the wake of the rebellion.

Today’s police department is the most integrated police department in the nation. The Detroit Police Commission is our nation’s only elected police commission. Detroit led the nation in developing community policing, police mini-stations, and a number of other reforms that slowly transformed our force – despite many continuing challenges –  into a more trusted institution.

Despite every criticism leveled at the city of Detroit, even in the aftermath of the tragic rebellion and dramatic depopulation of white residents and concomitant capital disinvestment, Detroit has produced musicians and athletes, as well as doctors, business leaders, academics, actors, producers, designers, architects, educators, scientists, engineers, judges, lawyers, humanitarians – people working in virtually every human endeavor and of national and international renown.

I’m not trying to rain on the parade of praise for “Detroit,” but I found much of the movie painful to watch. The extended graphic scenes of violence were gratuitous in the age of video police beatings and shootings that crowd my timeline and bruise my soul. The portrayal of the riot’s origins were incomplete and our heroes largely invisible.

This movie was really not about Detroit, it was about the Algiers Motel incident. My beautiful and cursed and beloved city served as backdrop to a race horror thriller that ended without following a story arc that highlighted our strengths as well as our struggles and our emergence from police oppression.

1967, considered and reconsidered

See Bridge's full coverage of the events of 1967 and its aftermath, here. Order a copy of "The Intersection," the collected journalism of Bridge and our partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, here.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

About The Author

Donna L. Givens

Donna L. Givens is president and CEO of the Eastside Community Network in Detroit.

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Comments

Mike K
Fri, 08/04/2017 - 1:04pm

First, it was a riot - not a rebellion. Actually, for a period of time it was a war not a riot. Secondly, it is painful. As it should be - not glossed or sugar coated. Detroit has come a long way - James Craig is a amazing chief of police and if he can root out the small percentage of hood rats and keep the junkies from the suburbs from using Detroit as a shooting gallery we (everyone in the region) will all be better off. The good people of Detroit deserve no less.

William S. Johnson
Sat, 08/05/2017 - 7:22pm

It was Rebellion, Get Revenge Riot, I was 17 years old, tired of THE BIG 4 riding down on us, beating us for no reason, Tired of S.T.R.E.S.S (Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets), just a joke to justify beating us, Yea if you were in a crowd and the he was the Cop who's been beating your A** everytime he saw you, would you have the courage to pick up a brick and bust him in the head ? Would You have the Courage after so many A** whippin's ? Detroit's Gestapo Police was wholly responsible for everthing that happen, and how many were murdered by the cop that we don't know about, I was only 17 and I knew so how much did the Adult population know ? I don't have to see the Movie "DETROIT" , I've live here 67 Years, Never been to Jail, don't have a record, Went to Newberry, St Benedict the Moor, McKerrow, Tappan & Mackenzie, (refuse to go to Cody when I lived in Herman Gardens because it was Too White)I know and understand the Heartbeat of this City, just wanted to get my 2 cents in, I truly understand what the German Jews had to go thru, thanks for letting me vent, those times once again bring up my passions.

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 08/06/2017 - 5:45am

I agree sir.
I was 14 and living on the east side near Whittier and Harper,
I was far from the action but worked landscaping all over
the east side that summer and saw the devastation and violence.
And there was violence on both sides.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 08/04/2017 - 2:15pm

After reading Pres. Givens euphemistically referring to the riots as a "rebellion" in the first paragraph, along with several times throughout her piece, it was pretty straightforward where this would be headed.

Although I was disappointed that she omitted and/or downplayed several pieces of information about the riot and its aftermath.

Exactly why was the 82nd, 101st and Michigan National Guard activated in the first place? Especially after Mayor Cavanagh & Gov. Romney we're well aware of the damage that was being done and that control was lost before they did anything.

Why was there so little mention of the snipers that had taken up positions throughout the city and were targeting public safety and military personnel who were there to help to restore order?

