Rebellion with a cause

August 18, 2017

Khury Petersen-Smith reviews Detroit, a feature film about the 1967 urban rebellion that shook the then-citidel of U.S. capitalism and exposed racism and police brutality.

"EVERYBODY'S GOING to find out what it's like to be Black tonight."

When a Black man named Carl Cooper says these words in the film Detroit, he is joking at a get-together in a motel room, having just demonstrated for two white women what an encounter with the police was like. But within minutes, the Algiers Motel--where Carl and his friends are hanging out--is barraged with gunfire from police and soldiers.

By the end of the night, Carl has been murdered by the police, along with Fred Temple and Aubrey Pollard. All of the victims are Black men, and all of them teenagers.

Detroit dramatizes some of the experiences of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, centering on the real-life police murders at the motel that took place one night during the uprising.

By 1967, dozens of U.S. cities had seen Black rebellions, and many more would come the following year. The Detroit uprising was the longest, most extensive revolt of the era. The repression was brutal, involving Detroit police, Michigan state police, the Michigan National Guard, and the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army. Forty-three people were killed and more than 7,200 arrested.

A scene from the movie Detroit
A scene from the movie Detroit

Searching for snipers and "looters," the police and the military stormed the motel, supposedly in response to gunfire that they heard coming from inside. Survivors of the incident say that Cooper was playing with a starter pistol.

As depicted in the film, when the cops burst into the rooms where Cooper and others were partying, they didn't just come upon a group of Black men. With two white women hanging out, too, the people gathered were crossing the most deeply rooted sexual taboo in the wellspring of American white supremacy and misogyny. We can all imagine the cops' responses.

The film builds to an extended torture scene, in which the police detain and interrogate seven Black men and the two white women at gunpoint. They use beatings, mock executions, summary executions and sexual assault in an effort to force their victims to confess to shooting at the police.

Despite multiple searches of the building, the cops never uncover a weapon that belonged to the partiers. Soldiers and state police show up during the torture, only to shirk responsibility by turning away from the abuse.

Review: Movies

Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal. Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter and Algee Smith.

WITH THE Ferguson and Baltimore Uprisings fresh in recent memory, the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion is highly relevant, and the film Detroit very timely.

The film was directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the team best known for their war dramas The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Detroit is a powerful statement about the persistence of vicious police violence in the U.S. acting as the sharp edge of the insidious racism that shaped the country at its founding--and continues to do so today.

The portrayal of the police as sadistic racists is unmistakable, and interviews given by Bigelow and the film's actors since its release make it clear that they wanted to make a contribution to today's conversation about racism in the United States.

There are some problems with Detroit, however, that undermine its power.

The film opens with a brief montage of text telling viewers about the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities from the agrarian South and of their encounters with racism there, all set to visuals based on Jacob Lawrence paintings.

After this brief prologue, the film jumps to a police raid on an illegal bar, which was the occasion for the beginning of the uprising. All hell breaks loose with too-little context to set up scenes of masses of Black people smashing windows and setting fires.

While the racist violence of the police becomes clear later in the film, the lack of an exploration of day-to-day Black life--its grinding poverty, exploitation in the auto plants, and the ever-present, heavy hand of the police, to name some aspects--makes the rage of the rebellion seem out of context and primal. Instead of an angry rebellion against oppression, we see a directionless riot of destruction.

This will be familiar to anyone who has seen mainstream news coverage of any Black rebellion, recent or past. That is how they are always represented.

While the film portrays horrific acts by the occupying police and military--as when soldiers open fire on an apartment full of children with heavy artillery--the representation of the rebellion as lacking political content does not lend itself to sympathizing with the rebels either.

The oversight is especially glaring since Detroit was a hotbed of radicalism at the time--with numerous socialist groups, Black nationalist groups, labor militants and various radical campaigns and movements.

THE FILM also suffers from a lack of character development in general.

Viewers meet characters and learn a little about them--the Black man shot in the back for supposedly "looting," when he was actually carrying a bag of groceries; the Black security guard who is worried about "looters" and sympathetic to the police and guardsmen, only to be betrayed by them; the white woman who moves to Detroit from Ohio to be a hairdresser. But our knowledge of each character is always limited.

The film alludes to their backstories, but we never get to learn them in full. As a result, though portrayed brilliantly by actors giving stellar performances, the characters in Detroit all boil down to victims or sadistic abusers--and are all pretty one-dimensional.

There are also scenes where the filmmakers portray white Detroiters as sympathetic to the Black victims--not when they are rebelling, mind you, but when they are abused by the police. Unfortunately, the only white people who we see taking anti-racist stances--aside from the white women who were brutalized by the police themselves--are police officers.

While there were likely some officers or soldiers who were unsettled by the behavior of their forces during the Rebellion, the film exaggerates it and shows no evidence of the institutional pressure within the police department to dehumanize Black people. Instead, we see the particularly vicious cops as "a few bad apples."

If the filmmakers wanted to call attention to white Detroiters who sided with Black people despite the racism that divides them, they could have pointed to Appalachians--who also moved north to Detroit to find jobs in the auto industry, and who were dealing with poverty and exploitation on the job.

Records show that many of the snipers arrested for firing on the police during the Rebellion were Southern whites. The acts of anti-racist kindness and sympathy by police in the film, on the other hand, come off as contrived.

Detroit will no doubt affirm the feelings of many about historic racism in the U.S., and it will likely inspire more interest in the Great Rebellion. Those interested in radical Black struggle in the 1960s and '70s should check out Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin's classic book Detroit: I Do Mind Dying.

The book centers on the history of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers--a group of Black militants who attempted to launch a socialist revolution in the U.S., starting in the auto plants of Detroit. It also explores Detroit's radical landscape in general, and calls particular attention to the impact of the Great Rebellion on the city and its revolutionaries.

It holds inspiration for those looking fight for workers' power and Black liberation today.

Further Reading

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