I wasn’t sure what to expect from the upcoming movie, scheduled for an August release, about the 1967 Detroit rebellion.
But the two-minute trailer released this week suggests that the movie, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) and titled simply “Detroit,” could, fingers crossed, be one of the stronger artistic efforts so far to dare to try to come to terms with the Motor City’s biggest unfinished business.
The biggest revelation from the trailer is that the movie is centered on the rebellion’s Algiers Motel Incident, the never-resolved killing of three black teenagers by law enforcement personnel. The Incident became a cause célèbre for Detroit’s black community in the months after the rebellion and the subject of a 1968 book by investigative journalist John Hersey, author of Hiroshima.
Hiroshima broke ground by presenting the gut-wrenching stories of ordinary Japanese residents of that city in the wake of U.S.-induced nuclear annihilation. In The Algiers Motel Incident, Hersey dramatized the cost of state-sanctioned violence on the home front, placing police brutality at the center of discussions of the Detroit rebellion at a time when most white Americans were still struggling to comprehend it.
By choosing to follow in Hersey’s footsteps, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal appear to have made a fateful, and laudable, choice to focus attention on the police violence and official racism that brought the rebellion about, rather than rehashing the all-too-common white narrative that the “riots” were an inexplicable outburst of random violence by blacks.
The last major cinematic take on Detroit was the 2012 documentary Detropia, which documented the lives of a variety of Detroiters as the city faced deindustrialization and urban decay. Detropia set itself apart from both run-of-the-mill “ruin porn” and the breathless genre that I’ll call “resurgence fiction” in presenting perspectives from black Detroiters whose voices are often silenced in mainstream media stories, including the president of an American Axle union local confronting the company’s plans to shift production to Mexico.
However, Detropia – produced by two white filmmakers, one a Farmington Hills native – was strikingly silent when it came to matters of race, a subject as essential to Detroit history as the internal combustion engine. I asked one of the directors about the omission at the movie’s Ann Arbor premiere, and she responded with something about how they wanted to reach a wide audience and a reference to their inclusion of a very brief piece of archival footage showing a white woman driving the streets with a pistol in her hand.
A lot has happened since Detropia hit theaters, though: Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and President Trump. All this has probably made for a movie-going public that is more open to frank depictions of American racism, and a Hollywood that’s more willing to provide them.
The tagline for Detroit is “It’s Time We Knew.” Time we knew what? Presumably, time we knew what really happened at the Algiers Motel, but the trailer suggests, also time we came face-to-face with white supremacy and its fatal implications.
Says one of the characters in the trailer: “When you’re black, it’s almost like having a gun pointed at your face.” The trailer also appears to depict, obliquely, the death of four-year-old Tanya Blanding, who was killed by a .50-caliber bullet from a National Guard tank that opened fire on her home after someone lit a cigarette in an upstairs window.
At this point, of course, we don’t know exactly what the movie’s version on the Algiers Motel Incident will be. However, the trailer seems to closely follow Hersey’s chilling narrative of the night, pieced together from first-person accounts, which essentially concludes that at least two of the three young men killed that night were murdered, execution-style, by Detroit police officers angered that the group were spending time with white women.
In Hersey’s words, the events at the Algiers encompassed “all the mythic themes of racial strife in the United States,” including “the arm of the law taking the law into its own hands,” “interracial sex,” and “the subtle poison of racist thinking by ‘decent’ men who deny that they are racists.”
The latter thread may be the most disturbing thread of Hersey’s book, coming through in his astonishing interviews with white DPD officers involved in the Incident. These cops are no Bull Connor caricatures (one of them is found on Belle Isle post-rebellion reading Crime and Punishment, of all things), but they casually express racist beliefs, and, we are led to believe, are clearly capable of acting on those prejudices with deadly force. The ominous final shot of the trailer, showing a baby-faced cop (Will Poulter) yelling “We don’t bluff,” suggests the film will pick up on that “subtle poison” theme.
The history of 1967 is far from resolved, and Bigelow, especially as a white director, is treading into a minefield here. As Detroiter Chace Morris puts it on blacknerdproblems.com: “I’m here for putting American history back in the face of an America that loves to forget.” But, he continues, “I get nervous seeing anyone not black or from Detroit attached to the director’s chair or screenplay of a narrative so undeniably and furiously us. I get nervous at any commercial telling of any large scale moment our people were at the center of without us directly piloting or co-piloting the depiction of it.”
Still, for the time being, we can hope that Bigelow’s production will live up to the standard of Hersey’s book, and put the often camouflaged hand of police violence at the center of conversation about the 1967 rebellion. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” recently re-framed white American racism as a peculiar kind of horror story. If done right, “Detroit” could drive home the truth that historical fact is often as terrifying as fiction.