And why does she think that "The Great Society" was in any way beneficial to Detroit?

Exactly how did Johnson's "War on Poverty" turn out?

As a relative of mine commented to me, "You cannot claim to have won a war, if you don't have something to show for it."

We didn't drive the communists out of the Korean Peninsula.

Saigon fell to the Viet Cong.

Poverty & joblessness are worse today than before "The Great Society".

http://www.bridgemi.com/detroit-bankruptcy-and-beyond/poverty-and-jobles...

So, exactly how was this beneficial?

Emw
Sat, 08/05/2017 - 10:52am

Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on the film.

Miriam Meisler
Sun, 08/06/2017 - 12:10am

Thank you for this most informative review.

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 08/06/2017 - 5:42am

Sorry Ms. Givens but I disagree.
I was 14 when the Detroit riots happened and they were violent.
Violence by whites, violence by blacks.
Both sides over-reacted but there is no doubt that they were violent.
There was also an undercurrent of racism and disrespect on both sides.
I will admit that there was a greater amount of negative feeling and responsibility on the
part of the Caucasian majority of which I was a part but the African American
minority had its shortcomings and mistakes too and is not totally blameless.
And while the City is moving forward slowly as it always has that lingering
negative attitude in the African American community that derides intelligence,
hard work and education in favor of political rhetoric and blaming anybody else
but yourself still holds us back from moving forward more rapidly.

Dave
Sun, 08/06/2017 - 8:39am

I was 10, and living in Pontiac when the Riot occurred. I remember my father sitting in the living room with a rifle on his lap, and my uncles shuttling relatives out of the city, to our home and a cottage in northern Macomb county. At the age of this author was during the riot, I would have had a lot of difficulty understanding racial differences. Racial differences meant little enough to me at my age during the riots that I had my mouth washed out with soap for using racial slurs that I did not know what meant. I, like the author, am not qualified by experience, to comment on the reasons the riot took place. I did live, and vote, in Detroit during the Coleman Young era. Although Young may have reformed the police department, he also encouraged black racism. I had many black co-workers who were big Young supporters despite high taxes, diminishing employment prospects and policies that obviously increased racial division. Today, I know many big Trump supporters who support a racist president who's policy's are similarly against their own interest. Why are so few willing to try and step back and look at things objectively?

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 08/06/2017 - 3:23pm

Sir---objectively means according to analysis and logic without prejudice. Trump supporters are not coming from an intellectual place but from a gut level place. Not necessarily better or worse but probably more likely to lead to bad decisions because you are tapping into emotions and emotions can cloud your judgement. Sort of like a guy who is attracted to a lady, has unprotected sex with her and gets her pregnant. Probably not a good decision but it wasn't the mind talking. Same thing here---gut level and not subject to analysis. For better or worse and I think much worse Trump's appeal is to intense emotion not objective analysis. BOOM, BOOM. Trump got mad and nuked North Korea causing NK to in turn nuke South Korea and half of Japan. Good job Mr. President! You protected America but at a great and terrible cost to the world. Pretty dumb thing to do.
And I thought you were so smart. Guess I was wrong. Too bad about Japan.

Cathy Mueller
Sun, 08/06/2017 - 9:47am

Thank you ,Ms Givens for your comments. I thought the movie made the DPD look better than they were in actuality. While it was retelling the Algiers Motel story, the backdrop of the brutality in the department was noticeably missing. After reading The Intersection in its entirety and other writings, I am finally beginning to understand what happened. A few rogue police officers would not bring down the city. A 17 year old at the time I was a very naive white girl born in Detroit but raised in Royal Oak. The historical perspectives now being offered have helped me finally make sense of the rebellion, yes rebellion. Another tragedy from the uprising are all the failed promises of the New Detroit committee.

Bruce P
Sun, 08/06/2017 - 4:14pm

Thank you Ms. Givens for your thoughtful and heartfelt piece about "Detroit." My wife and I saw the movie last night in 90% Hispanic El Paso. Though sparsely attended, there was a hushed silence as predominantly Mexican-American filmgoers exited the theater. It was the silence of discomfort. The graphic presentation of the violence of that event, of that horrific expression of inhumanity, generated no outcry. Rather, it produced a stone-faced realization that we often fail at being our brother's keeper, fall short of our capacity to keep our dislike, even hate, in check. I concur that the movie did not capture the full story of Detroit, but such is the problem with proxies. My wife and I were teenagers during the summer of 1967. She grew up a few miles from the epicenter in a working class white neighborhood, small tract houses filled with too many kids and too much yard art. I, on the other hand, lived in small mining town in northern Michigan, insulated by racial homogeneity and distance from the violence of Detroit. Last summer I had the privilege (and I mean privilege) of visiting downtown Detroit and the surrounding neighborhoods. Though the tour revealed much yet to be done, there is no question the city is rebounding. The vibrancy and hope were palpable. It is sometimes said that the evil one lurking in the upstairs closet, the one that no one talks about, is hopelessness. I think it is complacency. It is that acceptance of what is that we must fear. Both you and "Detroit"'s producers are anything but complacent. Thanks to all of you for your commitment.

Noah Stephens
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 10:58am

"Detroit" is about a riot and a series of murders that happened in 1967. Of course it's violent. Of course it doesn't show modern-day Detroit.

Why are so many people so remarkably stupid.

Elaine Nina Tanay
Mon, 08/07/2017 - 11:41am

I think that it is awful how people disparage this important film. It is factually accurate, and though painful to watch (that is the idea) it is important to see this shameful part of our history. Easier to sit and judge than to experience what took place...

duane
Tue, 08/08/2017 - 1:24am

I don't know Ms. Givens help those making the movie, but anyone that expected the 'Hollywood' types to present a relatively accurate picture of those events and people are at best naive and most likely self delusional. All they have to do is watch how the Vietnam veterans were treated.

The part that tends to place Ms. Givens into the "Hollywood' mode/methodology is her reporting on the 90% bigotry of cops in Detroit 50 years ago. That is simply convenience thinking, it allows the stereotyping to promote her agenda, otherwise she would have talk to many of those on the force back then given a voice to who they were then and now.

Ida Byrd-Hill
Tue, 08/08/2017 - 9:22am

Yes the movie left out many facts, however the gist of the movie was to educate White people on the horrors White policing (DPD, MI State Police and National Guard) enacted on innocent Black people told from a White person's perspective. I say it achieved its goal. It is the best lecture ever as that same mindset as seen from the Bedrock all white Detroit photo remains today. Black people are invisible to White leaders. They only see our young people as criminals which is why I wrote the book Invisible Talent Market.

Gail Bachman
Wed, 08/09/2017 - 10:17am

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/rebellion

Rebellion definition: A rebellion is a violent organized action by a large group of people who are trying to... | Meaning, pronunciation, translations and examples

Riot
a noisy, violent public disorder caused by a group or crowd of persons, as by a crowd protesting against another group, a government policy, etc., in the street
Thus Detroit had a riot in 1967.. We can not white ash it by giving it legitimacy. There were people living in the heat of the summer in tight surroundings without hope, without jobs and that yes targeted by some police. The RIOT was a flame out of frustration without leadership. I have not seen the movie but will. Though I was a citizen of Detroit at the time , I did not live close to the squalor that was arount 12th and Clairmount neighborhoods.
Rebellions often result in a better outcome than what happened in Detroit. Riots end in more frustration, property destruction and yes. death and injury for both the innocent and the perpetrators. It was a horrible event unfortunately followed by the election of some mayors who took advantage and raped the city which lead to its unprecipitous decline. I am glad it is starting to come back but so much has been destroyed in the past 50+ years , it will take generations to be the beautiful city I grew up in.